After the Brexit Party, could the Conservatives crack the Red Wall in South Wales?

17 May

On Friday, our Editor wrote up a list of Labour constituencies in England wherein the Brexit Party got at least ten per cent of the vote at the last election, and that was more than the Labour majority.

But the ‘Red Wall’ extends to Wales too – and in 2016 not only did UKIP win seven seats in the Assembly, but the Province actually voted Leave, to the horrified bafflement of its governing class.

So let’s have a look at the Welsh seats on the same basis as Paul yesterday. As before the format is: name; BP vote; Labour majority; BP vote share, BP position.

If we’re strict about the rule that the Brexit Party vote must exceed the majority, we get only one result:

  • Torfaen: 5,742   3,742   15.4 per cent   3rd

Even here, assigning half the 2019 total for the Brexit Party to the Conservatives doesn’t put the latter over the top – although it does cut Labour’s majority to less than 1,000 votes.

What if we set that side, and admit all the seats where the Brexit Party vote topped ten per cent? That yields another six:

  • Blaenau Gwent: 6,215   8,647   20.6 per cent   2nd
  • Caerphilly: 4,490   6,833   11.2 per cent   4th
  • Cynon Valley: 3,045   8,822   10.1 per cent   3rd
  • Islwyn: 4,834   5,464   14.1 per cent   3rd
  • Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney: 3,604   10,606   11.2 per cent   3rd
  • Rhondda: 3,773   11,440   12.6 per cent   4th

Once again, simply moving half the Brexit Party vote into the Tory column doesn’t see any seats changing hands. But similarly, we suddenly have some closer races. In Islwyn, the Labour majority falls to under 3,000 votes.

For the sake of not missing any potentially interesting seats, let’s expand our range a little and add Aberavon and Llanelli, where it polled over nine per cent, and Ogmore and Neath, where it polled over eight per cent. Here’s what we get:

  • Aberavon: 3,108   10,490   9.8 per cent   3rd
  • Llanelli: 3,605   4,670   9.4 per cent   4th
  • Neath: 3,184   5,637   8.7 per cent   4th
  • Ogmore: 2,991   7,805   8.5 per cent   3rd

One again, we have a seat where the Conservatives picking up half the Brexit Party’s vote would in itself cut the Labour majority to below 3,000, in Llanelli.

A couple of additional points. First, it can’t be assumed that the remaining Labour vote in all these constituencies is solid – in Neath, for example, it more than halved between 2017 and 2019.

Second, the Conservatives could easy pick up more than 50 per cent of the Brexit Party’s vote. Even in last week’s Senedd elections, which as I explained on Wednesday were a mixed bag for the party, it ended up effectively winning five of the seven seats won by UKIP five years before.

Taken together, that means that whilst this doesn’t produce the same tantalising list of potential Tory gains that the English list does, it is possible to see how the re-alignment of British politics could have further to go, and how it could see them start to make previously unthinkable inroads into yet another Labour heartland.

After all, to win even a handful of these would be a dramatic signal of the changing shape of the Tory coalition. After all, when Margaret Thatcher took 14 Welsh seats in 1983 that included three of the four constituencies in Cardiff – and she nearly got the fourth too.

Boris Johnson hit 14 without a single seat in the Welsh capital. And if Torfaen, Islwyn, and Llanelli end up following Gower and become competitive marginals, his path to the Conservatives’ best-ever Welsh performance may yet bypass the city altogether.

Why there is so much grassroots disquiet at the Welsh Tories’ best-ever Senedd result

12 May

Running the live blog tracking the elections in Scotland and Wales was something of an emotional rollercoaster. Early on, the Conservatives in both nations lost key targets. But in the end, they each ended up either delivering or matching their best-ever performances.

But whilst Douglas Ross’s achievement is near-universally acclaimed, and has cemented his authority in the Scottish party, there is disquiet amongst his Welsh colleagues about their own performance.

On the face of it, this is surprising. After all, at 16 MSs, the Welsh Conservatives have returned their largest-ever Senedd caucus. They have basically managed to win five of the seven seats that UKIP won in 2016, effectively consolidating the ‘unionist right’ in the Welsh Parliament whilst seeing off what looked like a strong challenge from Abolish the Welsh Assembly, who despite strong polling failed to return any MSs at all. Plaid Cymru are now definitively at the Senedd, as at Westminster, Wales’ third party.

The leadership is understandably keen to present this as a triumph. Likewise, some of the MPs are chipper, saying that suggestions the party under-performed “a total press fabrication”. They point out that the vote share is up and delivered a record number of Senedd seats, both of which are true.

So why are others in the party so unhappy? Why are the media headlines about ‘soul-searching’, not success?

In short, because it failed to do what it was trying to do, which was mobilise the mass of support that saw Boris Johnson deliver an exceptional haul of Welsh constituencies at the 2019 general election to change the political map of the Province.

Whilst they did unseat the Liberal Democrats in Brecon & Radnorshire, of the party’s Labour-held targets only Vale of Clwyd fell. Meanwhile Clwyd South, Delyn, Vale of Glamorgan and Wrexham stayed red, despite having Conservative MPs at Westminster. It was the same for second-order targets Cardiff North and Gower, which had Tory MPs in the recent past.

Those defending the Conservative performance point out that in many cases the Labour MS was returned with fewer votes than the Conservative MP received in 2019, so these should be winnable seats.

But whilst this is true as far as it goes, it only highlights the other big strategic failing of the campaign. It was supposed to mobilise 75 per cent of the voters who back the Tories at the general election. In the end, one source said that “by my calculations we only achieved 52 per cent”. Once again, and for all the grand claims by the devocrats that it should be considered the pre-eminent voice of Wales, turnout for a devolved election failed to reach even half of registered voters, coming in at just 46.5 per cent.

