The electoral pendulum is in full swing in Wales. Only in the course of last few months have the polls gone from showing a narrow Labour lead to suggesting a historic Conservatives’ majority to indicating a Labour triumph. Whether a lot of Welsh voters will wake up on June the 9th feeling blue because the country is not blue enough or too blue seems to be anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain, this is gearing up to be one of the most unpredictable elections in Wales.
Labour and Wales go hand in hand. Or at least that is what we have become to think. After all, this is the party that has been so central to the political life of the nation that the state of one-partyism has earned Wales the nickname LabourLand. It has won most parliamentary seats in Wales at every general election since 1922 and wiped out the Conservatives in Wales as recently as in 2001 (with some help from the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru). Welsh Labour has not exactly been doing badly either, having been the largest party in the National Assembly for Wales ever since its establishment in the late 1990s.
Public opinion data from the Welsh Political Barometer, however, suggests that June the 8th may bring us a surprise. The first two polls that YouGov conducted since Theresa May called the snap general election showed the Conservatives ahead of Labour for the first time in Wales in the YouGov voting intention surveys. While Labour has regained the lead in the most recent poll, there is still everything to play for in Wales. The table below presents voting intention figures from the recent Welsh Political Barometers (see also the Elections in Wales blog by Roger Scully and the Welsh Political Barometer).
The story unfolding here is twofold. On the one hand, support for the Conservatives and Labour is very fluid. There has undoubtedly been a resurgence of Labour support over the last couple weeks in Wales, as has been the case across Britain, but the Conservatives are still very much in the game. If they can bring the debate back to Brexit and strong leadership, there is every possibility that we may see a return to the early May polling figures. On the other hand, the smaller parties continue to be squeezed. Ukip support has dropped considerably in last few months, far from its 13.6% vote share of 2015. Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, however, have not been able to capitalise on the collapse of Ukip support and remain stagnant in opinion polls. It is the Conservatives who are benefiting from the declining Ukip vote.
What the Conservatives need to do to make history in Wales?
First, talk about Brexit and immigration. Wales of course voted leave in June last year, to the tune of 52.5% to 47.5%, and concerns about immigration are high in the country. This is an area where the Conservatives have an advantage. The leader of Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies, campaigned for a leave vote, Theresa May was not the most prominent remain supporter, and the Conservatives have retained the pledge to cut immigration figures. This is in stark contrast to Labour whose plans reject imposing ‘bogus immigration targets’ and had 47 of its MPs voting against the triggering of Article 50.
Second, make it personal. There is a reason why Leanne Wood suggested that Jeremy Corbyn has been ‘airbrushed’ out of the election campaign in Wales. Jeremy Corbyn’s poll ratings remain uninspiring. The Welsh Political Barometer conducted in early May asked voters to rate party leaders on a 0-10 scale, with higher scores meaning more positive evaluations. Theresa May beat Jeremy Corbyn by 0.9 points, 4.6 to 3.7. The Prime Minister is an electoral asset for the Conservatives in Wales and one should not be surprised if Welsh voters hear a lot more about how ‘strong and stable’ her leadership will be.
Third, continue to pick up the Ukip vote. It is hard to see Ukip turning around their slide in the polls. Neil Hamilton and Paul Nuttall are consistently among the least liked party leaders among Welsh voters and there are no obvious target seats in Wales for Ukip to pour resources in. The Conservatives’ lines of being tough on immigration and offering strong leadership are resonating with many who voted Ukip in 2015. They just need to stay on message.
Which seats to watch?
Bridgend has to be on top of the list. Not only is Labour defending a small majority of 1,927 (4.9%), but their candidate Madelaine Moon was one of the Labour MPs who voted against triggering Article 50. Facing a constituency that voted for Brexit by 54.6% to 45.4% this is likely to be exploited by the Conservatives. If the Conservatives could win over just a half of Ukip’s 5,911 votes, which opinion polls suggest is within their reach, Bridgend could very well turn blue. What a statement would it be to take the seat in the back yard of Labour’s First minister of Wales Carwyn Jones.
Another intriguing seat to keep an eye on is Ynys Môn. Labour took it from Plaid Cymru in 2001 and Albert Jones has kept it since. However, despite having a well-known and popular incumbent, Labour’s majority dropped to just 229 votes in 2015 and we should not be too surprised if the seat returns to Plaid Cymru. It is a top target for the party and their intentions are clear, having chosen the former party leader Ieuan Wyn Jones to fight the seat.
Gower is the most marginal seat in the United Kingdom, with Byron Davies defending a lead of 27. Not only that. It is a constituency that had been held by Labour for over a century until they lost it in 2015. A traditional Labour stronghold in South Wales, it should be at the top of their target list and one that they surely hope to regain. Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister, has already visited the constituency and he is unlikely to remain the last high profile Labour politician to make the trip there.
Note: This blog post was published in Ballots and Bullets on 24/05/2017.