Welsh voters appear to be focusing on issues that are better for Labour

A fightback is underway, but there should be no premature celebration from Labour supporters.

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We didn’t plan it like that. On the same day that the Conservatives launched their Welsh manifesto – alongside an appearance by Boris Johnson at the Royal Welsh Show’s Winter Fair, conveniently located in the key Tory target seat of Brecon and Radnor – the team behind the Welsh Political Barometer polls published its latest offering.

The poll (conducted by YouGov for ITV Wales and Cardiff University) showed Labour support in Wales rising nine points since the previous poll at the start of the campaign, and putting in considerable doubt the large-scale Welsh Conservative gains that had hitherto appeared plausible.

We seem to have been here before. The first two Welsh polls of the 2017 general election campaign gave the Conservatives significant advantages, before Labour surged back and ended up actually gaining three Tory seats. Is the same thing happening – and, if so, why?

As psephologists customarily caution in such contexts, it is just one poll. However, the latest Welsh evidence has been supported in the last 24 hours by other, Britain-wide, polls that have suggested at least some modest tightening of the race. And other aspects of the poll also contain some more encouraging news for Labour.

The latest Welsh poll repeated a question contained in its predecessor, in which respondents were asked to choose up to the three issues (from a long list) that would be “the most important issues for you at the next General Election”. Brexit remained top of the list, but the percentage of Welsh respondents choosing this as one of their three top issues had actually fallen slightly since the start of the campaign. The largest change was an eight-point rise in the percentage selecting health. This is surely good news for Labour: for all that some might criticise its running of the devolved NHS in Wales, health remains a better issue for Labour than the Conservatives, and it becoming more salient to more voters will help them. Elsewhere in the poll, the salience of the environment had nudged upwards, while there were falls for immigration and asylum, and also for crime. Welsh voters appear to be edging towards a greater focus on issues that are safer territory for Labour.

The new Welsh poll also suggested that the personal surge in Jeremy Corbyn’s ratings seen in 2017 may, in slightly more muted form, be occurring again. Back in October, when the Welsh Political Barometer asked Welsh voters to rate how much they liked various prominent politicians, the leader of the opposition averaged just 3 out 10. As Corbyn has moved away from Westminster and back to the campaign trail, where he is visibly more comfortable, voters have started to respond: his average rating has moved up to 3.4.

This is hardly the height of popularity: the Labour leader is still not averaging even four out of ten! But what was, a month ago, a full-point popularity gap with Boris Johnson has now been eliminated. It is a similar story on a straight “best prime minister” question, where what was a 15-point advantage for Boris Johnson at the start of the month (41 per cent to 26, with the remainder choosing "don’t know") has now been reduced to a mere five points (with 38 percent of Welsh respondents selecting the current incumbent as the best PM, 33 per cent Mr Corbyn, and the rest opting for don’t know).

Pretty much the entire rise in Labour support, and most of the boost in Jeremy Corbyn’s personal ratings, appears to have come from younger voters. (That is "younger" defined quite generously – to mean all those under 50.) The huge age group differentials in party support seen in 2017 are, the latest Welsh poll strongly suggests, starting to re-emerge; meanwhile, Corbyn’s personal rating has risen almost two points out of ten among those in the 18-24 age group. Such voters lean heavily towards Remain on the Brexit issue, and it was them deserting Labour in the first half of 2019 that produced much of the party’s slide in the opinion polls. Now many of them appear to be willing to return to Labour. Meanwhile, of 2017 voters who are still undecided, significantly more in the latest Welsh poll were 2017 Labour voters rather than Conservatives, suggesting significant potential scope for the party to convert such waverers.

There should be no premature celebration by Labour supporters. A six-point advantage over the Conservatives in Wales is still not yet a great poll for Labour. On a uniform swing projection, the latest results still have the Tories gaining four Welsh seats from Labour – along with recapturing the Brecon and Radnor seat lost in last August’s by-election that would give the Welsh Conservatives twelve seats, which would be their best haul since the 1983 Thatcher landslide. And Welsh Labour are missing one very strong card which they played for all it was worth in 2017: a Welsh leader, in former first minister Carwyn Jones, who was a popular and effective election campaigner. His replacement, Mark Drakeford, struggles to have anything like the same impact. But unless our new Welsh poll has got things horribly wrong, the Labour fightback in its ultimate bastion seems to be well and truly underway.

Roger Awan-Scully is Head of Politics and International Relations at Cardiff University.