As it did in 2017, the first Welsh opinion poll of the general election campaign suggests the Conservatives are on course for substantial gains – and Labour significant losses. Wales has long been Labour’s ultimate bastion; the party has come first in the country, in both seats and in votes, for the last 26 general elections. A Conservative swing could contribute towards a parliamentary majority for Boris Johnson.
The poll suggests things are very close between the two parties: just a single-point lead for Labour in Wales – a poor forecast compared to the 15-point lead that Labour enjoyed in June 2017. Were the Tories to pick up nine seats directly from Labour, as the poll suggests they could, it could give the electoral map of Wales a distinctly different hue.
But compared to where the campaign started in 2017 – when the first poll gave the Tories a ten-point advantage in Wales – this is relatively good news for Labour. Most of the seats currently projected to change hands between Labour and Conservatives are on a knife-edge: only a small swing back to Labour would mean they remained red. And given the highly successful fightback that Welsh Labour managed in 2017, much of the party will fancy their chances of turning things around again.
Might it be different this time? The political context could be a disadvantage to Labour. This time around they aren’t fighting Theresa May, who began the last general election as the most popular politician in Wales (pretty much unprecedented for an English Conservative), but ended the campaign as the much-derided “Maybot”. We don’t yet know how good Boris Johnson will be at fighting a general election, but we already have plenty of evidence that he can be a formidable campaigner. Can Jeremy Corbyn repeat his performance with Welsh voters during this campaign? He managed an astonishing turnaround in public attitudes within a few weeks in the early summer of 2017. Managing that a second time would be equally astonishing.
A further complication for any possible Labour surge is the rebirth of the Liberal Democrats. In 2017, much of Labour’s enhanced support came from younger, pro-Remain voters. The party has much more serious competition for this part of the electorate now: not only Plaid Cymru in Wales and the SNP in Scotland, but also the Greens and the Lib-Dems. These parties have all taken a more clearly pro-Remain stance than Labour, and they are now competing hard for that portion of the electorate.
The electoral landscape in Wales might also be tougher for Labour to crack than it was in 2017. This is not so much to do with the Welsh Conservatives; some of their 2017 weaknesses are still apparent today. As their former Assembly leader, Andrew RT Davies, observed in 2017, the Tories in Wales lack clear leadership. That is partly a matter of structure – effective leadership is divided between the Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns, the Welsh Assembly leader Paul Davies, and the Chair of the Welsh Party Byron Davies. But even if there was a single leadership position in place, there is no Welsh Tory who would have anything like the cut-through with voters that Ruth Davidson managed for the Scottish Conservatives in 2017.
But Welsh Labour is in a different place from two years ago. In 2017, Welsh Labour made every effort to stress their distinctiveness from the party in London. The branding throughout the campaign was heavily Welsh, and its Welsh Leader, first minister Carwyn Jones, lead very effectively, with formidable campaigning skills. Jones retired from the political frontline last year. His successor, Mark Drakeford, is a very different sort of politician. Though Drakeford excels in his command of policy details, even his strongest supporters would concede that he looks deeply uncomfortable when dealing with the public-facing side of politics. Drakeford’s first major electoral test came in May, with the European elections. It delivered Labour’s worst electoral performance in Wales since before World War One – being defeated not only by the Brexit Party, but also – for the first time ever in a Wales-wide ballot – by Plaid Cymru.
In short – the good news for Labour MPs and candidates in Wales is that they are starting the campaign in a significantly better place than they did in 2017. The less good news is that a large number of Labour-held Welsh seats hang in the balance. And perhaps the worst news of all is that, in the fight to win those seats, the party can depend less on its Welsh leadership than it could in 2017.