In the run-up to one of the most remarkable General Elections in recent years, Welsh politics-watchers were preparing themselves for a seismic shift.
The early earthquake warnings had come on April 24th, when a YouGov pre-election opinion poll carried out by the Wales Governance Centre forecast that the Conservatives were on track to win the majority of Parliamentary seats in Wales.
That poll made the unprecedented prediction that an astonishing 40% of Welsh voters were going to vote Conservative – with only 30% expected to vote Labour. By any measure, this was to be total re-modelling of the political landscape of Wales. It was going to be the first time since the 1800s that the Conservatives would hold the majority of Parliamentary seats west of Offa’s Dyke.
The Tories were on course, according to the poll, to win 10 seats from Labour, comprising Alyn & Deeside, Bridgend, Cardiff South & Penarth, Cardiff West, Clwyd South, Delyn, Newport East, Newport West, Wrexham and Ynys Mon. Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru were forecast not to make any gains, and nor were the Lib Dems.
However, the snag with political earthquakes is that – like real earthquakes – there can be more than just one quake.
And in this election, there certainly was.
Every single catastrophe and calamity that occurred during the campaign seemed to be etched in the Prime Minister’s face as she re-entered Downing Street. As far as seismic events were concerned, she and her party had not only failed to gain the anticipated 100-seat landslide, but had lost their overall majority.
In Wales, three Tory seats – Gower, Cardiff North and the Vale of Clwyd – were lost to Labour. Prominent Welsh Tory figures such as Alun Cairns and Stephen Crabb saw their majorities slashed whilst key Conservative targets such as Bridgend, Newport West, Newport East, Cardiff West and Wrexham remained resolutely red.
So where did it go wrong for the Conservatives? What led to such a dramatic revival in Labour’s fortunes?
Certainly the Conservative manifesto was to prove to be more of a liability than an asset to the campaign. Proposed reform of the laws on fox hunting repelled some voters – but far more were startled by the proposed ending of the triple lock on pensions, the planned introduction of means-testing for winter fuel payments and, most controversially of all, the reforms to social care that Labour spinners dubbed “the Dementia Tax”.
Meanwhile, Labour moved in on voters at the other end of the age scale: students. A huge campaign got underway to persuade students to register to vote. In a poll of 1000, HEPI found that for the General Election students had not only registered to vote in large numbers but were also “less likely than the electorate as a whole to back the Conservatives”.
At the outset of the campaign the Welsh Labour Party had been fully persuaded that Jeremy Corbyn was unelectable. First Minister Carwyn Jones had said “we are under no illusion that Labour has a mountain to climb in this election. We know Jeremy needs to prove himself to the electorate here in Wales”.
In fact, on the odd occasion Jeremy Corbyn did come to Wales during the campaign, his visits were kept relatively low profile. And as the campaign progressed and his poll ratings improved, it looks as though that this “unelectable”, “Marxist” leader maybe wasn’t so unelectable after all.
Welsh Labour, meanwhile, heavily promoted its own separate “Welsh Labour” brand and published its own separate party manifesto promising a range of goodies, from tidal lagoons, to rail electrification, to devolved policing.
By contrast, the Welsh Conservative manifesto contained very little by way of weighty policy promises. Projects about which announcements were eagerly anticipated – the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, Wylfa Newydd on Anglesey, the Circuit of Wales in Blaenau Gwent – went without a mention. The only headline Welsh giveaway was the scrapping of the Severn Bridge tolls, a commitment matched by Labour.
Political observers also noted a number of missteps from the Conservatives during the campaign. Choosing Wrexham to announce the u-turn on social care – a policy that didn’t even apply in Wales – was one. Another was announcing the scrapping of the Severn Bridge tolls in the same North East Wales seat. How many local electors would benefit from this policy announcement?
In three different Welsh Leaders’ debates, viewers were presented with three different Conservative spokesmen, whereas First Minister Carwyn Jones consistently took the podium each time for Labour. Indeed, there was an alleged row within the Conservatives over who should take part in the final Wales Leaders’ TV debate – leaving Darren Millar, Tory education spokesman in the Assembly, to deputise at the last minute.
It was not only the Conservatives who did badly in Wales. The UKIP vote collapsed, and the Lib Dems lost Ceredigion, their one remaining seat, to Plaid Cymru, who increased their total number of MPs from three to four. This one gain may be enough to shore up Leanne Wood’s position in the short term, but Plaid will nonetheless be worried by poor finishes in other target seats.
So what next for Wales in the wake of a hung Parliament and the commencement of Brexit negotiations? At an event at the Pierhead building in Cardiff Bay on 19th June, Newgate co-hosted a panel discussion with the Institute of Welsh Affairs that aimed to answer this question.
Ably chaired by ITV Wales’ Adrian Masters, with contributions from Auriol Miller of the IWA, David Melding AM, Huw Irranca Davies AM, Dr Rachel Minto from the Wales Governance Centre, and Newgate’s Sian Jones, the ninety minute discussion covered a huge range of topics – from how best Wales’ voice can be heard in the Brexit negotiations, to the Queen’s Speech, to whether the current crop of Welsh political leaders will still be in place come the next General Election, whenever that may be.
What does seem clear is that, with the possibility of a second General Election hanging over her, Theresa May will be forced to adopt a more collegiate and consensual approach, both to Brexit and to policy making in general. That presents a significant opportunity for Wales and the other devolved nations to make their voices heard. There are already calls for any additional cash handouts to Northern Ireland as a result of a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to be matched in Wales and Scotland.
Meanwhile, the newly emboldened Welsh Labour Government’s positioning paper on Brexit, and the constitutional issues that flow from it, demonstrates the extent to which Labour politicians in Wales are exploiting this enhanced political leverage. And the calls from Welsh businesses for a Brexit that protects jobs and growth now appear – if the Chancellor’s Mansion House speech is anything to go by – to be being heard in the highest quarters.
Whatever the future holds, Wales is set to be an intriguing political battleground for the foreseeable future. One of the panellists in Monday’s discussion said that there was an “80 per cent chance” of another election within a year – a statistic that should strike fear into the heart of Conservative HQ. After decades of comfortable Labour dominance in Wales, delivering that longed-for majority of Welsh seats looks tougher for the Conservatives than ever. Only time will tell whether they have already blown the best chance they ever had.
by Siân Jones, Associate Partner at Newgate Communications and former Special Adviser to Philip Hammond MP