This failure probably hurt Abolish too – it’s no point polling seven per cent if those voters sit it out on election day. And defenders of the campaign point out that it affects all parties.

But there is no denying that it hurts the Tories more. Last Thursday, Labour took 443,047 votes to the Conservatives’ 289,802; in 2019 it was 632,035 to 557,234. Tory MPs tell me their canvassers know voters who turn out not just for Westminster but for local elections, yet sit out the Senedd.

How to mobilise them is probably the biggest single challenge facing any Welsh Conservative leader. But it comes with risks. In order to woo devosceptic voters (not to mention see off Abolish) the Tories ran a strongly unionist campaign on the promise of “no more powers!” – which delivered their best-ever result. They have had to abandon their old ambition to win power via  some sort of deal with Plaid. For the first time, even some of the MS group are devosceptic, in addition to several MPs and much of the activist base.

The long-term consequences of this have been disguised by Labour’s strong showing this time. But it heralds a future Senedd more polarised around the constitutional question. So long as Labour is led by a nationalist such as Drakeford, their only path to holding on to power if their position slips will be a deal with the capital-N Nationalists. Meanwhile there won’t be any shortcuts to power for the Conservatives, who will need to either win switchers directly from Labour or double-down on whatever strategy it takes to get their Cardiff-sceptic coalition to actually vote.

Holding more than a quarter of the seats in the Welsh Parliament is a good result. But polling suggested that the Tories and Abolish between them might at one point have got more than a third. Governing requires winning at least close to half. This election doesn’t create an obvious path to those sort of numbers, which may be why there is such grassroots disquiet at what is, objectively speaking, the Conservatives’ best-ever result at Cardiff Bay.

Live Blog: Scottish and Welsh election results. The SNP fails to win its majority. And Ross holds the Conservative position steady.

7 May

9am Sunday May 9

Paul Goodman reporting

And there we have it:

  • The SNP have failed by one seat in their quest for a majority.
  • The Conservatives are still second; they lost a single seat; their vote share is fractionally down (21.9 per cent to 22 per cent – so small a change as to make no difference.  That will help Ross fight back against Davidson’s criticisms of his campaign.  It also suggests that, as Henry Hill has repeatedly argued on this site, Tory progress in Scotland is as much about the Party’s unionist position as about who leads it.
  • Labour is down two seats, the Greens up two seats.

 

18.30

  • Douglas Ross has been returned to the Scottish Parliament, where he currently plans to serve concurrently as MP for Moray until the next general election.
  • Whilst it will take a while for the full list results to come in, projections are that the SNP will fall two seats short of an overall majority.
  • They also suggest the Conservatives will return the same number of MSPs as in 2016, whilst Labour and the Lib Dems lose a few to the Greens.

Analysis:

  • If these results are borne out, it means that Sturgeon has failed to advance the SNP over a five year period which has witnessed Brexit, a Tory landslide at Westminster, and Boris Johnson – allegedly Scotland’s bête noire – become Prime Minister, whilst she received huge credit for the Scottish Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

16.30

  • The Conservatives have held the vital seat of Aberdeenshire West, with Alexander Burnett increasing their majority from 900 to 3,390.
  • Sky News says this makes an SNP majority “all but impossible”, although as mentioned previously there are reports of a knife-fight for a list seat.
  • There was a big swing from the Lib Dems, whose vote fell by 12.6 per cent, to the Tories, whose rose by 9.1%. A relatively rare case of major tactical voting by unionists in what used to be a Lib Dem heartland.

15.00

Wales:

  • We have the final result in Wales: Labour 30, Conservatives 16, Plaid Cymru 13, and the Liberal Democrats one.
  • This is a great result for Labour, who will be able to govern alone and have defied dramatic polling over the past few weeks.
  • It is also a solid result for the Tories, who have basically picked up five of the seven seats which UKIP won in 2016.
  • Plaid’s slow decline continues, capped by the loss of Leanne Wood in the Rhondda. This was the one area where the Nationalists had managed to break out of their traditional heartlands.
  • The Lib Dems have lost their last constituency seat to the Conservatives, and now cling on in Wales’ three-party system on the lists.
  • Abolish are licking their wounds: there are suggestions that there first step will be to try and mop up what remains of UKIP and Reform UK’s Welsh operations before next year’s local elections.

Scotland:

  • Media reports that the Conservatives are very narrowly ahead in West Aberdeenshire, a race which could determine whether or not the SNP can win an overall majority.
  • Suggestions that the Tories are also in a knife-edge fight with the SNP for at least one seat on the lists. Will Alliance for Unity, who were pitching for main-party voters to lend them their list votes ‘risk free’, end up putting Sturgeon over the top?
  • However one senior Scottish Conservative suggested to me the party’s grim messaging about the lists was a ‘double bluff’.

13.30

  • Bad news from Scotland, where the Conservatives are suggesting that the SNP may yet win an overall majority on the list vote – probably despite a rise in support for the Greens. They’re blaming ‘All for Unity’, George Galloway’s fringe party, for splitting the vote – as we warned they would.
  • On the upside, Alex Salmond’s Alba Party has conceded that it isn’t going to enter the Scottish Parliament at all.
  • There haven’t been elections in Northern Ireland this year, but there is still some excitement. Steve Aiken has announced that he will resign as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. This means that both they and the Democratic Unionists have concurrent contests – all change in Ulster.

