Labour in Wales – A legacy of dominance masks growing uncertainty

For the past 100 years the Labour Party have dominated Welsh politics. In 1922, Labour won the popular vote at the general Election for the first time, a feat they have repeated at every election since. Indeed, the party has, since 1935, also secured an absolute majority of Welsh seats. Since the creation of the Welsh Assembly in 1999, Labour have successively won the most votes and seats, while also maintaining control of major councils including Swansea and Cardiff.

Less tangible, but no less important than this electoral dominance, is a certain romance. Keir Hardie (the Scottish-born MP for Merthyr Tydfil), Aneurin Bevan and Neil Kinnock continue to cast long shadows, as do the legacies of non-conformist Methodism, heavy industry, be it coal, steel or copper, and communitarianism.

However, despite a century of dominance, Labour’s position in Wales is increasingly under threat. At the 2010 General Election Labour’s share of the vote in Wales fell to 36.2% – 12.6% lower than in 2001 and under Ed Miliband it barely recovered. Indeed, at the 2015 General Election, Labour’s polling increased by just 0.6%. Tellingly, the party also lost two seats, including Gower, held by Labour since they first contested it in 1910.

In the Assembly the picture is better. Labour are the largest party, though they do not have an overall majority, controlling 30 of 60 seats.

Many hoped that Jeremy Corbyn could arrest Labour’s slide, however, there is little evidence that his rise has boosted their position. Recent YouGov polling revealed that any ‘Corbyn bounce’ had dissipated within three months with Labour stagnant at 35%. Some 30% of respondents suggested that his election had made them less likely to vote Labour, with 41% of over-65s taking this position. Where Corbyn is most popular, particularly in Cardiff, Labour is already electorally strong, suggesting his appeal is to a deep, rather than wide, body of the electorate.

It is notable that while Labour are struggling to build momentum in Wales so too are their traditional opponents the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru who are each polling at around 20%. The main beneficiary of this malaise has been Ukip who are widely expected to gain as many as 9 Assembly Members. According to Richard Wyn Jones, politics professor Cardiff University “there is clearly now a trend and it’s all tied up with a hardening of support for Ukip.”

With Labour anticipated to lose between 3 and 5 seats in May it is possible that Ukip could play a key role in forming a new government, forcing Labour to scramble for a confidence and supply agreement with Plaid Cymru.

Nathan Gill, Ukip MEP for Wales, recently argued that “while the other parties bury their heads in the sand we are coming up with forward thinking policies to deal with the issues people are facing… Lots of our support is coming from traditional Labour areas.” Though First Minister Carwyn Jones is alert to this, previously stressing that “Ukip are a serious threat”, there is limited evidence that Labour’s policy offer has been tailored to fight off an insurgency or reach out to disaffected working class voters.

While many column inches have been dedicated to the forthcoming elections in Scotland and London, results in Wales may be more indicative of Labour’s future. Of the 120 seats where Ukip came second 44 were won by Labour and there is a real chance that they could continue to cede ground in their traditional heartlands. The party’s wholehearted backing for the Remain campaign could, for example, trigger an exodus of, largely working-class, Eurosceptic supporters.

Though Wales has been a Labour bastion for a century the party’s grip on power is slipping. Labour will undoubtedly remain the largest party after May’s election, but action is needed to ensure that malaise doesn’t evolve to terminal decline.