The Real Fight Starts Now

The well respected political academic John Curtice summed it up: “On a day of an election announcement, no opposition has been in this weak a position.”

36 hours later Labour’s position had weakened even further with the publication of a YouGov poll taken after the General Election was called in which the Conservatives were pegged at 48% (+4), Labour at 24% (+1), the Lib Dems at 12% (-1) and the UKIP at 7% (-3). Amazingly the Conservatives seem to be developing even more momentum, which isn’t the way these things normally go. During an election the incumbent government tends to lose ground and then rally a bit toward polling day even if, as in the case of Gordon Brown and John Major, they were destined to leave office anyway. The closest recent historical parallel is 1983, where Margaret Thatcher managed to increase the size of her lead throughout the campaign and went on to win a majority of 144 seats.

Not only that, the UK’s first female Prime Minister also managed to take the biggest number of constituencies in Wales ever for the Conservative Party. Newport West, Bridgend, Cardiff West, Delyn and Clwyd South were all turned blue. It was an election in which voting patterns and swings were pretty similar across Wales, England and Scotland (though as a bit of a curio Wales achieved the highest turnout in any of the home nations at 76.12%).

Nevertheless, the broad homogeneity was as striking then as it is lacking now. As I wrote for Click two years ago, “For Wales See England” when it came to the 2015 General Election result (http://www.iwa.wales/click/2015/05/for-wales-see-england/). The biggest shock of the last General Election wasn’t that the Conservatives won (they were always on target to be the biggest party) but that the SNP achieved such a triumph in Scotland, gaining 56 of 59 seats. The biggest shock of the last General Election for Wales is that the results looked nothing like Scotland and one helluva lot like England.

Nothing that has happened since - especially with Wales and England both voting to leave the European Union and thereby confounding and upsetting the Welsh establishment in equal measure - has convinced me that this linking of Welsh and English voting patterns has been broken in any way. As with all General Elections, the real story is about who forms the UK Government but, with Labour so far adrift, there is a real possibility of Labour’s annihilation outside its heartiest heartlands. My conversations with many in Labour over recent days has just reinforced that view.

Therefore I think it is perfectly appropriate to look at this election as a fight for the very survival of Labour. That to me is the biggest and most interesting story. Yes, Leanne may run in the Rhondda. Yes, Plaid will throw the kitchen sink at Ynys Mon again. Yes, it will be worth watching to see if the SNP loses any ground. Yes, the Lib Dems will be looking to step back from the abyss and take back seats like Brecon & Radnorshire and Cardiff Central. Yes, UKIP will be mildly interesting in Clacton. Yes, the Greens will pretend about a breakthrough again. But this is a General Election that will, above all, decide whether Labour continues as a national force in politics.

And you can interpret “national” for Wales as well as England if you’re not too precious about terminology. Wales is in no way immune from a Conservative onslaught. The Tories already hold 11 out of 40 Welsh seats at Westminster and could very conceivably win a series of others with uniform swings. As Roger Scully, the only accomplished Welsh psephologist, has pointed out there are eight seats in which Labour is very, very vulnerable ( http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/politics/eight-labour-seats-most-risk-12912574). It would not take a total earthquake for Labour to meltdown. Indeed, it would just need UK polling trends to be broadly matched in Wales for Plaid to take Ynys Mon, the Lib Dems to regain Cardiff Central, and for the Conservatives to win six more seats in Wales - Delyn, Clwyd South, Wrexham, Alyn and Deeside, Bridgend and Newport West.

Just think about that scenario for a moment and two things become apparent. The first is that the Conservatives, provided they did not lose ground to Labour in Gower or Cardiff North, would be on 17 seats. This would be the dead equal of Labour in Wales. Stretch the imagination a little further and consider that Plaid could conceivably also do what it did to Labour at last year’s Assembly election and win Rhondda outright, which is not a fanciful thought with Leanne Wood as the candidate, and Labour ends up being on 16 seats to the Conservatives’ 17. The last time the Conservatives “won” a General Election in Wales was 1859…

The second consequence of such a meltdown for Labour is that, except Llanelli, Labour would not hold a single seat outside of Glamorganshire and Gwent. The entirety of rural and North East Wales would be in the hands of other parties. There would not be a single Labour MP north of Merthyr Tydfil. In such a scenario, despite Labour’s very credible performance in last year’s Assembly elections, it would struggle to portray itself as an all Wales party. Indeed, so big would the chasm be between what it achieved in 2016 and 2017 that I suspect those in Labour looking to found a separate Welsh party with its own identity and policies would receive a significant boost. 

There will of course be those who dispute these possibilities and trends, and that’s what political analysis is all about. Politics isn’t the language of absolutes, and my view is that nothing is certain. If the last few years have taught us anything it’s that the conventional political rule book should be binned. But at the same time if, in these febrile times, we can seek out any sort of parallel between 2017 and another election then it must be 1983, the year in which Labour was crushed. Though there is of course a major difference between now and 1983: there isn’t a strong third force in UK politics. The undoing of Labour is down to arguably the cleverest manifestation of the Conservative Party ever and seemingly the most clumsy and inept incarnation of Labour. And that is before the Conservatives launch a campaign in which they will undoubtedly character assassinate Jeremy Corbyn to the nth degree. The Demon Eyes posters will have nothing on what is to be hurled in weeks to come. They will contend that on every level Corbyn is unfit to be Prime Minister and the public seems to agree.

The biggest challenge for Labour based on current polling isn’t to reach Downing Street, or even avoid being crushed, it’s to survive at all. The “existential crisis” described by Lord Kinnock last year is upon them. And in here in Wales as much as in England.