12.00

  • It’s all a bit quiet on the northern front results-wise, although Matt Singh as kindly taken the time to tweet a health warning about reading too much from the Aberdeenshire results.
  • A ballot paper has also been seized over an incident of suspected voter impersonation in Edinburgh.
  • Talk is already turning to what happens next, with two strands of the SNP strategy emerging. First, Sturgeon says she will press ahead with a referendum bill and challenge the Government to see her in court.
  • Second, Nationalist ministers will reportedly be touring the world to try and drum up international support, in order to ‘shame’ the Prime Minister into granting a referendum. (It is not obvious that the Prime Minister would weigh a stern word from Joe Biden more heavily than derailing his entire agenda for the next few years and risking becoming the next Lord North.)

Wales:

  • In Wales, Tory activists are highlighting the challenge I have previously written about on this site: voters who back the party at general (and even local) elections scorning the Senedd. One organiser said: “Tory target was 75 per cent of 2019 vote – my my calculations we only achieved 52 per cent”.
  • Nonetheless the consensus seems to be that the Conservatives will end up with 16 seats, comfortably above their previous best of 14 in 2011.
  • There is already debate about the best way forward, with some suggesting the party should focus less on middle-class constituencies such as Cardiff North in favour of trying to reach out to Valleys voters who previously backed UKIP.

11.00

Henry Hill reporting.

Good morning. Here’s a quick round-up of what came in overnight. Then we’ll resume the live blogging as results come in over the afternoon.

Scotland:

  • Two results last night put an SNP majority back in doubt. First, Jackson Carlaw held Eastwood for the Conservatives with an increased majority.
  • Second, Labour’s Jackie Baillie pulled off a spectacular win in Dumbarton, previously Scotland’s most marginal seat. The change in vote shares suggests a relatively rare instance of decisive tactical voting by unionists.
  • As a result, all eyes must now be on Aberdeenshire West, where the Tories are defending a majority of 900 over the Nationalists. That the Conservatives slashed the SNP majority in neighbouring Aberdeenshire East seems a good omen.

Wales:

  • The overnight result confirmed a remarkable stasis, with only three constituencies changing hands overall. The Conservatives took one apiece from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, whilst Labour took one from Plaid.
  • Overall, Welsh Labour are apparently on track for 30 seats, which matches their previous best-ever performance. They could once again govern in coalition with the lone Lib Dem.
  • The Conservatives are on track to be comfortably the largest opposition party, overtaking Plaid Cymru. But activists are disappointed after the party missed out on several key targets whose Westminster analogues fell during the 2017 election.
  • Likewise, Abolish the Welsh Assembly are facing a painful post-mortem after getting “massacred”, in the words of one senior member. Their initial feeling is that “the support all ran back to the Tories”, but almost every poll showed them on track for seats.

19.30

  • The party has held two seats in Ettrick, Roxburgh & Berwickshire and Dumfriesshire.
  • But as expected, the SNP have won Edinburgh Central, which was a surprise personal victory for Ruth Davidson in 2016.
  • Speaking of Davidson: if you want an idea of how the Scottish Conservative campaign is going, she is disowning it. She joins those Tories already furious at the decision to deliberately amplify the SNP’s claims about a second referendum.

Speculation:

  • As far as the election goes, the SNP still have a path to an overall majority through seats such as Dumbarton, Eastwood (although see below), and West Aberdeenshire.
  • There are suggestions that Labour have asked for a recount in Dumbarton, where the margin is reportedly around 25 votes.
  • One senior Scottish Tory has suggested to me that the party ought to seriously consider not standing candidates in parts of Scotland. Presumably the hope is that these voters will back other pro-UK parties, but time and again Tory voters have proven unwilling to do this.
  • Another said that the result should prompt a re-examination of the level of autonomy granted to SCHQ.
  • This seems to be a good place to re-post my original piece warning the Tories not to over-state the importance of Davidson’s personal impact, as opposed to deeper structural factors, underlying the party’s strong performances in 2016 and 2017.

That’s all from this thread this evening. See you tomorrow for the list results and the overall shape of the next Scottish and Welsh parliaments.

18.30

  • Gower. Wrexham. Delyn. The list of Conservative constituency targets missed just keeps growing. Seats whose Westminster counterparts went Tory in 2019 but where the party has once again failed to break through in the Senedd. Wrexham, in particular, was described by one activist as a “disaster”.
  • Sources are also pessimistic about both Cardiff North and Vale of Glamorgan, with some suggesting that the party erred by focusing resources on the latter race. There is more optimism about Brecon & Radnorshire, where the Conservatives are gunning for the Lib Dems’ last constituency seat.

Speculation:

  • There is still an expectation that the Conservatives will advance overall thanks to making some gains in the list. Some also seek a silver lining in the fact that Labour’s resilience may reduce their reliance on Plaid Cymru in the next parliament.
  • But overall, this is shaping up to be a big disappointment for Tory activists in Wales, especially when contrasted by the big advances the party is making in parts of England.

17.30

  • John Scott, the Conservative MSP for Ayr, has lost by 170 votes. He is too far down the list to be re-elected and will leave the Scottish Parliament. His majority last time was 750.
  • The SNP have taken a seat off Labour in East Lothian.
  • This might end up being a wash overall because both seats are in the South of Scotland region, the only one where the Nationalists return list MSPs.
  • Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have missed out on a top target in Caithness – suggestions that their leader, Willie Rennie, may be on ‘resignation watch‘.

16.30

  • A gain for the Conservatives in Vale of Clwyd, a seat whose Westminster counterpart is held by James Davies MP. But activists are maudlin, saying that the “result is not a good indication at all, even with a win”.
  • Leanne Wood, the former leader of Plaid Cymru, has lost Rhondda back to Labour. Twitter suggests she “stormed out of the count“.

