The ghost of 1983 once again haunts Welsh Labour. Thirty two years ago, the Labour vote fell by 9.4% to 37.5% and the party won a dismal 20 seats. Fast forward to 2015 and for the second successive general election in Wales, Labour recorded a lower percentage share of the vote than in 1983 but due to a more even spread of its vote it obtained 25 seats, one fewer than five years ago. Losses to the Conservatives in Vale of Clwyd and Gower (a seat held by Labour for near on 100 years) reflected a general swing away from Labour in marginally held seats and top targets. The Conservatives’ haul of 11 seats is the best performance by the party in Wales since, yes you’ve guessed it, 1983. In the aftermath of the victory, leader of the Labour party in Wales, Carwyn Jones, was quick to accept that the party had under-performed but highlighted that Labour had once again seen off the nationalists. In some respects this is true, Plaid Cymru failed to register any significant increase in votes – Labour have ‘spiked their guns’. But while Welsh Labour maintains a steely focus on the nationalist threat from Plaid, it has taken its eye off the ball elsewhere.
Labour in Wales is at a crossroads. With demographic changes in parts of Wales gradually making some seats equivalent to classic Conservative-Labour marginals in England. Indeed, in its established strongholds it now, perhaps for the first time, faces a credible threat in the form of a different nationalism, as the self-proclaimed ‘Party of Wales’ ended in fourth place in the overall vote by UKIP. The rise of UKIP in the Labour heartlands of south Wales and parts of north east Wales represents a significant threat to Labour’s long term dominance in these areas. In 2015, UKIP polled 13.6% of the overall vote in Wales, but in six constituencies it obtained around 18% or more. It performed particularly well in the south Wales valley seats – Islwyn, Caerphilly, Torfaen, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney – where future voters may now see it as the main threat to Labour. Crucially, it came second in six seats and a close third in a number of others. This is an important step forward. Voters, particularly in the case of third parties, are often reluctant to get behind their preferred party if they feel it has little chance of winning in their constituency.
But how has this happened? The explanation for the rise of UKIP in Labour strongholds is well rehearsed. But in Wales, like elsewhere, the Conservative vote in these Labour seats generally held up, and even Labour in some places recorded a higher share of the vote. Part of the explanation lies in the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote in Wales. Within the churn that took place, it seems evident that UKIP gained support from Labour and the Conservatives, with both these parties benefiting from the 2010 unwind of the Liberal Democrat vote. UKIP, in these Labour strongholds, also benefited from the Liberal Democrat collapse – but the origins of these voters are particularly interesting. Many are the ‘left behind’ Labour supporters who gave up on the party in 2005 who economically did not feel the benefits of New Labour and felt that the party no longer represented them. Their journey involved using the Liberal Democrats to voice their anger in 2010. But five years later, unwilling to vote Conservative, they have found a refuge in UKIP. At present this flow of voters to UKIP only represents a stream, but left unchecked it could turn into a river, with the 2016 elections to the National Assembly the first threat.
One furrow which UKIP may find it valuable to plough, but is currently ignored by the parties represented in the National Assembly, is the question of the Assembly itself. UKIP in Wales leader Nathan Gill caused outrage amongst the other party leaders when, asked about devolving further powers to the Assembly, he replied with the metaphor that, when his children asked for more food, he usually tells them to finish what is on their plate first. However, while there may have been horror from those behind the lecterns, such kitchen table rhetoric will undoubtable ring true for many of those watching. Polls show a relatively steady support from around 18% of the Welsh population for scrapping the National Assembly altogether (while by comparison, on the other extreme, support for independence sits in single figures). When those who want ‘fewer Assembly powers’ are added the figures rise to just under 25%. This could provide a pool of dissatisfied voters that UKIP can seek to pick up, as the only party currently rejecting further devolution.
Worryingly for Welsh Labour, it seems that they remain unaware or simply complacent about this impending threat. This is compounded by weakness on the ground. In many areas local constituency parties are a shadow of their former selves with a skeleton of core activists in potential UKIP targets. Rebuilding a strong grassroots party which reaches out and engages with its traditional core support is vital for the longevity of the party in these seats. Labour needs to be more professionalised and campaign savvy with better allocation of election resources, and quickly learn the lessons from Scotland that the loyalty of its voters cannot be taken for granted. It also needs local answers to its voters’ concerns and the party more generally in Wales has to recognise that there are different types of Labour supporters, each of which has grievances and anxieties. Keeping this ever fragmenting group together remains the central challenge facing Welsh Labour.
Back to 1983 and amidst its collapse in Wales, Labour’s Michael Foot in Blaenau Gwent and Ted Rowlands in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney recorded the largest majorities of any party at the election. Thirty two years on and with turnout around 20% lower in these seats, Labour once again triumphed, but the spectre of UKIP looms large there and in other south Wales valley constituencies as a vehicle for the disaffected and disgruntled. Labour should ignore this at its peril.
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