Time to be counted

Detailed lowdown of what's going on in Wales

The most notable part of the Welsh Assembly election campaign so far is the exceptionally good weather. Canvassers have reported a good natured reception from electors basking in the sun, alas many of these voters still remain undecided as to how they will vote, if they vote at all, and a number have expressed a level of confusion as to what we all stand for. A confusion that is only enhanced by the huge amount of paper that has been thrown at them in many areas.

The most common comment on phone-ins is that very few people have met a real politician in the flesh, and there is a certain truth to that as the parties work out their differences on the television, radio, the internet and through letterboxes. The problem is that a large chunk of Wales does not watch Welsh TV or read a Welsh newspaper. As far as they are concerned it is 'election, what election?'

Despite all of that those voters I talk to, and I have been on doorsteps every night since the beginning of March, are anxious to engage with the politicians and take advantage of what the Assembly can do for them. Most are now familiar with the fact that there are two ballot papers and are showing signs of thinking quite deeply as to how they use this double opportunity. It seems clear to me that there will be an increased turnout but how this will impact upon the result is anybody's guess.

The absence of regular polling as in Scotland means that both politicians and media are working in a vacuum. Those polls that have been published are largely contradictory and every time I speak to an opposition politician they express genuine puzzlement as to how the pollsters could have secured the outcome they did. One senior Labour Assembly Member contesting a marginal seat told me that he could find no evidence of a swing to Plaid Cymru at all despite the fact that a recent poll shows the nationalists as being ready to consolidate their position as the second largest party. He and other Labour Party AMs repeat the mantra that their vote is solid and that the Labour meltdown forecast by many will not come about at all.

The truth is most probably somewhere in between. My experience is that there is a certain level of disillusionment with Labour and that people are turning away from them. In many instances this will result in an abstention, in many others it will translate into a vote for the dominant opposition party in a constituency. Labour will lose seats but the impact of those losses will be largely offset by gains at a regional level. It is possible that Labour will end up with no constituency seats at all in the Mid and West Wales region for example. The outcome in my view is that Labour will remain the largest party with between 24 and 26 seats.

What is interesting about this campaign is the way that David Cameron's reformed Conservatives have failed to gel with the electorate. There is no doubt that they will pick up constituency seats such as Cardiff North, but by no means certain that they will gain everything that they expect. Their little local difficulty in Clwyd West, where their candidate called for schools to teach creationism as part of science classes for example, may well be enough to allow Labour's Alun Pugh to survive what a few weeks ago seemed a certain loss. I think that on balance Plaid will just pip the Tories in the number of Assembly seats.

Prospects for the Welsh Liberal Democrats look good. Gains by other parties will enable us to pick up one or two regional seats, whilst the constituency of Ceredigion still remains on a knife edge. Our vote will be up once more and we will increase the size of our Assembly group.

In many ways the most interesting times look to be the weeks after the election during which various parties will be vying for a piece of the action in any future coalition government. Although the presence of a limited proportional voting system means that coalitions are mostly inevitable that does not mean that all politicians and party members accept the reality of that situation. Already we have seen parties trying to limit their own options prior to the election so as to avoid losing votes. How it will all end up is not down to us but to the electorate.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.