In the 2019 Welsh Election Study, we (Richard Wyn Jones, Dan Wincott, Ed Gareth Poole and I) asked respondents their thoughts on some of the questions social scientists have been grappling with about elections in Wales:
1. Historically, the Labour Party in Wales have tended to do better than in the rest of Britain. Why do you think this is?
2. Conservative support in Wales has historically been lower than in the rest of Britain. Why do you think this is?
3. Plaid Cymru has not been able to replicate the success of the SNP in Scotland. Why do you think this is?
The questions were asked in an ‘open’ format, meaning that respondents were free to type whatever they liked in response, and were given no pre-chosen options or prompts.*
We were interested in the degree to which voters’ understanding of politics in Wales aligned with contemporary ‘academic’ understandings of politics. The answers provided a very large amount of text, that I’ve arranged here into word clouds (once corrected for misspelling and removing stop words). I’ve included a bit of discussion with each word cloud, but the results are fairly self-explanatory.
Labour strength and Conservative Weakness
Post WW1 political history in Wales has been defined by Labour Party dominance and (relative) Conservative weakness. The reasons why this is the case has long dominated the study of elections and political behaviour in Wales (e.g. Balsom et al, 1983; Wyn Jones et al., 2002; Scully and Wyn Jones, 2012).
The two word clouds below are respondents’ thoughts on these historic trends.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the responses to both questions were pretty similar. The idea that Wales was defined by its working class and industrial past (and mining industry in particular) was seen by many as the explanation for the Labour Party’s strength in Wales. Many people also mentioned the historic strength of trade unions as an explanation for Labour’s dominance.
As for Conservative weakness, ‘mining’ and ‘working class’ are again the most prominent phrases used. In particular, the perceived ill-treatment of mining communities by Margaret Thatcher and her government was a common explanation. We also found a perception that the Conservatives were ‘not Welsh’ and were a predominantly ‘English’ party, a view that previous academic research has repeatedly uncovered in Wales and Scotland (see, for example, Mitchell, 1990 and Wyn Jones et al., 2002).
Plaid Cymru’s (relative) lack of success
This is a question I (and I know many others) am asked frequently at conferences and events both in and outside of Wales. Just why haven’t Plaid Cymru been able to do what the SNP have done in Scotland? The word cloud below shows respondents’ thoughts on this question.
Here, two themes dominate the responses. The first and most prominent was that people don’t want Wales to be an independent country. Answers frequently referred to Wales being too small or too poor to be independent, and therefore Plaid Cymru’s strongly pro-independence message turned people off. The irony here is that Plaid Cymru have only relatively recently endorsed independence for Wales (2003), and only very recently brought independence to the forefront of its campaigning. Regardless of Plaid’s official stance on the question of independence, voters associate them with the policy through the decades (see Wyn Jones, 2009).
The second theme was a focus on the Welsh language. A substantial number of respondents said that people who didn’t speak Welsh could not vote for Plaid Cymru. Responses also highlighted the large number of people living in Wales who were born and raised in England, and were put off by Plaid Cymru’s frequent use of the Welsh language. It seems that, although the Welsh language enjoys widespread support among the public, it remains a limiting factor for Plaid Cymru’s electoral fortunes.
Some concluding thoughts
In many ways the responses are exactly what one might expect when asking about these questions in that they reflect many of the stereotypes and motifs associated with each party:
- Labour: Working class and mining
- Conservatives: Rich, English, and Thatcher
- Plaid Cymru: Welsh speakers and secessionists
Yet I think it is striking how respondents still attach meaning to the stereotypes that political science research would refer to as cleavages. Here, a cleavage is a historic social or cultural divide between groups of individuals. Electoral politics can broadly be thought of as conflict between these groups. In Britain**, class was long thought to be the primary cleavage in society and politics, with working class voters supporting the Labour Party and the Conservatives gathering support from the middle classes.
In Wales, an additional cleavage was suggested by Balsom et al, 1983: Welsh identity, and in particular the identity of those that speak Welsh. Their seminal 2918 work concludes by saying that:
“The red of class conflict is overlaid in Wales by the green of Welsh sentiment” — pp. 325
I would argue that these responses highlight the enduring importance of these cleavages.*** Class and Welsh identity and language continue to act as a lens through which people understand their history and the contemporary political situation they find themselves in, even if this is not reflected in how they cast their own ballot****. As we emerge into a post Brexit and Covid world, the study of identity will remain a key pillar of how political scientists understand politics in Wales and beyond.
*This is a format that we will definitely use more frequently in the future given how (relatively) easy it is to analyse large text-based datasets now.
**Northern Ireland has long been acknowledged to have a separate primary cleavage.
***More recent work has examined this using in-depth interviews in specific areas of Wales. See, for example, Evans, D. (2015) ‘Post-Devolution Welsh Identity in Porthcawl’.
****For example, at the 2019 UK General Election equal proportions of working class voters in Wales voted for the Conservatives and Labour.