Speculation:

  • There are reports that the party could lose Aberconwy to the Welsh nationalists, and fall short in a number of targets where they were hoping to oust Labour. If this comes to pass, their performance will contrast badly both with the 2019 general election result and the astonishing Tory results being posted in England.
  • Key question: why are they failing to consolidate UKIP’s substantial 2016 vote? That election suggested there is space for a right-wing ‘bloc’ of around 20 seats, with marginal Conservative progress. If voter patterns settle down again, have the Conservatives missed the boat on realignment?

15.30

  • The Conservatives have fallen short in Banffshire and Buchan Coast, an area where they have managed to retain MPs at Westminster. There was a substantial swing to them from the Nationalists, but not enough. This is also the area of Scotland that almost voted Leave.
  • If the SNP didn’t lose this, the odds of their losing any seats are minimal. However, John Curtice says that they are not currently doing well enough for a majority.
  • Some on Twitter are blaming Labour and the Lib Dems for denying a pro-UK MSP, but the problem has always been that a chunk of their voters simply will not vote Tory.

Speculation:

  • But there are rumours that there could be good news for the Conservatives elsewhere, as per the above tweet. Could be a product of a concerted effort by pro-UK sources – especially the Scottish Daily Mail – to get pro-UK voters to give their regional vote to the Tories.

14.30

  • The Conservatives have doubled their majority in Montgomeryshire, benefiting from the absence of UKIP. Most parties vote share is up a bit save for the Lib Dems’, which as fallen by almost 11 points.

Speculation:

  • Despite the above, the chatter seems to be of an overall disappointing election for the Conservatives relative to expectations. One local source said: “Well at the beginning we thought we were doing well across Wales. But now it’s sliding – seats which should have been a shoe in are tight.”
  • Why might this be? Two suggested reasons: first, that Plaid Cymru’s poor performance means the left/nationalist vote isn’t splitting.
  • Second, that the Conservatives have once again failed to mobilised the hundreds and thousands of their voters who usually sit out devolved elections. “The party think they’ve killed the Abolish vote, but that could be at the expense of keeping it at home.”
  • Does the Montgomeryshire result auger ill for the Lib Dems in neighbouring Brecon and Radnorshire? They had a big majority last time but it was competitive in 2011, the corresponding Westminster seat is safely Tory, and popular incumbent Kirsty Williams is standing down.

13.30

  • We’re starting to get some results in. Aberdeen Donside is an SNP hold but with a swing to the Conservatives.
  • The Liberal Democrats have also held their safe seat of Orkney, albeit with the Nationalists up.

Speculation:

  • Tory sources suggest that there is evidence of unionist tactical voting in constituencies that already have a pro-UK MSP. If this holds, they think it will be very difficult for the SNP to secure an overall majority.
  • However they do expect the Nationalists to take Edinburgh Central, which was a surprise gain for Ruth Davidson in 2016. They say this was a fluke and a personal vote, and the party did not expect to retain it. This will put Angus Robertson, formerly the SNP’s Westminster leader, in Holyrood.
  • Word is that Alba have ‘bombed’, although they may pick up one or two seats. Their main impact may have been persuading SNP voters to split their tickets… for the Greens, who may take two or three list seats apiece off the Conservatives and Labour as a consequence.

12.00

Henry Hill reporting.

  • Results will soon start to come in from counts across Scotland and Wales. These elections could cast a long shadow over the rest of this Parliament if Boris Johnson is forced into a pitched battle for the future of the Union.
  • In Scotland, there has been a huge surge in turnout. Unionists were initially extremely gloomy about this, but there are reports that it is also up in areas pro-UK parties were targeting.
  • In Wales, sources last night suggested that the Conservatives were feeling bullish, with a sense that the wind had come out of Abolish the Assembly’s sails over the past week or so.

Results to watch out for in Scotland:

  • Will the Scottish National Party secure an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, or will they be forced once again to come to an arrangement with the Greens?
  • Will the Scottish Tories hold on to second place, and defend marginal constituencies such as Eastwood?
  • Conversely will Anas Sarwar’s Labour claw back second place, and hold ultra-marginal seats such as Dunbarton?
  • Will either Alex Salmond (Alba Party) or George Galloway (All for Unity) manage to secure a seat?

Results to watch out for in Wales:

  • Can the Conservatives build on the success of the 2019 general election and exceed the 14 seats they won in 2011?
  • Will Abolish manage to consolidate enough of the old UKIP vote (which took seven seats in 2016) to win a place in the Senedd?
  • Can the Tories build on the ‘red wall’ dynamic to start eating into traditional Labour seats (such as Torfaen). Can they take Gower?
  • Can the Liberal Democrats hold their last seat in Brecon and Radnor, and if not will they get wiped out in Wales?
  • Will Labour end up depending on a deal with Plaid Cymru to govern? Can they take Rhondda back from Leanne Wood?

Robert Sutton: The data suggests the Conservatives should be quietly optimistic about the Welsh election

28 Apr

Dr Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer.

The 2019 general election saw a major shift in voter behaviour. The Red Wall of traditionally Labour constituencies was broken, and several seats elected their first-ever Conservative MP. Working class voters switched to the Tories while Labour seemed to increasingly be the preserve of the middle classes.

The elections in May this year offer the opportunity to test whether these shifts mark a long-term transition in the UK’s political alignments. In Wales, voters will head to the polls on May 6 to elect their representative in the Senedd. Many Welsh seats, particularly in the South, have demographics and voting records which are notably similar to those of the formerly-Red Wall.

