The Elections in Wales: A View from England

Guest blog piece by Dr. Michael Cole, University of Liverpool, @Mscole18 and Dr. Diana Stirbu, London Metropolitan University @diana_stirbu

Tomorrow sees the 5th elections for the National Assembly for Wales, an institution that has operated now for 17 years and was created -alongside with the Scottish Parliament- as part of perhaps the most fundamental phase of constitutional and institutional change the UK has witnessed since at least the franchise reforms of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Yet, despite this profound change, the National Assembly has struggled to fight its way onto the English political consciousness. Its profile isn’t entrenched within Wales, and beyond Wales is blighted to some extent by anachronistic, lazy and default assumption of England and Wales as a semi-collective entity and a failure to understand the significance of Welsh cultural and linguistic distinctiveness. To an extent, the for Wales, see England assumption has been engraved in the English psyche just as the England and Wales notion has been institutionalised through a single legal jurisdiction and an entanglement of institutions serving the two countries. The National Assembly has also suffered from a weak Welsh media and reluctance by the UK media (broadcast, print or online) to effectively cover Welsh politics and its government.

But perhaps the main problem has been the almost inevitable overshadowing by Scottish devolution, a much stronger, clearer and actively campaigned for. settlement, whose development and rhetoric has featured independence as a strong and real potentiality, not just as an intangible aspiration. Having perhaps escaped the English shadow post devolution, Wales’ constitutional and institutional story so far has focused on the incremental acquisition of authority, and on bringing Welsh institutions on par. with their Scottish counterparts.

Despite this low profile and the obvious fact that public policy from the decisions of the National Assembly will have a negligible impact on them, these elections are of potential interest and indeed significance for the English onlooker. Here we outline why. First, this year there is much greater significance for the political climate in the UK as whole, as the electoral contests at local and regional level might well assist in deciding Jeremy Corbyn’s fate as Labour leader and the direction of the party -a fact reflective of Labour’s seemingly terminal decline in Scotland and a recognition that almost any leader would struggle to prevent SNP gains and Labour losses. Within this UK tensed climate for Labour, Wales is particularly significant as it still represents a Labour stronghold. In Wales, Plaid’s threat to Labour hegemony has faded since 2003, even with the experience of coalition (2007–11) that failed to give the party a lasting aura of governmental authority. Although, recent polls indicate a slight resurgence of Plaid, with Leanne Wood topping the ranking of most popular political party leaders in Wales and the party solidifying its position in second place, it is far from clear that Plaid poses a real immediate threat to Labour’s status as easily the largest party.

Wales has stood an example of sustained Labour success, 17 continuous years in government, latterly without requirements for coalition partners. Additionally, achieved with the freedom to articulate a distinctively Welsh agenda significantly to the left of Blair and Brown, power was thus sustained within the context of Clear Red Water between not just themselves and the Conservatives but also Welsh and UK Labour. Yet, ironically in 2016, the Welsh Labour leadership is trying to distance themselves from the left-wing leadership and the in-fighting at Westminster. Labour in these elections are seemingly enmeshed in a verdict on Corbyn. Currently, poll estimates in Wales suggest Labour at approximately a third of constituency vote (which is usually what matters for Labour); 5%-6% lower than their relatively poor showing in 1999, when they secured 28 AMs. At this level, several Labour constituency seats might be at risk. Furthermore, hints are already emerging from shared intelligence about local campaigning, for example in Newport West Labour despatched a leaflet saying that the contest with the Conservatives was close, despite having an 18% lead in 2011. So overall, watch for some potential ‘surprises’ at the hands of both the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru, and for this Labour misery to rapidly be fed into the debate about Corbyn’s leadership nationally, especially as he pledged that no seats will be lost in the local and regional elections.

Second, this time the performance of both the Liberal Democrats and UKIP in the Assembly elections are potentially of greater interest for the English than normal. The Liberal Democrats’ performance has indications for the party’s capacity to re-build in their traditional western heartlands. If they can re-gain some ground in Wales (compared with 2015) then perhaps some optimism can be generated that they can re-capture some of their south-western Westminster seats. Clearly, with UK levels of support languishing at 7%-8% in most national UK polls, the party needs some good news. And with strong candidates in constituency seats such as Ceredigion, Montgomeryshire and Cardiff Central some gains are possible, assisted perhaps in the latter by declining Labour support. However, any constituency gains might be counteracted by list losses and only the most optimistic Liberal Democrat would be prepared to predict an improvement of their current total of 5 AMs. However, looking at this contest from England, the issue of interest is less the composition of the Assembly, rather the wider trends.

Regarding UKIP, English fascination lies more with another narrative of Euro-sceptic advance and also fuelling speculation about what this might mean for the Euro Referendum. In reality, their probable gains reflect the more proportional electoral system in Wales rather than a particularly Welsh orientation towards Euro-scepticism -UKIP support in UK and Welsh polls being quite similar. For some English observers who remember the politics of the 1990s, there is the fascinating narrative of the re-ignition of the political career of former Conservative MP, Neil Hamilton, who lost his Cheshire UK parliamentary seat in 1997 amidst much ethical controversy. Although, popular claims of carpet-bagging are a little wide of the mark as he grew up in Ammanford and studied at the University of Aberystwyth, both within the regional list he is contesting. The Assembly also offers a way back into frontline politics for Mark Reckless, who lost his Rochester UK parliamentary seat in 2015 after defecting from the Conservatives to UKIP. He too heads the UKIP slate on a regional list and looks certain to be elected, despite having few previous connections with Wales, thus raising some questions around the political opportunism presented by the partial PR system in Wales.

