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An unusual significance

In four weeks’ time, Britain will hold the nearest thing here to a US mid-term election.  Up for grabs are the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, the London Mayor and Assembly, several regional mayors and local councils across England.  And although not strictly mid-term – the current parliament could sit until December 2024 – it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which a UK general election takes place in 2023:

The UK government is currently enjoying a “vaccination bounce” – aided in part by the stupidity of the European Commission; but largely because this is the one occasion when the government gave the job to the NHS rather than awarding the contract to someone Matt Hancock met in a pub.  Britain is currently opening up after a five-month lockdown during which everyone over the age of fifty, together with younger people with underlying conditions, will have been invited to have a vaccine.  At the same time, a large part of Europe is locking down again in the face of a third wave of corona virus.  It goes without saying that the governing Tories will go out of their way to self-promote this – very likely their only – achievement.  A relieved public – who polls have shown to favour more draconian measures than the government has implemented – is already indicating to pollsters that they would again vote Tory in a future election.

It is not hard to imagine Johnson using the vaccine boost to push through a repeal of the Fixed Term Parliament Act; allowing him to call the next general election whenever it suits.  Nor do we need a crystal ball to see Chancellor Sunak delivering an emergency post-pandemic spending spree early next year to sweeten up the electorate (I mean to develop Britain’s infrastructure and restore the economy to steady growth… obviously).  And while conjuring up another couple of hundred billion pounds out of thin air will come back to haunt us in later years, the initial effect is likely to be a feel-good consumer spending spree which will cement public support behind the government.  After which, a 2023 general election would likely deliver the best outcome for the incumbent Tories.

The one potential flaw in this scenario is that a competent opposition party might strip votes away from the government.  More than fifty of the seats in Johnson’s eighty-seat majority were part of Labour’s famous Red Wall – places that had voted Labour for generations… Places like South and Northeast Wales.  With Scotland now firmly in the hands of the SNP – Labour only won one seat in Scotland in 2019 – and with much of the North of England in Tory hands, the Welsh election result will have a more profound impact than would normally be the case.

Labour has been the largest party, and always a party of government in Wales for the entire 22 years that the Assembly/Parliament (Senedd) has been in existence.  One reason for this is that Labour has a history of cheating the Welsh public into thinking that the Parliament is more a big council than a regional government.  For example, Labour did nothing in those 22 years in government to correct the prevailing belief that the Welsh NHS was run from Westminster.  In short, Labour sought to take the credit for everything that went well in Wales while blaming all of Wales’ ills on the wicked government in London.

Ironically, the pandemic – which the public generally believes Wales has handled better than England – has done the one thing that Labour refused to do; it has clarified just how powerful the Welsh Parliament actually is.  After all, it is by order of the Welsh Parliament that we have spent the last five months locked in our homes and deprived of “hospitality” even as our most famous brewery and pub chain has been forced into bankruptcy and sold off to the English.

This revelation appears to be benefitting the Tories; who have struggled to mobilise their voter base in previous Welsh elections.  As Theo Davies-Lewis at the Spectator notes:

“The Welsh Conservatives – embracing a more aggressive and devo-sceptic stance that has no doubt contributed to the surge for the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party (who are themselves on course to win four regional seats in the election) – are looking to bulldoze the long-standing Red Wall in Wales.

“Of course, the Tories have knocked out bricks before – most recently at the 2019 general election – but galvanising Conservative voters to turn out for the Senedd elections has been a challenge. But now they could have Labour on the ropes: not only do Welsh government ministers have to deal with the day-to-day response to their handling of a pandemic, they are now facing the prospect of defending a lacklustre 20-year record in government while fighting a political campaign from the Conservative party aiming to take further powers away from them.”

On the other side of the coin, seeing just how much influence the Welsh Parliament can have over Welsh affairs has strengthened support for independence.  This has benefited Plaid Cymru, whose manifesto includes an independence referendum.  Thus Labour is challenged from both sides and may face its worse result in a Welsh election.  As Adam McDonnell at YouGov explains:

“At the last election, the Labour party narrowly missed out on a majority, gaining 29 of a possible 60 seats. If our latest voting intention figures are repeated when the Welsh public head to the polls this May, we would likely see Labour lose seats, largely at the hands of the Conservatives.

“Labour are also losing votes to Plaid Cymru, who are sitting reasonably comfortably in third place. One in five (21%) of those who voted Labour in the 2019 Westminster election say they intend to give their vote to Plaid Cymru in the Senedd.”

