Trouble for Labour in the Valleys

The Welsh Assembly results should be a worry for Labour

Labour party activists will be feeing downbeat as they digest the results from elections across the UK. The results suggest a party in stasis, avoiding any significant reversals while showing no evidence of making the momentum needed to have any hope of forming a Government in 2020. The results in Wales, traditionally seen as a heartland of the Labour Party, follow this pattern.

As I predicted in this blog post last month  Labour has held on to control of the Welsh Government by remaining the largest party, but it has lost its majority and will be unable to govern alone.

The most dramatic result was the loss of Labour former Education Minister, Leyton Andrew’s Rhondda assembly seat in the heart of Labour’s stronghold in the South Wales valleys to Plaid Cymru’s leader Leanne Wood. Although Plaid had won the seat in the 1999 Assembly elections, it has been won by Labour in every election since. Wood’s overturning of Andrew’s 6,700 majority to deliver a 3,500 Plaid majority underlined the significance of Labour’s weakening hold on its heartlands and her success in broadening the appeal of Plaid.

Labour held the Ogmore Westminster by-election with almost the same share of the vote and percentage majority as it won at the General election suggesting that the party’s shift to the left under Jeremy Corbyn has had little in effect in broadening its base of supporters in Wales.

The Welsh Conservative Party will have been disappointed by the results. Despite coming narrowly ahead of Plaid in share of the vote, in terms of seats the party fell from second to third place. The party failed to build on its advances at last year’s Westminster election and were unable to take targets seats such as the Gower, and the Vale of Clwyd that it won at the Westminster General Election and fell short in other target such as Cardiff North. Due to losses in the regional list vote, the party fell back by three seats to a total of 11 seats down three from 2011 results.

The most remarkable result has been the rise in support for UKIP, which seems to have taken votes from both Labour and the Conservatives. From barely registering with just 4.6 percent of the vote in 2011, UKIP’s support has increased to nearly 13 percent, giving them up 7 seats in the Assembly. The election of former Conservative MPs Neil Hamilton and Mark Reckless and other UKIP colleagues to the Assembly is likely to have a significant impact on Welsh politics.  The rise in the UKIP vote seems to have been one of the reasons that the Conservatives lost regional list seats, but the party also poses a significant threat to Labour’s position.

The rise in support for UKIP also shows the increase in Euroscepticism in Wales over recent years.  There used to be a view that Wales was a much more pro-European country than England, due to the combination of EU funding and the view that membership of the EU was a way of empowering small countries like Wales. That might have been the view of the Welsh political establishment, but the reality is that the Welsh electorate contains significant numbers of the economically vulnerable voters that the academics Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin have identified as most receptive to UKIP’s Eurosceptic and anti-immigration messages.

This isn’t the first time that Labour hasn’t been able to form a majority Government in Wales, they shared power with Plaid between 2007 and 2011, before returning with a majority in 2011. Labour is still  by far the dominant party in the principality and could bounce back again to a majority again. The combination of the strength of the Conservative Party in Wales, the rise in support for Plaid and the appearance of UKIP as a serious player in Welsh Politics means that Labour faces  threats from three sides to its position in Wales.