Thursday, 2 July 2015

Wales remains ‘steady as she goes’ after election

‘Wales is not becoming more Welsh or more left wing … it's becoming more centrist.'

The quote above is from David Taylor, a former Labour Special Adviser, who in the aftermath of the General Election gave a perceptive viewpoint on the result—a view with which I agree. It is an undeniable trend that the Welsh voter is on the move and the changes will pose problems for Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats for quite a few years.  At the last election, the real winners in Wales were the Conservatives and UKIP.

All eyes are now turning towards the build up to the Senedd elections in May 2016, more recently the findings of a poll conducted by the Wales Governance Centre, presented and analysed by Roger Scully. It makes interesting reading. In summary, Welsh Labour and Plaid are at a standstill, the Welsh Conservatives and UKIP have increased by a percentage point and support for the Welsh Liberal Democrats has decreased further by over two per cent—and speaking as a current party member, that is of major concern.

If that scenario repeats itself next May, the Senedd will have a political complexion as follows: Labour—29 AMs; Con—13; Plaid—10; UKIP, represented for the first time—7; and Lib Dems—1. Now, in David Taylor speak, that is a Wales of the ‘political centre’ because the only out and out left-wing party on the table is Plaid.

There are indeed challenges facing three of the parties and there are questions to be asked concerning the Welsh voting public. Is it increasingly the case that in time—with the significant inward migration from other parts of the UK—that the newly coined phrase ‘for Wales see England’ is getting nearer to the mark? It will require more than this blogpost to answer that question, but I may address it in a later article.

However, the following statistics may give us some insight into understanding one of the reasons. Forty eight percent of the Welsh population live within 25 miles of the border with England and that border is crossed about 130,000 times a day. Those trying to connect our politics with the Scottish experience possibly need to bear in mind that the equivalent figures for Scotland are very different with only 3.7% of the Scottish population living within 25 miles of the English border, which is only crossed less than 30,000 times a day. It is interesting and probably somewhat provocative to record that there is only one Conservative MP in Scotland—and UKIP is a rare bird up there!

To return to the challenges facing the political parties in Wales—Labour continues to be dominant, but in reality has remained static for quite some time now. The First Minister always claims, as he did after the General Election, that Labour ‘remains the largest party in Wales’. I must say that does suggest an element of complacency. Even with a Tory-led coalition government in Westminster, Labour’s share of the vote in Wales increased by only 1% and that was from not too high a baseline set in 2010. It is true that Labour is the largest party, but does it motivate and enthuse the Welsh people? Does it hold the great affection and loyalty it once did?  Even with a Tory-led government, Welsh Labour did not manage to win any seats from the Conservatives in Wales and even worse, managed to  lose two to the Conservatives—one of them being Gower, a seat that had been Labour for a century!

Again, I agree with David Taylor, Welsh Labour cannot continue providing the same stock answer in response to any difficulties confronting the Senedd. It is not always the fault of the Westminster government! Welsh Labour needs to accept that it has been in government in Wales for almost seventeen years. Also, it is the controlling party in the majority of our local authorities. All the problems relating to the delivery of a range of public services, standards in education, the quality and delivery of hospital provision and care—even the public’s relative dissatisfaction with the performance of the Senedd— cannot be forever explained away by Tory funding cuts etc. That is just not good enough anymore I am afraid.

Plaid has some hard thinking to do. It is of little use relying on the exposure received by their leader during the UK leaders’ debates before the last election. Yes, she is as recognisable, if not more so than the First Minister—and that should be of particular concern to Welsh Labour. But as I have maintained for years, the Senedd’s profile and image is rather poor with its sessions uninspiring.

Given all outlined above, regarding the changing complexion of Wales, is it really a good strategy to be proudly known as the ‘party of the left?’ Even Nicola Sturgeon refers to the SNP as a social democratic movement. Ah the SDP...!  Also, hanging on to Labour’s coattails will not do for Plaid either—it is a strategy that is failing. It too, like Labour, seems complacent and is, in electoral terms, static. Rarely do we hear of its vision for Wales, and I remain convinced that it missed a great opportunity in 2007...

If Labour and Plaid have issues to confront and challenges to meet, the Welsh Liberal Democrats have ones that are of a different dimension altogether.  The new UK leader and the party in Wales need to review its organisation, image, policy focus, and perceived lack of coherence as a single entity. There is a general feeling that the party in Wales comprises a small group of AMs who are over concentrated around one person. Like Leanne Wood, Kirsty Williams was good in the Welsh leaders’ debates, but that is never enough to carry a political movement to success at the ballot box. The SNP broke through not merely because Nicola Sturgeon was the outstanding personality of the election, but also the party had done everything right for ten years—including campaigns, policy platforms, research papers and selection of candidates with wider professional experiences beyond just the politics ‘bubble’.

The Liberal Democrats also have issues over its strategy around election campaigns. Concentrating on three or four seats is just bad politics. In my judgement, it is a minimalist approach to campaigning. This issue was flagged up to the old Liberal party when the SDP was in Alliance with them in Wales during the 1980s. For those who have forgotten, in those days the joint electoral support for the partnership was nearer 20% rather than 4%. The Welsh Liberal Democrats desperately need a more ‘all Wales’ image, and the very idea that stressing the word ‘Liberal’ will  make everything okay is unbelievably misplaced and naïve. There are some who would argue that Liberalism as a successful political brand came to an end in 1922 and that Lloyd George, Churchill, Keynes and Beveridge had brought in social liberalism, which is pretty akin to social democracy.

In defence of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, there was nothing it could have done during the General Election in the face of the tsunami that was bound to arrive after forming a coalition with the Tories in 2010. Going into coalition was the right thing to do, but not for the full five-year term. Yes, good things were achieved in government, but the student fees fiasco damaged Nick Clegg irretrievably and the political tactics utilised during the two years before the General Election were woeful.  There was no disengagement strategy and definitely not enough visible differentiation between the Liberal Democrats and the Tory government in the eyes of the public.

No disrespect to the Welsh Conservatives but I do not propose to refer to them in detail in this blog, except to say that over the last decade, and maybe more, they have captured the mood of the Welsh electorate better than the other three other parties. They have understood the implications of a less working class Wales, the breakdown of the old industrial communities and the diversified nature of the Welsh economy and its population. Labour and Plaid have not only underestimated the Tories—they have not come to terms with the changing nature of Wales itself.

Finally, UKIP has arrived on the scene with a vengeance, coming second in a good number of seats across Wales—in places such as Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. The specific reasons for this require analysis along with the changing voting patterns of the Welsh electorate. Not only are there unidentifiable ‘shy and secret Conservatives’ in Wales but there are also anti-European and anti-immigration elements too.

Of course, we will get a chance to see what UKIP Wales is really like when it arrives in the Senedd next year—unless the three centre/left parties have the gumption to wake up and start probing UKIP on its Welsh vision, policies and intentions ...