If there has been one place where the Labour party could normally count on to provide it with good news it has been Wales. Last December we passed the centennial anniversary of the last time anyone other than Labour came first in a general election in Wales. Even when times have been very tough for the party, such as in 1983, they have managed to hold on to a majority of Welsh parliamentary seats.
But the times appear to be changing. In May, Labour experienced an unprecedented defeat in the European Parliamentary election. This was only the second time since 1918 that the party had failed to win a Wales-wide election – the other time being the 2009 Europeans when, at the very lowest of Gordon Brown’s low points, Labour were narrowly edged out for first place by the Conservatives.
In this year’s European election, Welsh Labour were not merely defeated, they were trounced: finishing well behind the Brexit Party, and also trailing in the wake of Plaid Cymru. This was the first time the Welsh nationalists had ever finished ahead of Labour across the rest of Wales.
This week is likely to deepen the gloom in Welsh Labour. A new Welsh Political Barometer poll, conducted by YouGov for ITV-Wales and Cardiff University, is published today. Put simply, it is the worst set of polling results ever experienced by the Labour party in Wales. The traditionally dominant party leads on none of the voting intention measures: they trail the Conservatives for Westminster and, again for the first time ever, are behind Plaid Cymru on both ballots for the National Assembly. Labour’s vote in Wales has collapsed in 2019: as recently as December the party remained well ahead, but it has lost half its electoral support in the last seven months.
The bad polling news for Labour does not end there. The new poll also asked voters to rate the main UK and Welsh party leaders on a 0-10 popularity scale. None of the leaders exactly does well on these measures (“Politicians in Unpopularity Shock”). But Jeremy Corbyn does particularly badly, trailing well behind Boris Johnson, Jo Swinson and even Nigel Farage on average ratings. Among the Welsh party leaders, Mark Drakeford also fares poorly. More than half the sample, some 52 percent, simply responded “Don’t Know” when asked to rate the man who has been Welsh First Minister since early December. And those who did have a view about Drakeford did not tend to respond positively: he averaged only 3.5 out of ten, a significant decline since a similar poll in May, and well behind Plaid Cymru’s leader, Adam Price (who averaged 4.7).
The bad news is likely to continue for Welsh Labour later this week. Thursday’s by-election in Brecon and Radnor comes in a seat that Labour held from 1939-79 (albeit on slightly different, and more favourable, boundaries). This week it, the summit of the party’s ambition would appear to be saving its deposit and finishing in a distant fourth (and thus ahead of UKIP and the Monster Raving Loony party.) The constituency poll conducted by Matt Singh of Number Cruncher Politics suggests that even the first of those ambitions cannot be guaranteed.
In these febrile political times, we should be particularly careful about predicting the future or drawing implications from a single poll. And no-one should under-estimate the resilience of the Welsh Labour party: you don’t get to dominate the politics of a nation for a century without having some serious staying power. The 2017 general election campaign began with a poll that showed the Conservative ten points ahead of Labour in Wales; by the end of the campaign, Welsh Labour were resurgent.
But all hegemonies eventually come to an end. And the sense of the political tectonic plates shifting in Wales at the moment is tangible.