If the polls are to be believed – and a month is a long time in politics – the next Welsh Parliament will comprise 22 Labour members, 19 Tories, 14 Plaid, 4 Abolish the Assembly, and 1 LibDem.  In terms of the percentage share of the vote, Labour are just two points ahead of the Tories – well within the 4% margin of error.  And there is no law that says that the Labour vote must harden between now and Election Day.  As Theo Davies-Lewis observes:

“Labour will likely be in first place after May 6, but that should not be taken for granted either. After all, while we can never know what the biggest factor is in swinging the polls, the ‘Boris boosterism’ behind the vaccine rollout has grown Conservative support across the UK. – and evidently also in Wales.”

That we can even take seriously the possibility of the Tories coming first in a Welsh election is evidence that Labour’s slow decline continues.  Remember that in the first Welsh Assembly election, the Tories won just a single constituency – Monmouth.  At the UK level, we have to go all the way back to 2001 for the last time Labour won an election with the majority of the vote.  It is 16 years since Labour last won an election – with just 35.2% of the vote.  The Tories though, have enjoyed a long period of growing support since their 1997 wipeout, and despite the years of austerity after 2010:

During and after the Blair years – and particularly after the invasion of Iraq, Labour’s former supporter base has been increasingly disenchanted with the direction of the party.  The electoral coalition that brought Blair to power in 1997 had largely dissolved by 2005.  Working class voters in ex-industrial, rundown seaside and small town rural Britain had received little practical benefit from voting Labour – save for the possibility that the Tories would be worse.  Meanwhile the metropolitan liberal class that helped to decimate the Tories in May 1997 gradually turned their back on a party that saw little problem with passing authoritarian laws and ignoring international conventions.  In 2010, this part of the coalition deserted to a Liberal Democrat Party which cast itself as a defender of liberal freedoms.

What Tory strategists had spotted – because, unlike Labour people, they actually read research papers – was that Labour’s former heartland voters were at ideological odds with the party.  While they continued to support a more interventionist economic policy, they had become increasingly conservative on social issues.  Blairite Labour by this time supported minimal intervention in the economy while pursuing rapid liberal social reform.  It was these policies that Theresa May’s strategists had sought to oppose in 2017.  However, the Corbyn- McDonnell pledge to intervene in the economy to an extent not seen since the mid-1970s did just enough to halt the Tories forward march.

By 2019, normal business was restored.  It is clear from the longer term trends that Corbyn’s minor defeat was an outlier, while the 2019 result – catastrophic as it was for Labour – was a return to trends that have developed over 16 years.  Where Labour heartland voters were prepared to give Labour the benefit of the doubt in 2017, they were done with the party in 2019.  Only in Wales and a handful of northern constituencies did Labour’s old heartland vote hold up.

Under the (non) leadership of Keir Starmer – who has largely failed to oppose the government throughout the pandemic – According to Politico, support for Labour has remained consistently behind the Tories throughout the pandemic; save for two polls at the end of October that showed the two parties as neck and neck on 39%.  The most recent poll – on 5 April – gives the Tories an eight point lead; 43% to 35%.

This suggests that the polls showing Labour losing seats in Wales should be taken seriously; since Starmer’s lacklustre performance coupled with Johnson’s vaccine-bounce could well knock several more bricks out of what remains of Labour’s old red wall.  One such is the old shipbuilding town of Hartlepool, where the resignation of the former MP has triggered a by-election.  In 2019, the Brexit Party candidate took just enough votes off the Tories for Labour to hold onto the seat.  This time around, there is no Brexit Party or, indeed, any other third party to skew the result.  And the bad news for Labour is that a Survation poll conducted between 29 March and 3 April gives the Tories a clear seven point lead; 49% to Labour’s 42%.  More worryingly perhaps, the poll found that while 49% of voters were favourable to Boris Johnson, just 24 percent were favourable to Starmer, while a full 38 percent were unfavourable.

The Irony, in the event that the Tories do take Hartlepool is that the electoral coalitions between the working classes and the liberal-minded middle classes which have historically resulted in Labour governments, are commonly referred to as “a combination of Hartlepool and Hampstead.”  In the event that Labour is continuing to lose red wall seats like Hartlepool, even as the Tories and Plaid Cymru are battering the walls of Labour’s Welsh redoubt, Hampstead liberals may be all that remain… in which case, we have to wonder exactly what the contemporary Labour Party is for.

A century ago, another party which had long been one of the duopoly of Parties which governed Britain, was seeking to restore past glories even as its electoral base disintegrated.  If the trends and polling are correct, we could be witnessing something similar today.  Which is why these elections – which ordinarily would attract a low turnout and be considered more an opportunity for protest voting – have a far greater significance this time around.  Put simply, Labour should – and must – win, and win big in four weeks’ time.  But all the indicators are pointing in the opposite direction.

As you made it to the end…

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