It is perilous to interpret any trends in last week’s extraordinary European Parliament election results in Wales. The low turn-out (30.4 per cent) and the fact that, because they are not about electing a government, Euro-elections invite the electorate to experiment, both mean that is dangerous to extrapolate the results in terms of future voting behaviour, whether for the next Westminster or Assembly elections.
However, some key themes are indisputable. First, multi-party politics in Wales – already affirmed by successive Assembly elections – are here to stay. The long 20th Century, from 1880, in which Welsh politics were overwhelmingly dominated by just one party, first the Liberals and then Labour, is history.
Secondly, Welsh politics are destined to become even more pluralistic. Although any extrapolations from European votes needs to come with a health warning, the message of last Thursday’s results are plain to see in a swathe of marginal constituencies across Wales. Welsh Labour has a two-fold problem. At Westminster (as in the National Assembly) Labour still remains the dominant incumbent, so it is the party with seats to lose. This is then exacerbated because it faces different opponents in different parts of Wales.
The most obvious beneficiary is the Welsh Conservatives. Most attention has been given to the fact that they overtook Labour for the first time ever in a democratic all-Wales election (winning 21.21 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 20.2 per cent, Plaid Cymru’s 18.5 per cent, UKIP’s 12.8 per cent, and the Lib Dems’ 10.6 per cent). But, more significantly for the outcome of the forthcoming Westminster election, on the evidence of European constituency results Welsh Conservatives look very likely, if not certain, to win Cardiff North, the Vale of Glamorgan, Carmarthen West, and probably the Vale of Clwyd. In all of these they were well ahead of Labour. Other Labour seats where they scored smaller majorities were Cardiff South and Penarth, Newport West, Wrexham, Alyn and Deeside, Delyn, Clwyd South, Bridgend, and Gower.
Down the western seaboard Plaid Cymru significantly out-performed Labour in its target seats – Ynys Mon, and Llanelli. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats threaten Labour in Newport East and Swansea West.
Unless the turmoil in the party persists so that some kind of melt-down occurs, Labour is still likely to emerge from the next Westminster election as the largest Welsh political force. However, it looks inevitable that it will drop from 29 to around 20 seats. The Conservatives are likely to increase their representation from their present three to around ten or even twelve. Plaid Cymru, currently three, will have five or six seats, and the Liberal Democrats, currently four, between one and three seats (on last week’s showing Plaid are likely to beat them them in Ceredigion, and the Conservatives threaten both their Montgomery and Brecon and Radnor seats).
How are we to interpret the Conservative advance for the future of Welsh politics and the reality of Welsh society in the coming decades? The last time they were near their current level of strength was in the early 1980s. In the 1983 Westminster election, which was also disastrous for Labour, they won 32 per cent of the Welsh vote and took 14 seats. At first glance the historian Gwyn Alf Williams’ commentary soon afterwards, seems wholly applicable to present circumstances. Writing in 1985, in his celebrated book When Was Wales, he declared:
“It is clear now that over the past dozen years and more, Wales has become a right wing country which is moving relentlessly to the right in its politics. No doubt the roots lie in the profound and swift social changes which have accompanied the major adjustments of an increasingly capitalist economy in its British theatre. These began to operate in the mid-sixties but did not fully register in public awareness until the late seventies. The old basic industries have virtually collapsed, miners and steelworkers between them are now hardly 6 per cent of the working population. Pit closures on the grand scale without doubt powered much of the sixties rebellion. The intense class and community consciousness of the former mining valleys can resurface in a striking manner during crises which evoke memories, but by and large has dissolved. Women have entered the working population en masse and now constitute 45 per cent of it; most of them employed as an under-class of low-paid, under organised labour subject to a gender discrimination rooted not least in the very cultural formation of the historic Welsh working class itself. Families and regions struggle to maintain their hold on the prosperity of the last two decades which, in spite of mounting unemployment and mounting pressure on the poor, persists among those with jobs. The massive extension of consumer capitalism, its imagery and its values, its sweeping advances in technology, the explosion in the information industries and the intensifying privatisation of existence around the television screen and the computer have generated attitudes and values remote from any of the recent traditions in Wales. There are whole new ranges of professional and technical people for whom some far horizons widen even as human society in Wales itself loses coherence. The radical changes in the family, the growth and subsequent dislocation of a specific youth culture, the rise of feminism, have broken many patterns. Overall, there was increasing frustration and humiliation at apparently inescapable economic failure and national inadequacy which made a mockery of all social projects and bred a yearning for a decisive change of direction. A society which in Wales had been cast in a distinctive and peculiar mould was dissolving into something new.”
Much of this could surely describe our present day circumstances in Wales. At one level it is as though Gwyn Alf Williams was ahead of his time and it is only now that our politics are finally catching up with the fundamental socio-economic transformation he describes. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that that ‘yearning for a decisive change of direction’ was answered in the referendum in 1997.
At that moment Wales did indeed “dissolve into something new” whose consequences we are presently living through. One is the nature of Welsh Conservatism and its political programme which is unrecognisable today compared with the mid 1980s when Gwyn Alf Williams was writing. The leaders of Welsh Conservatives in the National Assembly have now embraced devolution with more conviction than much of Welsh Labour and look destined to take it on to its next stage in the coming years. One indication is a forthcoming book by Conservative AM David Melding which the IWA will be publishing at the end of this month. Entitled Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020? it is a cogently argued case for Welsh nationhood in the context of a federal Britain.
Reviewing the book in the forthcoming Summer 2009 issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda, former Plaid Cymru AM and MP Cynog Dafis observes, “David Melding has produced a fine piece of work: erudite, stylish, lucid and elegant, logical, passionate yet suffused with a gentle and tolerant irony. In so doing he has seized the initiative on constitutional policy and thrown down the gauntlet to the political parties, challenging them to bring forward convincing alternatives to his compelling vision.”
I can’t imagine that even so prescient an historian as the late Gwyn Alf Williams could have foreseen that in the early part of the 21st Century Wales would be re-inventing itself once more by this particular route.