Keir Starmer’s big speech yesterday didn’t mention Wales — a fact that anyone familiar with the state of the Labour Party there might find surprising. If the story of the 2015 general election was Labour’s collapse in Scotland — and the story of the 2017 and 2019 general elections was the crumbling of the Red Wall — then the story of our next general election could well be Labour’s routing across most of Wales. The party is in trouble, in a nation where it has long dominated politics.
There has been no general election in which Labour won fewer than 50% of Wales’s seats. The party’s post-war average is an impressive 71%, compared to the Conservatives’ 17%. And the picture is the same in the Senedd, the Welsh Assembly: since devolution, Labour has won the most votes and seats. Four years ago, in the 2017 general election, the party won nearly half the vote, taking 70% of the seats. And yet, just two years later, in 2019, it won 40.9% of the vote and just 55% of the seats — its second-worst performance since the “National Government” election in 1931 (1983 was Labour’s nadir in Wales, as in the rest of the country).
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And recent signs suggest Labour has made no headway in regaining its grip on Wales. A poll by YouGov for ITV Cymru Wales/Cardiff University has put the party on 36%. That approval rating is roughly the same as in 2015 and 2010, but this time the Conservatives are breathing down Labour’s neck: they are just 3 percentage points behind. The Tories are still riding high on their 2019 success, which left Labour with a solitary single seat north of the coalfields.
Things are no rosier in the Welsh Assembly, where Labour is down 1.5% on their 2016 performance; Plaid Cymru is up 3% and the Conservatives up 6%. And with elections just three months away, the Tories are gearing up to convert their 2019 wins into Senedd seats.
Labour, understandably, is desperate to work out what’s going wrong. And given the recent intensification of Scottish nationalism, it’s easy to assume Wales is feeling the same way. While support for Plaid Cymru, the only party committed to Welsh independence, has not really shifted, support for independence has — in 2014 only 12% of respondents said they were in favour, compared to 74% against. Now the figure is 23% in favour, 52% against.
This rise coincides with the arrival of a new pressure group for independence — YesCymru. Launched in 2016, it really hit its stride in Spring 2020 when membership doubled from 2,500 to 5,000. When the Westminster government refused to furlough Welsh businesses during Wales’ 17-day firebreak lockdown, membership of YesCymru increased by a further 3,000. Now, it claims to have 17,000 members. YesCymru’s own polling with YouGov suggested 33% of Welsh people with a view would support independence.
Eyeing the threat of Plaid Cymru riding the waves of Welsh independence, Welsh Labour have become much more Union-sceptic. Alun Davies MS claimed: “This union fails Wales every day. And until there is an acceptance of that, then the campaign for independence will only continue to grow.” Mick Antoniw MS called the Union “an increasingly Anglocentric, London-based institution with which [the Welsh] struggle to identify.”
But would a panicky pivot to a more Union-sceptic position actually help Labour win back its old voters?
To find out, I used various waves of the British Election Study to compare two camps of 2017 Labour voters: those who are still intending to vote for the party and those who are not.
The latter, Labour defectors, have scattered: 16% to Plaid, 15% to the Liberal Democrats, and 14% to the Conservatives. But the biggest grouping are the ‘don’t knows’, at 34%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, defectors tend to be less Left-wing — on a scale of 0 to 10, Labour voters are placed at 1.9, and Labour defectors at 2.6. Labour voters are also more libertarian, at 5.2, while Labour defectors more authoritarian at 6.1.
So this defection could easily be a part of a broader UK realignment of political values and voting behaviour, with Labour’s electoral coalition coming from Left-wing social libertarians, and the Conservatives doing better among a less Left-wing and more socially authoritarian voter coalition. Defectors are more likely to think that attempts to give equal opportunities to ethnic minorities, women, gay people and lesbians have all gone too far, compared to Labour voters — so probably thought little of Starmer’s pandering to the Black Lives Matter protestors over the summer. Defectors are also less likely to think immigration brings cultural or economic benefits, compared to Labour voters.
