Is Wales moving to the right?

May’s election is expected to be a difficult one for Labour and could lead to a surprising advance for UKIP

The upcoming Assembly elections in Wales will be an important test for the Labour Party. Wales represents a heartland for the party with Labour dominating the electoral landscape for nearly a century.

Labour has controlled Welsh Assembly Government since the introduction of devolution in 1999. It has formed a majority Government in each of the elections apart from 2007 when it formed a Coalition Government with Plaid Cymru.

At the last Assembly election in 2011 Labour had a strong performance, but Labour now risks going backwards in its support and losing its majority in the Assembly.

The latest opinion polls undertaken last month suggested that Labour has suffered significant decline in support. Converted into seats this would mean that the Labour Party would lose 3 seats down to 27 seats in the 60 seat Assembly.

The Conservative Party’s welsh leader, Andrew RT Davies  has told his party that the results in May could lead to the possibility of Labour being unable to form a Government for the first time.  While it is likely that Labour will retain power, either as a minority Government or in coalition, the Welsh Conservative leader’s optimism is underpinned by the reality of the Conservative Party’s remarkable renaissance in Wales over recent decades. In the 2011 Assembly elections the party came second with 14 seats and in last year’s General Election the party had its best result since 1983 winning seats such as the Gower for the first time in a century.

The latest opinion polls for the Assembly Election suggest that the Conservative Party and Plaid are fighting it out for second place. The Conservative 22 percent support for both the Constituency and regional list. Plaid is on 21 percent in the constituency vote and on 22 percent in the regional lists.  Converted into seats this would see Plaid winning 13 and the Conservatives falling back to 11 seats.

Andrew RT Davies has pointed out that the 407,813 people who voted Conservative at the General Election in May last year is more than the 401,677 who voted for the Labour Party in the Assembly elections in 2011. While this might look simple on paper, the turnout for the last Welsh Assembly election was just 41 percent, significantly less than the 65 percent of Welsh voters who turned out at the General Election. There might, however, be an opportunity for the Conservatives to motivate some of their supporters from the General Election who don’t normally vote in Assembly elections to come out and vote for them. If this is combined with a softening of the Labour vote, the results might be more positive for the Conservatives than current polls suggest. As the future of the steel industry is now a dominant theme in the election the party will be hoping that the risk of the closure of Port Talbot steel works won’t dent their support. There is some hope that Welsh Conservatives campaigning on the issue and recent Government pledges to support the industry will  help in underline the party’s commitment to helping the economy of Port Talbot and the wider area.

Despite some reasons for cheerfulness, March’s poll suggests that Plaid could overtake the Conservatives and come second. Their support seems to have been boosted by the party’s successful spring conference and we will have to wait to see if this can be sustained, but the their leader, Leanne Wood, has been busy appealing to former Labour voters focusing attacks on the Welsh Government’s performance on public services and calling for the election to be a referendum on the future of the NHS in Wales.

An idea of Wales as a pro-European country used to be a central part of Plaid Cymru, Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ vision for the country. A poll in February suggested that a majority of Welsh voters wanted to leave the EU and even though more recent polls suggest that a majority of Welsh voters now support remaining in the EU the figures supporting remain or leave are very similar to the overall picture across the UK.

The extent of Welsh Euroscepticism is underlined by the extent of support for UKIP in the Principality. From winning less than 5 percent of the vote in 2011 the polls now suggest that UKIP could win 15 percent of the vote at the constituency ballot and 14 percent of the regional list – a shift that Welsh expert Professor Roger Scully has called “the biggest polling movement no one has heard of”. The focus on Britain’s place in the EU in the run up to the referendum is likely to help UKIP by raising the profile of the party in the run up to the Assembly elections.

UKIP’s expected strength at the Assembly elections could see a return to elected politics for the former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, who was born and bought up in Wales and the former MP for Rochester and Strood Mark Reckless. Fierce infighting within the UK about the selection of Hamilton and Reckless, a  recent row about the comments by one of their candidates linking immigration to rubbish problems in Cardiff and Labour attacks on UKIP as an English nationalist party seem unlikely to keep them out of the Assembly and current polling suggesting that they could win about seven seats.

Labour are likely to keep control of the Welsh Government after the election even if in a coalition, but the party’s decline, UKIP’s growing strength and the recovery of the Conservative Party means that Wales is showing signs of a rightward shift which could have longer–term consequences for  the principality.