Opinion

Why Welsh Labour is such a potent electoral force

08 Mar 2021 6 minutes Read
Mark Drakeford. Picture by CPMR – Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Gareth Ceidiog Hughes

Labour has been the dominant political force in Wales for around a century.

Since the advent of devolution 22 years ago, it has handily won every election to our national parliament and therefore led every Welsh Government.

A slew of polls for the Senedd election have projected a number of potential outcomes. But according to those polls, even the worse case scenario for Welsh Labour puts it out in front by a considerable margin. It is not a matter of if it wins or not, but by how much.

If Labour were to win say only 25 seats in the election it would be considered a disaster. To win that many would be considered a triumph for or any of the other parties in the Senedd.

Even when you take into account that the electoral map has the distinct appearance of having been gerrymandered very much in its favour, the record is an impressive one. You can play a table tilted in your favour badly or you can play it well, and they have done the latter.

In many ways the strategy of Welsh Labour hasn’t changed all that much over the years. It was “clear red water” between Wales and Westminster back in the days of Rhodri Morgan, and it is clear red water now under Mark Drakeford (no surprise as Drakeford wrote the famous speech).

Back in the day, clear red water meant a rejection of Tony Blair’s New Labour brand – much to his chagrin.

Now it means Wales ploughing a different furrow with regards to Covid strategy and saying disobliging things about Boris Johnson.

The strongly worded letter strategy may not be much kop at defending the Senedd’s power and status when its powers are taken away. However, it does buttress the public perception that Labour is ‘standing up for Wales’ as it likes to put it. In that sense, it does the job.

The way in which the strategy is manifested has evolved, but the underlying principle is the same.

Today it is manifested in arguing for a kind of ‘muscular’ Home Rule or Radical Federalism, where the Senedd is recognised as a sovereign legislature. It has also embraced the Welsh language, though there are questions about whether it is doing enough in that regard. But the party is canny enough to understand that Welsh identity matters.

Labour’s tanks have been parked on Plaid Cymru’s lawn for so long that it looks like it’s been annexed. To be perfectly frank, the Party of Wales has been consistently outmanoeuvred, outplayed, and outfoxed.

Most attempts to outflank Labour have come to naught. Their flanks have been defended with tenacity and more than a little political dexterity.

Asset

Labour’s success in Wales was not inevitable. One only need to look at what has happened to the party’s fortunes in Scotland. where it has been equally dominant until the rise of the SNP, to understand that.

Welsh Labour has been far more adept than its Scottish counterpart, and Plaid has not been as impressive as its sister party.

According to Takeover: Explaining the extraordinary rise of the SNP, by Rob Johns, Scottish Labour didn’t perform as badly as is commonly assumed. They just didn’t do as well enough and certainly not as well as the SNP.

The authors analysed a huge amount of polling data for the book. It found that Scottish Labour had been seen as the party that was best placed to sand up for Scotland’s interests. But it was subsequently overtaken by the SNP on that front.

By 2011, 56 per cent of Scottish respondents in one poll agreed that Labour was standing up for Scotland, compared to a whopping 95 per cent for the SNP.

The way the SNP went about engineering this change in perception was by nailing Scottish Labour to Westminster. It effectively turned Westminster and Labour in Scotland into synonyms. The brand was toxified by the association.

The SNP also pulled ahead in terms of being perceived to be competent. It was able to allay fears that electing a pro-independence party would lead to chaos and a lot of work went in to creating the perception that it would behave responsibly in government.

If Plaid Cymru wants to succeed, then it has to toxify the Welsh Labour brand by nailing it to the Westminster establishment. It also has to project an image of competence, while making Labour look less so.

‘Look the part’ 

Fortunately for the Plaid Cymru, its leader Adam Price does look First Ministerial if there is such a thing. He does look the part.

Drakeford has become an electoral asset for the Labour Party, though it was not immediately apparent that this would be the case. He has the air of someone who is across the detail in an academically rigorous, professorial manner. And let’s be honest, he also has an adorable, avuncular, cheese-loving charm.

Because of the focus on devolution during the pandemic, he also has a name recognition that previous First Ministers could only dream of.

Welsh Labour’s record on Covid-19, just like its record in government in general, has been mixed. It was slow off the mark and slow to recognise the gravity of the situation. It also came out of the firebreak lockdown too quickly.

But all that really matters is that its record compares favourably to that of Boris Johnson in England, and importantly it is also perceived as such by the Welsh electorate. The Welsh Government’s record thus far on rolling out the vaccine has been nothing short of exemplary, and it would not be a surprise to see that pay at least electoral dividends. When it comes to perception of competence, the party isn’t in a bad place.

Nor is the party in a bad place when it comes to be seen to standing up for Wales. Welsh Labour has effectively plonked itself where the Welsh public is with regards to the constitution. It backs devolution and is pushing for more powers.

But the Welsh public is not static. It is on the move, and fast. The rise in support for independence presents a new challenge for the party. What if standing up for Wales and support for independence come to be seen as one and the same? Will the party back Wales, or stay hitched to the Westminster wagon?

Elastic can be stretched, but only so far. If you pull too hard, eventually it will break. All winning streaks must come to an end at some point, but I wouldn’t bet against Welsh Labour just yet.

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