You wouldn’t know it from the boos that greeted new prime minister Boris Johnson as he arrived in Cardiff Bay earlier this week, but the Conservatives are now the most popular electoral force in Wales.
While Brecon and Radnorshire voters are today expected to hand a victory to the Liberal Democrats, the governing party will most likely only lose because of the strong showing of the Brexit Party, with Labour way behind in fourth. Across the country the Tories sit on 24%, two points ahead of Labour, with Nigel Farage’s outfit following close behind in third. This means that in one of the EU’s most deprived regions – and historically Britain’s socialist heartland – more than four in ten voters opt for Right-wing parties.
We are accustomed to hearing that politicians are out of touch with public opinion, but then activists often are too, which accounts for the stark contrast between those who turned out to jeer the new PM and public opinion in Wales more generally.
It’s true that many still harbour a great deal of resentment towards the Conservative Party. Some areas of South Wales have never recovered from the crash-deindustrialisation programme enacted by the Thatcher government, and the unemployment rate remains one of the highest in Britain. According to NHS data collected in 2013, one in six residents of Blaenau Gwent was collecting a prescription for antidepressants. Life expectancy in the region is among the lowest in England and Wales.
I spent time in South Wales in 2016 conducting research for my book Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. I spoke with hundreds of people in the region and the anger was palpable. Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t particularly popular in the pubs and social clubs I visited, but nor were the New Labour politicians who had moved the party into the centre ground. As a former Blaenavon collier called Ron phrased it, establishment politicians in Westminster were the “shiny men” who “turned up once every five years and then you don’t see them again”.
The residual anger felt by many in Britain’s former mining areas is often dismissed by outsiders as nostalgia, yet few of the people I spent time with wanted to go back underground and dig coal in the pits. They just missed the sense of community, fraternity and solidarity engendered by the shuttered industries.
Wayne Hodgins, an independent councillor for Brynmawr, told me the pits, steelworks and factories were like “an extension of your family”. In towns such as Cwm, Ebbw Vale and Merthyr Tydfil, streets named after local heroes of the labour movement were lined with rent-to-own stores, bookies and arcades.
In this context, Labour’s failure to carve out a sustainable poll lead in Wales seems remarkable, especially as it has been the biggest party in every national election there since 1922. In this May’s European Elections the party finished third.
Brexit is a big part of the story. As I drove around the roads that hug the Brecon Beacons I would occasionally see signs proclaiming “this project was funded by the European Union”, and Wales has indeed received £5.3 billion in EU structural funds since 2000. And yet, venturing down to the towns and villages below I encountered strong anti-EU sentiment, the issue having become a crude lightening rod for industrial decline.
Yet it would be wrong to assume that Wales is a hotbed of anti-EU sentiment. It voted narrowly – 52% – to leave the European Union, but support for a so-called “People’s Vote” has grown in recent months. A YouGov poll conducted at the end of 2018 found that majorities in every Welsh constituency support a final say on the outcome of Brexit negotiations.
Unfortunately, however, Jeremy Corbyn has pursued an all-things-to-all-people Brexit strategy and in Wales this appears to have backfired spectacularly. Those who back leaving have gravitated toward either Boris Johnson or the Brexit Party, while Remainers have peeled off to Jo Swinson’s reinvigorated Liberal Democrats. As Peter Kellner recently wrote for the Guardian, Labour’s strategy right across Britain has been “haemorrhaging remain votes without enhancing its appeal to leave voters”.
Corbyn supporters will undoubtedly point to the party’s impressive 49% showing in Wales at the 2017 General Election as evidence that this latest poll is a mere blip in the party’s fortunes. Yet “creative ambiguity” over Brexit was credible in 2017 in a way that it no longer is. As pro and anti-Brexit positions have hardened, Labour’s neither-here-nor-there strategy has effectively run out of road.
Labour’s Welsh decline cannot entirely be pinned on Corbyn. Support here has been ebbing for some time and during the New Labour years the party’s share of the vote fell faster in Wales than in either England or Scotland. In fact Labour’s historical dominance of Welsh politics is arguably a factor in its declining fortunes. As Dan Evans wrote in a perceptive piece for Jacobin, one-partyism has encouraged complacency and nepotism in many traditional strongholds. Here “people advance and achieve positions of power not through their political competence or vision, but through party loyalty”.
Unlike in Scotland, in Wales the party has faced no challenge on its Left, largely because there is no comparable thirst for independence. Yet Plaid Cymru have seen their support climbing since Adam Price replaced Leanne Wood as leader last year, and have now overtaken Labour in the most recent polling for the Welsh Assembly. This is arguably more significant for Labour than a single poll showing the Tories leading, a lead likely to dissipate once the impact of Brexit is felt and Boris Johnson’s honeymoon period comes to an end.
Labour has also been losing the battle of values, which in part explains the shift to the Conservatives. The coastal regions have long flirted with the Tories, but the Valleys – the traditional bastions of socialist politics – are also home to a small-c conservatism that sits uneasily with some of the liberal shibboleths that dominate contemporary Left-wing thought. Moreover, this anti-Conservative sentiment found in South Wales is partly a legacy of Margaret Thatcher, herself a liberal free marketeer rather than a traditional conservative.
The importance of values when it comes to voting – as opposed to purely economic motivations – is evident in the rise in Welsh support for first UKIP and now the Brexit Party. At the 2015 election the Eurosceptic party performed strongest here in Valley seats such as Merthyr Tydfil and Caerphilly, finishing third in Wales in the popular vote and second place to Labour in six constituencies. As in the United States, voters in many struggling small towns feel more comfortable with the values of Right-wing parties, even if this seems to go against their economic interests.
So while the decline of Welsh Labour is by no means entirely the fault of Corbyn, after ten years in opposition it is untenable to still be trailing in the polls to the governing party. Were current polling figures replicated at a general election, Labour would register its worst result in Wales in a century. Corbyn, like his predecessor Ed Miliband, is an inept leader whose personal unpopularity is undoubtedly dragging Labour down. Yet hopes that he would win back Wales and Scotland by moving the party leftward have proven forlorn when political debate is less about Left versus Right than Remain versus Leave.
And the Brexit muddle is a feature of Corbynism rather than a bug. Corbyn is a lifelong Eurosceptic who has surrounded himself with “Lexiteers” such as Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray. Yet his power base is an overwhelmingly pro-Remain Labour membership, leaving the leader effectively a prisoner of two competing tendencies within his own party. On one side stand his decades-long ideological bedfellows, and on the other the party membership whose support his leadership requires if it is to retain any legitimacy.
This circle was always going to be hard for Corbyn to square and the resulting jumble has politely been called ambiguity – although incoherence would be a more fitting description. It was invariably going to catch up with Labour eventually, on both sides of Offa’s Dyke. On the doorstep in Wales – just as in England – it is Brexit that people are talking about, not the renationalisation of Royal Mail or other vote-winning Labour issues. After a century of dominance in Wales, the party has been left behind by events.