The Senedd election provides a predictive challenge for armchair psephologists. National polling is a highly imperfect barometer for estimating election outcomes. The twin problems of missing information (we only have national or regional, rather than constituency-level, data) and systematic bias (the phenomenon of the “shy Tory,” for instance) make predicting outcomes difficult.

Its mixed electoral system compounds the challenge. Of the 60 Senedd seats, 40 correspond to the Westminster constituencies and elect members through a first-past-the-post vote. The remaining 20 seats are elected through a form of proportional representation, with each of the five regions electing four members by the D’Hondt method, with voters casting separate votes for the constituency and regional candidate lists.

How can we try to predict the 2021 Senedd election without constituency level polling? YouGov provides a wealth of data through its Welsh Political Barometer. This data is disaggregated by various demographic, political and geographic features (age, gender, electoral region, social grade, vote in the 2016 EU referendum), which have the potential to be extrapolated to estimate swings in individual constituencies. Each survey contains data for over 1000 citizens, and 29 such surveys have been carried out since 2016.

We can apply these disaggregated changes to the known demographic and political characteristics of each individual constituency. To give an example: if we know how voting intention among leave voters in the 2016 EU referendum has changed, and we know approximately what percentage voted leave in each constituency, we can estimate the relative impact of that change in each constituency. In a seat where 60 per cent voted leave compared to one in which 30 per cent voted leave, we would expect the effect of the polling shift to be approximately double.

We can apply this principle to different disaggregated categories of polling data from YouGov’s Welsh Political Barometer. By collecting constituency data on age, EU referendum vote and social grade from the House of Commons Library, Dr Chris Hanretty, and Electoral Calculus respectively, we can estimate the impact of changes in support at the constituency level. The equation looks something like:

Overall change in voting intention = age-related change + EU vote-related change + social grade-related change

To give a worked example, age groups are disaggregated by YouGov into four categories. By best-fitting YouGov data for the 29 individual surveys, we find the following change in Conservative support among each age group:

  • 16-24:  -1.7 per cent
  • 25-49:  +5.8 per cent
  • 50-64:  +9.0 per cent
  • 65+:     +8.1 per cent

While Conservative support has fallen slightly among the youngest category, among the three older groups it has strengthened, driven in party by the decline of UKIP and the Brexit Party. Applying the same logic to data for the 2016 EU referendum vote and social grade data, we can build profiles of individual constituencies to estimate them, weighting each of the three components by one-third to avoid overcounting. Regional swings are calculated using trendlines for regional voter intention.

Amongst Remainers, Conservative support has fallen by 5.6 per cent, offset by support among Leavers growing by 15.5 per cent. Overall support across social grades for the Conservatives has grown, but has been stronger amongst C2DE voters, increasing by 8.2 per cent compared to 2.6 per cent amongst ABC1 voters. Regional support has increased across all regions, ranging from a low of +0.4 per cent in North Wales to a high of +9.4 per cent in South Wales West. These trends are very positive for Conservative prospects.

How does this translate into electoral outcomes in our model? In the 2016 Senedd elections, Labour won 29 seats, Plaid Cymru 12, the Conservatives 11, UKIP seven and the Lib Dems one. This model suggests a significant erosion of the size of the Labour party in the Senedd down to just 21 seats, with a corresponding growth of the Conservatives to 16 seats (+5) and Plaid Cymru to 18 seats (+6). UKIP will lose all 7 seats and both Reform and Abolish the Welsh Assembly are expected to take 2 seats. The Greens are not expected to gain any. There are a further four seats in which the Conservatives are expected to come within five per cent of the winning vote.

The model used here has several limitations. Most notably, it does not contain any constituency level data: instead, it relies on nationwide demographic and political trends to be extrapolated to a local level by using local demographic and political data. The model also assumes the effect from age, EU vote and social grade contributes equally to party polling swings at a constituency level, which is an oversimplification. There is also a chance that Labour will enjoy a significant boost late in the campaign if their post-Covid reopening goes ahead smoothly.

Yet taken together, the findings presented here suggest a very positive result for the Welsh Conservatives. There are also significant implications for what the Welsh Government could look like after May 6, and the Welsh Conservative party leadership should be preparing for these possibilities. Labour would be a long way from a majority on just 21 seats and would naturally seek to build a coalition to stay in power.

Numerically, a majority could be held by either a Labour-Plaid or Conservative-Plaid coalition, but both the Conservatives and Plaid have previously stated they would never enter into a coalition with each other, secessionism being fundamentally incompatible with the Conservative and Unionist Party’s values. There is also precedent for a Labour-Plaid coalition, so if this model proves accurate, that will be the most likely outcome.

If Labour and Plaid are unable or unwilling to form a coalition, then the resulting hung Welsh parliament may necessitate a second Senedd election soon afterwards. The Welsh Conservatives’ leadership should be quietly optimistic for the possibility of significant electoral gains, while quietly wargaming the possibility that we have a hung Welsh parliament after the May election.

Henry Hill: Is the Alba Party the separatist movement’s answer to Leave.EU?

1 Apr

Salmond rallies the discontented to Alba

It’s an unhappy feature of the electoral system used for the Scottish Parliament that it seems to be fiendishly complex to work out exactly what impact Alex Salmond’s new party is going to have in the upcoming elections, or on the longer-term future of the SNP.

There are several ways in which it could hurt the pro-UK cause. First, if Salmond can attract enough SNP voters on the lists it could game the system (as it openly states it aims to do) and deliver a separatist ‘supermajority’. Second, it could play the same role vis-a-vis the Nationalists as Leave.EU did for Vote Leave, providing a home for pro-independence voters turned off by Nicola Sturgeon’s emphasis on rejoining the EU and other ‘woke’ issues such as transgender rights.

