A new opinion poll was published in Wales yesterday. As has been evident in Britain-wide polls for some time, the latest Welsh Political Barometer shows little change in the support levels of the main parties.
Although they have slipped a little from the heights of last June, Labour remain well ahead in Wales, for both Westminster and the National Assembly. Meanwhile, none of the opposition parties are making significant ground. December will mark a full century since the last general election where anyone defeated Labour in Wales, and there is no sign of the party’s dominance coming to an end.
With little change in the standing of the parties, almost all of the important politics happening in Wales is doing so within the Labour party – and in recent months, much of it has been ugly. The tragic death of Carl Sargeant in early November provoked very strong emotions and, within the party, a tangible decline in support for the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who had sacked Sargeant as a Welsh Government minister only days before he died.
What have the public made of all of this? Although Labour’s internal problems in Wales have had little evident impact on the party’s popularity, it’s a different story as far as the First Minister is concerned. Up until the last two months of the year, Jones had been enjoying a very successful 2017. His leadership during the Welsh Labour general election campaign left his standing within the party higher than ever, and he was similarly favoured by much of the public. In the final Welsh poll before last June’s election, Jones was the nation’s most popular politician.
The November barometer poll, conducted just weeks after tragedy struck, showed a sharp dip in Jones’ rating. On the 0-10 popularity scale used for party leaders in such polls, his average fell from 5.0 to 4.3 – a significant drop in only a few months, and one which placed him slightly behind both Jeremy Corbyn and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. The First Minister has long since been rightly regarded as an electoral asset to his party, but that status was now under threat. Perhaps of even greater importance was the sharper fall in Jones’ standing amongst Labour voters – dropping from an average of 6.5 out of ten in June 2017, to just 5.7 by November.
This latest poll offers some modest encouragement for Labour’s Welsh leader. His average rating has edged up marginally – reaching 4.5 among the general public, and 5.9 among Labour supporters. These are margin-of-error changes, but, at least for the First Minister, the numbers have moved in the right direction. Meanwhile, with Jeremy Corbyn’s standing with the public having edged downwards since the last poll, Jones once more shares, with Wood, the status of the most popular party leader in Wales.
What about the possible successors? With no current vacancy for Welsh Labour leader, there are no declared runners in any election race – although one or two individuals appear to be conducting “trial gallops”. The uncertainty over potential candidates forced the new Welsh poll to cast the net widely, asking respondents to rate six Labour assembly members – which, along with the current First Minister, equates to a quarter of all the party’s assembly members.
The clearest finding to come out of the poll is one of anonymity. As well as being able to place the potential leaders on a 0-10 scale, survey respondents could simply select a “Don’t Know” option. For all six possible Welsh Labour leaders, this was the majority response. While some respondents may have chosen this answer out of genuine uncertainty, in the aggregate the percentage of respondents choosing this option is a good measure of a politician’s public visibility. The percentage of the sample choosing this option ranged from 66 per cent for Vaughan Gething – the Welsh Health Minister, and thus someone who has a relatively high public profile for a devolved-level politician in Wales – to 75 per cent for the former MP, and current junior Welsh Government minister, Huw Irranca-Davies.
Even among the minority of survey respondents who did give a numerical response to the various potential Welsh Labour leadership candidates, suspiciously large numbers chose the half-way point on the 0-10 scale. To the – perhaps rather limited – extent that we can place confidence in the overall average ratings given to each individual, this is the league table:
Vaughan Gething: 4.4
Eluned Morgan: 4.3
Alun Davies: 4.2
Huw Irranca-Davies: 4.2
Ken Skates: 4.1
Mark Drakeford: 3.8
But perhaps it is more important to see what Labour voters think: this is the closest proxy available to the views of those who would have a vote in a leadership contest. But breaking the data down shows the visibility of the potential leadership candidates to be no better with Labour voters than the overall Welsh population. The relative rankings, among those proffering a view, also remain mostly similar – with Drakeford scoring the lowest average rating, 4.6 out of ten among Labour Westminster supporters. However, on this measure Morgan, averaging 5.3, and Skates, at 5.2, are marginally ahead of their potential competitors.
For Carwyn Jones, the most obvious positive takeaway from this poll is that none of the potential candidates to succeed him have captured the Welsh public’s imagination. Damaged, he undoubtedly is. But he remains a relatively popular figure amongst the electorate. And, as a man who led Welsh Labour to such a triumphant outcome at last year’s general election, none of those who might plausibly succeed him currently look likely to be as effective vote-winners for their party.