For both the Conservatives and Plaid, the English perspectives are less clear. Initially, the Conservatives hoped that another poor result for Labour, after losing seats like Gower and Vale of Clwyd at last year’s General Election, might allow the party to replicate or even surpass their strong General Election showing in the constituencies. Expectations of an advance have, however, receded, fallout from the difference of opinion over Brexit between David Cameron and Andrew RT Davies not having helped their chances. On the eve of poll, it seems likely that any constituency gains will come at the cost of list seat losses. However, for the UK Conservative leadership, the important vote occurs not on Thursday but on 23rd June or, to some extent, on May the 5th, but in the London Mayoral contest, not in Wales. Lose the referendum and Cameron and probably Osborne are out, whatever the results in Wales, Scotland and NI.

Interesting and important English narratives are also difficult to identify for Plaid, given that a great surge that might potentially threaten the Union is not expected – support for independence in Wales has been a constant low in Wales in the 17 years of devolution. Yes, Plaid might gain a few seats, and perhaps make some inroads into the valleys, given the vulnerability of Labour, but probably not enough to touch the English consciousness. Leanne Wood has carved out a strong political persona amongst many observant English commentators, but otherwise awareness of Plaid and its political impact is quite limited in England.

There are, however, interesting wider narratives in relation to political divergence amongst the nations of the UK. Despite, its long-term decline Labour is still the dominant party in Wales fortified by a social-political consensus significantly to the left of that in the UK not to mention England. Questions whether Labour is electable that have begun to dominate the debates about the party’s prospects at Scottish and UK level don’t really apply in Wales. Evan a bad result will almost certainly leave Labour in office, if only because Plaid has so far refused to accept sharing power with the Conservatives. The issue thus is not will Labour be thrown out of office but will they be forced to share power with Plaid or the Liberal Democrats? Labour’s strength is, however, re-enforced through an electoral system that favours them through allocating two-thirds of the seats to AM elected in the first past the post constituency contests. Now that the Assembly has been given power to alter its electoral system, a future coalition could force Labour into reforms that might oblige Labour to share power on a permanent basis. A change that should realign Welsh Labour more closely with the wider Scottish and UK-wide difficulties the party faces.

So, yes overall the Assembly elections are relevant to, and of interest for, English opinion but this occurs in terms of what are the lessons for the UK contest? What are the implications for the UK 2020 election? Might Labour’s power decline in Wales as it has in Scotland and at UK level? England hasn’t suddenly become fascinated by Welsh politics, just curious about its wider implications. From the English perspective, these elections are closer in importance to local government rather than UK parliamentary elections in significance and importance.

Furthermore, contemporary UK political discourse has been dominated by the EU referendum and a series of headline grabbing issues such as the Panama papers, the anti-Semitic rows within Labour, and the race-rows that increasingly are overshadowing Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign. In recent weeks, the ‘Welsh’ issue that has been grabbing the UK consciousness has not been the Assembly election but the future of the Port Talbot steel plant, with the huge implications for the local economy. In much news coverage, the Assembly elections appear as a backdrop to the steel crisis rather than a significant UK news story in their own right. Gripped by their own version of devolution fever, parts of England at least associate devolution with shifting functions to city regions rather than with Welsh governance and rarely look across the border.

So the English are interested in events in Wales; and again, there are themes in these elections that resonate with, and capture English attention, but so often it occurs within the overarching question of – what are the implications for UK politics? When substantive Welsh political stories capture the UK consciousness, so often the Assembly and the Welsh Government appear a bit part players without the powers or political clout to act decisively alone. Here, the case of Port Talbot steel is instructive, with the UK government having to take the lead in finding solutions through talking to the private sector whilst ever mindful of EU competition regulations and what interventions EU law will allow.

All this said, lurking behind all these debates is the Scottish experience. Nothing like the prospect of constitutional dislocation or even separation focuses attention on such elections. English media, politicians and voters became much more interested in Scottish Parliamentary elections and Scottish politics, once the SNP formed a government and started to effectively challenge the Union. Whilst nobody is suggesting an emergent Welsh independence agenda, significant Plaid gains might heighten English interest. At the first assembly elections in 1999 Plaid took over 28% of the vote and returned 17 AMs. Also, remember the success of the SNP in taking Labour seats and Labour votes, which produced a shock in the General elections in 2015. Added to this is Leanne Wood’s current strong left-of-centre political orientation and Plaid’s focus on the Valleys. Labour might as well become vulnerable in its heartlands. Although, current polling suggests that a Plaid breakthrough is not to be expected this time, this could perhaps be a future rather than contemporary narrative. So, it is likely that this year these contests are destined to be dutifully reported in the UK and English media but to have their usual modest profile beyond Wales, change perhaps having to wait for a nationalist surge to match that in Scotland. Nothing, concentrates the English mind on the affairs of Scotland or Wales like a potential nationalist challenge to the Union.