On the other hand, it could make life tricky for the First Minister in the short term. Moderate success could see it deprive the SNP of an overall majority, undermining the moral force of their demands for a referendum and forcing Sturgeon to cooperate with another party to govern. Tellingly, despite all the scorn she has heaped on her predecessor, she has not yet ruled out working with Alba.

Salmond will also put a spotlight on an issue Sturgeon would much rather stay un-examined: what she will do if, or when, Boris Johnson refuses to grant her the Section 30 order for a referendum.

For years, the First Minister has strung her grassroots along with the promise that the next campaign is just around the corner. Her actual strategy is probably to play for time once again by taking the Government to court – after all, in the aftermath of Miller II who is to say that the Supreme Court won’t invent a new right for the Scottish Parliament?

Salmond, on the other hand, is talking about ‘immediate negotiations’ with London and saying that a referendum is not the only pathway to independence. Not only does such talk risk spooking moderate voters, but it also sucks Sturgeon into a debate on the mechanics of independence and leaves more space for the other parties, especially the new Labour leader Anas Sarwar, to focus on public services.

Coveney complains that he’s become a ‘bogey man’

The scramble to save the Northern Ireland Protocol is on. Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, now claims that although he has become a ‘Brexit bogeyman’ to unionists, he has in fact been squaring off against Brussels just as much as London.

Unionists in Northern Ireland, who are currently mounting a legal challenge to the Protocol, are unlikely to be sold on this version of events. To them, Coveney is the the outrider for the much more maximalist approach to Dublin’s demands on the border question that Leo Varadkar adopted when he succeeded Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

But it does suggest that the coalition that stitched up the Protocol – in Ireland, at least – that it cannot endure if it continues to alienate pretty much the entire unionist community of Ulster. This follows along with other development which would reduce the need for unionist cooperation in governing the Province, such as the Alliance Party’s newfound enthusiasm for the idea of voluntary coalition since the Unionist parties lost their overall majority at Stormont.

We previously reported that the appointment of Lord Frost signalled that the Government was determined to deliver meaningful change to the Protocol, and maybe he will find an improbable ally in Coveney. But it will be interesting to see if the EU is willing to show ‘solidarity with Ireland’ when that involves being flexible with their rules, rather than as inflexible as possible.

Abolish secure a spot in the Welsh leaders’ debate

If recent polling is to be believed, the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party are on track to enter the Senedd for the first time in May. Their campaign has now received a further fillip when the BBC decided to include them in the official leaders debates.

The case for excluding them whilst including the Liberal Democrats was always extremely thin. Following defections, Abolish currently have more MSs than the Lib Dems and look almost certain to be the larger party in the next senedd, as the latter might actually be wiped out altogether.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the party can make the most of this spotlight. Their leader, Richard Suchorzewski, is not a sitting MS and the pressure is on to reform well. But if the party can establish itself, it may be able to assist its nascent sister party in Scotland, which is likewise contesting the Holyrood elections for the first time.

Ant Pickles: Why a coalition between the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru isn’t going to happen

30 Mar

Ant Pickles is co-author of State of the Union and a trustee of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

With little over five weeks to go until elections in Wales, the possible result is far from clear given the tightest polls since devolution began.

Welsh Labour’s political dominance over Wales has lasted over a hundred years, and might be beginning to slip. A recent poll showed that they could fall well short of a majority, and some have suggested this could be an opportunity for the Welsh Conservatives (projected to get a possible 19 seats) to form a coalition with Plaid Cymru.

That’s simply not going to happen. For a start, both sides have ruled it out in very stark terms.

The closest deal done between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives was in 2007, but that also included the Lib Dems, who at the time dashed the proposal with their conference failing to back it.

That deal was about pursuing a non-Labour option for Wales. But today the political culture, atmosphere, and rhetoric is a world away. Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru has said there are ‘no circumstances’ under which he would consider a coalition.

Humour the idea of any coalition and the terms would be undesirable to Welsh Tories to say the least. For a start Price, who has an almost deity-like following amongst his most hardcore fans, simply couldn’t tarnish his own credentials by supporting a Welsh Conservative first minister.

Secondly, the Conservatives are now the only full throated pro-unionist party left in Wales as Welsh Labour flirts with ‘home rule’ and even independence, so the idea that a referendum or moves in that direction could be accepted by beef-farming Andrew RT Davies is about as likely as him becoming a vegan.

However, let’s say the shock result happens. Labour are left well short of a majority, and Plaid Cymru decide that it simply can’t abide by a further five years of Labour rule. What would a programme for government be? Plaid Cymru wants another referendum on the EU, many want drugs legalised, they are against nuclear power and want the Senedd to have a ‘veto’ on foreign policy.

Just about the only issues of agreement are the idea of a development bank and an agency for inward investment. The makings of a programme for government, it isn’t.

The other reality is Welsh Labour will most likely be the biggest party, even were this poll to become a reality. They might try and govern as a minority, but they’d have to achieve confidence and supply through other parties – and the most obvious is Plaid Cymru. When Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, said last month that ‘the United Kingdom is over’ it almost felt like coalition talks had already begun in open forum. His own ministers have spoken of ‘welcoming the debate on independence’ and that the ‘Union fails Wales’.

But could the condition for a Plaid-Lab deal be calls for a referendum? Yesterday Drakeford said for a referendum to happen, Plaid would need to win a majority, but with support within Welsh Labour growing in the direction of independence, it might well be their price worth paying. That would be a big wake up call for not only Labour HQ but Whitehall too.

