What are the Welsh Conservatives conserving? The answer to that is key to their success in 2021
Ifan Morgan Jones
Here’s a left-field hypothesis for you: Wales is made up of three conservative parties.
And no, I’m not including the Brexit Party, UKIP or other smaller right-wing parties – I mean the main three parties that make up the bulk of our elected Welsh Parliament.
The Conservatives, Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru are all in their own way conservative parties, just that they’re conserving a different set of voters’ understanding of what it means to be Welsh (and British).
It’s become something of a cliche from overuse, but Dennis Balsom’s ‘Three Wales model’ proposed in 1985 remains very true.
These three parties, which between them hoover up some 85% or so of the total vote, are successful in their own geographical domains because they speak to voters’ gut feeling of who they are.
Labour’s power has not really been challenged in Wales because of the fundamental fact that of the three parts of Wales – Welsh Wales, British Wales and Y Fro Gymraeg – they represent the biggest slice.
The parties can announce whatever policies they want, without much overall impact. Not even the growth in support for as big a constitutional upheaval as independence is going to change the polling very much, because the sense of belonging is rooted at a deeper, emotional, tribal level.
The only party to be at all successful in growing its support base in Wales in recent times has been the Conservatives, because since 2016 they have spoken not of logic and policy but purely on an emotional, cultural level.
They used Brexit – and Remainers’ criticism of not just Brexit but those who voted for it – as a crowbar to pull supporters away.
What they said to voters was that ‘Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems – they’re not like you. They look down their noses at you. They think you’re stupid. We represent you.’
I should stress that I don’t think this was any kind of master plan on their part. Brexit was something that happened to the Conservative party, like the other main parties. But they were at least better position and canny enough to take advantage of it.
This emphasis on values and belonging also, I think, explains why Plaid Cymru has struggled for so long to make any progress beyond its Fro Gymraeg heartlands. It has consistently attempted to outflank Labour on policy, without realising that a much stronger glue held their vote together.
Plaid Cymru’s problem isn’t their policies or their stance on constitutional issues but that a lot of Welsh people just feel at a gut level that they don’t represent people like them.
That’s a problem they not only have failed to crack but haven’t really tried to crack – to the point where I’m not sure that they have even realised what the problem is.
However I think that after their success in wooing elements within Welsh Wales on Brexit, it’s now the Conservatives’ turn to have a wobble, and for many of the same reasons.
Having had their tanks on Labour’s lawn they are now going into reverse. And that’s due to two main issues that will likely dominate the Senedd election in May – Covid-19 and the future of the Senedd itself.
Like the Conservatives on the issue of Brexit, Labour did not of course plan on Covid-19. But the issue of health is one that speaks deeply to the values of Welsh Wales and so, intentionally or not, they have seen a big electoral boost as a result if it. The polls on the issue do not lie.
Labour have sometimes threatened to give the initiative back to the Conservatives on subjects such as the ban on non-essential items and alcohol in pubs.
It has prompted many to stop and ask ‘hang on, do these politicians actually understand me, and my life?’
But to be honest, I don’t even think it matters that much how good a job Labour do in handling the crisis in terms of outcomes. The important thing is how they’re perceived to have handled it, with their voters’ health at the forefront.
In this case, Professor Drakeford’s reassuring tone and emphasis on peoples’ good health above all other considerations have hit all the right buttons. It has said to voters in Wales, ‘your values are our values’.
The Welsh Conservatives meanwhile have continued to plug away at a lockdown-sceptical stance throughout the crisis. How has it worked out for them? In January they led 35% to 33% in the Senedd polls – they’re now behind 27% to 38%.
The second issue on which I think the Conservatives are in danger of losing that emotional attachment with votes is that of the future of the Senedd itself.
Once again I think there is a danger of thinking of the issue of the future of the Welsh Government and Parliament in purely logical terms – does it cost too much money? Has it led to better outcomes in terms of health and education?
But the future of the Senedd isn’t an issue that people think of logically – it’s one they think about emotionally. And all the polls show that a majority very much favour not just of the continued existence of a devolved government in Wales but more powers, too.
Despite the Abolish campaign being compared to the Brexit campaign, the shoe is very much on the other foot – people had an emotional distaste for the EU and on this issue have an emotional attachment to the Senedd.
And it’s a dangerous issue for the Welsh Conservatives because, having won over many in ‘Welsh Wales’, they are here in danger of signalling to those same voters that they’re not on their side.
The irony is that on this issue I think the Conservative leader, Paul Davies, actually gets it. His article on the Gwydir blog over the summer articulated very clearly what it means to be a Welsh Conservative rooted in Welsh culture and identity in the successful Bourne-Melding tradition.
For whatever reason, however, the loudest voices in his party at the moment seem to be those in the quasi-abolish camp. The failure of Jonathan Morgan, a former MS, to even be chosen as a candidate for May’s election suggests that much.
Ultimately, the Welsh Conservatives have a strategic choice – make inroads into ‘Welsh Wales’ as they did in the 2019 election or focus on maximising their vote among their ‘British Wales’ base.
In they do the latter, they may well have a comparatively successful election in May of next year, but they won’t be the largest party and they won’t be in government.
So what are the Conservatives conserving? Are they conserving Wales, or abolishing it? And is it even possible to be a conservative party for all of Wales, or only part of it at a time?
The answers to these questions are likely to be key to their success or failure in 2021.