Why did Labour do better in Wales than in England? You might not like the answer

Incumbency undoubtedly helped the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, but was there another cause?

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In an election in which Labour held on to Delyn but lost Dudley, one has to wonder: why did Labour do better in Wales than in England? What can English Labour learn from Welsh Labour?

Delyn is both a Senedd and UK parliamentary constituency. In the 2019 general election the UK seat fell to the Conservatives by a margin of two points, but in the Senedd fight earlier this month, it held firm for Labour by a margin of 14 points. 

Welsh Labour's successes cannot be solely attributed to differences in turnout between 2019 and 2021. Across the border, council votes in Dudley in 2021 swung convincingly to the Conservatives on a similar scale to that seen in the two parliamentary seats in the 2019 general election. 

So what happened? Here are two theories: one in which there’s little Labour can do, besides winning an election; and one where it actually can do something, if it wants to. 

1. Incumbency

From the high-profile victors of the English mayoral fights to the unshaken hold of the SNP in Holyrood and the Conservatives in Westminster, the incumbent advantage is clear. That advantage extended to council seats within areas overseen by popular incumbant mayors. 

For example, in Greater Manchester, which is under the mayoralty of the Labour firebrand Andy Burnham, Labour council candidates did generally better than the polls and neighbouring non-mayoral influenced fights would have suggested. 

Take Bury, a borough that voted by a hefty margin for Burnham. In one of Bury's parliamentary constituencies that swung Tory in 2019, Labour came out on top this month. If these votes were cast in a general election, Labour would have been making net parliamentary gains in Greater Manchester.

Incumbency – and a down-ticket boost from being associated with a high-profile political leader – does appear to have been a real factor in these election results. It is reasonable to assume this worked in Welsh Labour’s favour, too. Mark Drakeford gained a heightened profile during the Covid crisis, and in one of the final few polls before the election he had a 19-point lead over his Tory counterpart on the question of who would make the best First Minister.

Of those with an opinion, Drakeford was far out the favourite among voters as preferred First Minister
Opinium, 9-19 Apr

On perceptions of competence regarding how Drakeford has handled the pandemic, he has also scored well. 

Being a status quo politician capable of steering the nation during a period of crisis has been an undoubted help, if you can command and communicate that confidence to the voters. It appears Drakeford succeeded in doing that. 

2. Identity

It’s no secret that Labour in England has an Englishness problem. Voters who plumped for English over British in the 2011 census were more prone to voting Leave in the 2016 referendum. Such voters tend to identify with sentiments such as patriotism and believing in Brexit, rather than sticking to the rigidity of party politics. 

When sentiment matters more in enthusing electors than policy, being in-tune with that electorate on those key issues is a necessity. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, at a time when 61 per cent of the UK public identify as patriotic but just 40 per cent associate that term with Labour (compared to 55 per cent for the Conservatives), that the party is struggling.

Six in ten Brits identity as patriotic, and only 40 per cent associate the term with Labour
YouGov survey (Feb 2021) asking respondents to identity on the scale how [X] is patriotic

Put simply, the Conservatives are seen as more in-touch with the public on identity than Labour.

But patriotism means different things to different people, and while Labour in England has been unsuccessful at tackling this problem, there’s data to suggest it’s not quite as big an issue for Labour in Wales.

Welsh Labour, unlike its English and Scottish counterparts, has been more successful in its attempts to retain its support in the areas and demographics it was winning ten or so years ago. Its support has ebbed and flowed, but Welsh Senedd elections have yet to mirror the English Johnsonian realignment of 2019.

What is key about Welsh Labour is that voters regard it as a Welsh party, and not necessarily a British one. Though Labour doesn’t own the Welsh identity, it’s not seen by voters as being in opposition to it. 

The “patriotism problem” among Leave voters in Wales seems much more muted compared to that seen across the rest of Britain. Polls in the run-up to election day suggested that Labour in Wales was on course to win close to 30 per cent of those who voted Leave in 2016. This data-point is very different to the 10 per cent the party is currently forecast to win across Britain under Starmer.

As Chris Curtis from Opinium points out, the Tories in Wales haven’t succeeded in owning the Leave brand as they have in England. Leave and Ukip voters predominantly motivated by sentiments of patriotism don't feel the need to actively oppose Welsh Labour as some voters of a similar bent do with English Labour. Welsh Labour, for a variety of reasons, with one perhaps being that the party is better associated with Welshness than English Labour is with Englishness, is not seen as big a threat to those particular votes as English Labour is.

How much does this matter? Like it or not, these are voters the Labour Party needs. One key takeaway from the local elections is that, like a badly constructed tent, Labour’s support has been sagging quite drastically in one corner. Its support needs to be broader and well-established across all corners, and retaining merely the youthful, the renting, the affluent urban and the professional is no election-winning scheme when towns such as Hartlepool have grown increasingly older and engaged more in the business of home ownership.

That “broad church” of a coalition cannot succeed by merely maximising turnout among the young and middle class; there’s not enough of them to win. Labour’s Leave problem must be allayed if it wants to govern in the 2020s.

Ukip’s Welsh base of 13 per cent in 2016 (both on the constituency and regional ballot) didn’t transfer neatly to the Conservatives in 2021. This may, true, be partly down to Drakeford's incumbency advantage this time around. But could it be that Ukip voters occupied primarily by issues of national identity did not feel repelled or threatened by Welsh Labour, as they so often do with English Labour?

There is evidence to suggest that Labour's success in Wales is indeed in part down to identity - but is the national party, and its commentators, ready to learn from it?

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman

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