The Welsh Conservatives meanwhile can see that there’s a gap that’s been vacated by Welsh Labour on core values of identity as the online culture wars have swayed many on the left. Being Welsh and British, tapping into region investment inequality, and campaigning in plain language are all issues that have made some voters ponder their vote for the first time.

Add to this the most important point: the pandemic has created unprecedented focus on devolution and who makes decisions and where. This election is the first test of voters’ feelings about the pandemic, and surprise polls could be just the start of things to come.

But should the poll published this week come to fruition, don’t expect a Plaid-Tory coalition, it simply isn’t happening.

Davies forced out as Conservative leader in the Welsh Parliament. What will change?

23 Jan

On Thursday, my column covered the scandal engulfing Paul Davies, the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Parliament, and his close allies after they were apparently caught breaching Covid regulations to hold a drinking session in the Senedd.

Last night, it looked as if he might be able to hang on after both he and Darren Millar, his chief whip who was also at the event, received the full support of the Tory MS group.

This was a baffling decision, especially since Labour had already suspended their own MS whilst the incident was investigated. It was also precipitate: apparently the decision was taken before the first official report into the incident was published. As a result, MSs were then to meet on Monday to discuss that evidence and potentially re-visit their decision.

Yet clearly the writing was on the wall, even before Guido published further revelations about a second night.

Today, both Davies and Millar have resigned. Each insists that they did not breach the coronavirus regulations and disputes the more lurid elements of the story, such as the claim that the MSs got drunk and needed to be escorted from the building.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it would have been extremely difficult for Davies to stay on. His leadership has not exactly set Welsh politics ablaze, and he was caught in an awkward clash between the Cardiff Bay consensus of his Senedd colleagues and an increasingly energised and devosceptic grassroots. Worse, the scandal would have undermined any Tory effort to press their advantage against Mark Drakeford over his abysmal handling of the vaccine rollout.

So what comes next? With the next Welsh elections due sometime this year, and perhaps in the next few months, there seems to be little appetite for a full contest and a vote of the membership (especially not a restive membership that just effectively deselected Suzy Davies, who stood against Paul in the last leadership contest). A coronation is in the offing.

Yet that almost certainly means a return of the only MS with the profile to take on the job from where we are now: Andrew RT Davies, the right-wing, pro-Brexit leader who was ousted by an internal putsch in 2018.

This has the potential to change the dynamics of Welsh right-wing politics in interesting ways. ‘RT’ would be a much more convincing message-carrer for the Tories’ new soft-devoscepticism than his predecessor if he chose to go down that route, which in turn might arrest the rise of the Abolish the Assembly Party in the polls. But committing to that approach would rule out the party’s long-term hope of striking some sort of deal with Plaid Cymru and hasten the need for a more profound strategic rethink about the role and vision of the Conservatives in Cardiff.

Henry Hill: Welsh Conservative leader under pressure to quit over Senedd drinking session

21 Jan

Davies reportedly mulling resignation as leadership rival is deselected

Paul Davies, the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Parliament, is apparently considering his position after being caught breaking public health rules at a ‘secret boozy party’ at the Senedd.

He and several other Labour and Tory MSs were reportedly kicked out of the building by security at 2am after getting “caught red-handed” helping themselves to alcohol from an “open bar”. Darren Millar, the Conservatives’ chief whip and a key ally of Davies, was also amongst those present.

The timing is terrible, as the scandal has completely cut across the Conservatives’ attempts to hold Mark Drakeford’s feet to the fire over his effective sabotage of the Welsh vaccine rollout. Labour have been swift to call for the suspension of those involved, and taken action against their own MS to increase the pressure. Meanwhile a growing chorus of grassroots Tories are also calling for Davies to go.

For his part, local sources suggest the leader has already offered to resign, but that Millar is digging his heels in. For the moment they have apologised and denied any wrongdoing. It isn’t entirely obvious who his successor would be, although several sources suggested Andrew RT Davies is the only contender with adequate profile and standing with the grassroots. ‘RT’ was ousted by an internal putsch in the summer of 2018.

Just as with the ructions inside the Scottish Nationalists, there are some who detect dark forces at work in the calls for Davies to step down. Whilst it makes sense for activists to wish to avoid a long (perhaps very long) election campaign fronted by a wounded leader, others see this as the latest salvo in a deepening split in the Party between the Cardiff Bay old guard and increasingly emboldened devosceptics.

Carwyn Jones, the former First Minister enjoying a second life as a federalist on the constitutional cabaret circuit, took to Twitter to suggest that whilst “of course” the incident needed to be investigated, the real question was whether or not the news was leaked to the press by what he ignorantly dubbed the Welsh Tories’ ‘English nationalist’ wing.

This echoes the language employed by Huw Irranca-Davies, a Labour MS, in this story about the surprising results of the Conservatives’ candidate selection contests. These saw Suzy Davies, a sitting MS who contested the last leadership election, placed bottom of her regional list by local members. Absent a surprise win in her target constituency of Bridgend, this means she will be leaving the Senedd.

Davies is widely viewed as being on the Welsh nationalist wing of the Conservatives, and even a source that regretted her deselection said that she was “not a Tory”. But despite the suggestion by David Melding, another outgoing MS on her wing of the party, that it was a devosceptic stitch-up, Davies herself insists it was simply down to the dynamics of her local party – although the two are of course not mutually exclusive.

Melding’s unease is readily explained by the fact that devosceptics are breaking out into the open inside the party. This week, the BBC reported that several Tory candidates are openly advocating abolishing the Welsh Parliament. Activists have been galvanised by the emergence of the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, which the latest polls suggest is on track to win two seats in the Senedd.