What about the pull of nationalism? Are defectors abandoning Labour in search of a party that will explicitly support independence? It doesn’t seem so. When asked how happy or sad they would be if Wales left the United Kingdom (with 0 being extremely sad and 10 being extremely happy) there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups. Both Labour voters and defectors would be sad, with a score of 3.6. And who wants a policy that makes people sad?
Defectors don’t even want more devolution. If we construct a scale of how Wales should be governed — with 1 equalling abolishing the Assembly, 2 giving the body fewer powers, 3 representing the status quo, 4 more powers, and 5 full independence — we find no significant difference between the two groups. And the icing on the cake is that Labour defectors actually trust Westminster more than Labour voters do — on a scale of 1 to 4, Labour voters place at 1.5, and Labour defectors place at 1.9 — and there is no significant difference when it comes to trusting the Welsh government.
So it is fair to conclude that Labour is not losing support to other parties because of their stance (or lack thereof) on the devolution settlement, no matter how angrily YesCymru tweet.
If this isn’t about devolution, is it about identity? No, not really. There’s no significant difference between how Labour voters and Labour defectors see themselves in terms of either Welshness — both place themselves at 5, on a scale of 1 (not at all Welsh) to 7 (very strongly Welsh) — or Britishness (5.2 for Labour defectors versus 5 for Labour voters). In fact, the identity which seems to make a difference is Europeanness — Labour defectors feel less European (3.6) than Labour voters (4.5), again suggesting that Labour’s troubles in Wales are not due to Welsh-specific factors, but rather UK-wide developments.
What about good old-fashioned party politics? Leadership evaluations do seem to matter. Those who remain Labour voters are more likely to rate Starmer highly (8.4, on a scale of 1 to 11) than Labour defectors (6.1). The same is true for Corbyn (7.2 versus 4.6). And those who have defected from Labour rate Johnson higher than those who remain Labour voters (4.2 versus 2.3).
Other party-political factors come into play here too — Labour defectors are more positive about how the UK government has handled Covid; Labour voters, unsurprisingly, think the opposition would have done a better job. Similarly, Labour defectors give the Westminster government more credit, and the Welsh government less, for their handling of lockdown than Labour voters do (although both groups rate the Welsh government’s attempts higher than Westminster’s). Wherever we look, there is little support for the idea that Labour needs to become more anti-Westminster or pro-Welsh independence.
Overall, the data shows Welsh Labour shouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to out-bid nationalists when it comes to devolution, nor should they flirt with independence. They might not like the Conservative government in Westminster, but constant attacks on the Union in a misguided attempt to win votes back. It risks undermining both the nation-state itself and the party’s own voter coalition. As Henry Hill notes, polling shows more Welsh voters back abolishing the Senedd than back independence. By fanning the flames of independence, Labour risks polarising the nation’s electorate. Welsh Labour should take a hard look at their colleagues in Scotland to see the consequences of playing with nationalist fire.
Instead, the party desperately needs to do three things. Firstly, it needs to separate its critique of the Conservative Westminster government from a critique of the Union, and remember that it’s only a ‘Tory Westminster government’ because of Labour’s numerous failings since the great financial crash.
Secondly, Welsh Labour needs to articulate a narrative which can unite those who feel Welsh and those who feel British (equally sized groups), and explain why both groups are better off within the United Kingdom.
Finally, it needs to appeal to the type of voters they are losing: those who are more centrist, who are socially conservative, and who don’t think the economy is working for them. These voters aren’t really bothered about constitutional reform, but if Welsh Labour keep blaming Westminster or England for every problem they face then the party risks radicalising them into the arms of YesCymru.
Welsh Labour is still the dominant force in Welsh politics, and the political dynamics of the Wales are not yet like those of Scotland. But if Welsh Labour really are a unionist party, then they need to defend the Union themselves instead of using it as a scapegoat to distract from their own failings. Their current tack won’t protect their vote come 2024.
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