It has already shifted the centre of gravity on the Welsh right. Davies has previously tried to ‘reset’ his leadership with a devosceptic pivot, and the old Conservative strategy of seeking some sort of arrangement with Plaid Cymru now looks like an artefact of another era.

MSPs keep up the pressure on Sturgeon as they seek ‘explosive’ documents

It’s been nice to lead on something else this week, but we couldn’t conclude the column without checking in on the Alex Salmond affair. Last week, the former First Minister asked the official inquiry to grant him immunity from prosecution in order to make sure that he could honour his oath to tell the whole truth when giving evidence.

Now the Daily Telegraph reports that MSPs, whilst sceptical of the sources, are trying to find a way to get hold of documents allegedly secured by Salmond but which the latter is unable to publish. These apparently cast doubt on the evidence given to the Scottish Parliament by Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband. However, in a break for the First Minister it seems that important evidence from Geoff Aberdein, a close ally of Salmond, won’t be published.

Meanwhile she also faces more questions after officials accidentally leaked to Sky their media strategy for handling what ought to have been a run-of-the-mill request for a copy of the Scottish Government’s grievance procedure. It included seeking sign-off from the offices of both Sturgeon and Leslie Evans, Scotland’s most senior civil servant.

And your run-of-the-mill tale of SNP incompetence for the week: Jeane Freeman, their Health Secretary, has apologised to Matt Hancock after accidentally publishing figures which could jeopardise British vaccine procurement efforts. She may have breached the ministerial code.

Even by Welsh Labour’s standards, Drakeford’s decision to slow the vaccine rollout is abysmal

19 Jan

Ever since efforts to maintain a ‘four-nation’ approach to Covid-19 first broke down over the summer, the pandemic has been a crash course in devolution for those who hadn’t been following the constitutional debate.

Although Scotland tends to get more attention, both because the stakes are higher and because of the extraordinary drama playing out between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, Wales has provided plenty of eye-opening examples of devocrat governance in action.

Early in the pandemic, Conservatives attacked the Welsh Government after it opted out of Westminster’s initiatives to ensure food deliveries to high-priority individuals and recruit and coordinate volunteers via the ‘GoodSAM’ app. Later the nation was treated to the absurd sight of Welsh supermarkets having to fence off isles of ‘non-essential’ goods in order to avoid “unfair competition” with other shops.

Yet none of that is as bizarre as Mark Drakeford’s decision to deliberately slow the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine in the Principality. This will leave vulnerable people needlessly unprotected – just to make sure that his vaccinators aren’t left with nothing to do until the next shipment comes in.

The First Minister faces a fierce backlash, and rightly so. Even Plaid Cymru, who have until now been generally supportive of the Welsh Government, have gone on the attack. But it remains to be seen if any of that will make a difference.

Like the SNP, Labour in Wales have yet to squander the initial ‘rally round the flag’ surge in popular goodwill from the start of the crisis, and in both Edinburgh and Cardiff the government’s popular support seems remarkably immune from day-to-day misgovernment. Whilst the most recent polls suggest a slight narrowing in their support there is nothing resembling an alternative administration to be seen, as the Welsh Conservatives are unlikely to risk striking a deal with the Nationalists for fear of turbo-charging the rise of Abolish the Assembly, who are on track for two seats.

Why the Government is under pressure to confirm the date of the local elections

9 Jan

Last month, we looked at the measures the Government is bringing forward to try and ensure that this year’s local elections, having been postponed for a year due to the pandemic, proceed as planned in May.

These included increased campaigning expenses and proposals for ’emergency proxy voting’ for those forced to self-isolate.

Yet with the nation plunged back into lockdown, local government figures are again concerned about the prospect of delays and have demanded clarity from Ministers about whether or not the elections will go ahead. So what’s going on?

For its part, the Government continues to insist that it will be possible, using the safeguards it is putting in place, to conduct “covid-secure” elections on schedule. According to the Cabinet Office:

“Primary Legislation provides that the elections will go ahead in May 2021. We continue to work closely with the electoral community and public health bodies to resolve challenges and ensure everyone will be able to cast their vote safely and securely – and in a way of their choosing. Measures are planned to support absent voting at short notice. Guidance will be published in good time ahead of the polls and this matter will be kept under review.”  

Inside Whitehall, the difficulty is seen to lie less with polling day itself than with the broader campaigning period. If the Government isn’t able to start easing lockdown restrictions as swiftly as planned, it may remain illegal for activists to do in-person campaigning. And if different parts of the country are descending through the tiers at different speeds, that risks a regionally-unequal democratic process.

Moreover, there are legislative challenges to further postponement. The new election date is enshrined in legislation, and the power to delay them under the Coronavirus Act has expired. So any delay would require fresh primary legislation, and that – on top of the need to keep election administrators properly informed – places its own time limits on the window of decision.

(And that is before getting to the devolved administrations. Each of these has the power to delay their own elections, but in Wales the timing of the Police & Crime Commissioner ones are reserved to Westminster. Postponing these would also require fresh primary legislation, but that process can’t start until, at minimum, the Welsh Government has made its mind up about the Welsh Parliament vote.)

For all this bullishness, however, the Government is keeping the matter under review and delay has not been ruled out. There is also no sign that Westminster is exploring all of the options being explored by the Scottish Government, which include things like an all-postal election.

The consensus between Whitehall figures and Conservatives in local government seems to be that if the elections are put off, it cannot be for very long – perhaps just back into June, when the NHS is under that much less pressure and the vaccine rollout is more advanced.