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.

Scottish Conservative supporters should not vote for ‘All for Unity’

5 Apr

When Alex Salmond launched his Alba Party, his message to Nationalist voters was simple: if everyone who casts their ballot for the SNP in the constituencies throws their vote behind another separatist party in the regional lists, they can game the system and create a ‘supermajority’ for independence in the Scottish Parliament.

He’s not the first to have this idea. Alba immediately annexed another outfit called Action for Independence which was set up with the same intention. Apparently Labour occasionally mulled standing the Co-operative Party in the lists during the era of their hegemony. It’s a poor electoral system that allows such a thing.

Now there are plenty of reasons for nationalists to be wary of this plan. The demands of a ‘supermajority’ yielded by actively disenfranchising unionist voters won’t carry any moral force with the Government, and may even provide cover for Westminster imposing a supermajority requirement on a future independence vote. It could also prevent the SNP winning an overall majority in their own right, which would also undermine Nicola Sturgeon in any face-off with Boris Johnson.

But the basic mathematics of Alba’s proposition is basically correct. The SNP are so dominant in the first-past-the-post constituencies that, outwith the Borders, their list vote is punitively inefficient.

This is not true for the pro-Union parties. Which is why George Galloway’s plan for the Alliance for Unity – known for electoral purposes as ‘All for Unity’ – to serve as an anti-separatist (Jamie Blackett, who made their case on this site, says they are ‘not unionists’) version of Alba makes no sense. Let’s look at why.

‘Unionist unity’ hurts the Union

A4U’s proposal was that the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats should put aside their differences and strike a grand bargain to divvy up the constituency seats between them. Then, in order to maximise the efficiency of the pro-UK vote in the lists, they all stand aside for the proportional ballot in favour of A4U.

Let’s start with the most basic problem: there is scant evidence that this would work even if it were possible. Time and again, from the 2019 general election to many council by-elections, voters for the main parties have proved deeply resistant to that sort of tactical voting. The Tories in particular struggle to win transfers in the multi-round system used for local government in Scotland. Labour shedding voters to the SNP cost the Conservatives seats at the general election.

Thus crude calculations about what seats could be won if only there was a pro-Union pact, based on just adding up the combined main-party vote in a given seat, are nonsense. The total pro-UK electorate is in no way a fungible ‘unionist vote’, and it is maximised by offering voters – including those for whom the constitution is not top priority – a variety of options.

By contrast, any united option would presumably disagree on economic and social issues and thus be stuck focusing on the constitution, the one issue it is least likely to win over voters from the SNP on, and steer unionism into the cul-de-sac it’s trapped itself in in Northern Ireland. It remains as bad an idea now as it ever was.

‘Unionist unity’ is undeliverable

But even if this weren’t the case, the proposal is obviously a non-starter. The difficulty the Liberal and Social Democratic parties had divvying up seats in the 1980s would be nothing compared to the acrimonious circus that three-way negotiations over the constituencies would be. At the very least, any chance of appearing less divided and more focused on the real issues than the separatist side would be squandered.

Nor was it ever realistic to expect that the main parties would cede to A4U the lists, where they win nearly all their seats. Even had any of their leaders been addled enough to consider it, they would not have survived signing up to a plan whose most likely outcome was simply the mass replacement of their MSPs with A4U ones. Put bluntly, such proposals were very obviously in A4U’s interests but nobody else’s.

How A4U will hurt the unionist cause

Any concern that the above interpretation might be overly cynical should be dispelled by party’s conduct. Had the plan been advanced in good faith, one might have expected Galloway, Blackett et al to reconsider once the necessary conditions for its success were not achieved.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead A4U is still planning to fight the lists. As James Kanagasooriam has pointed out, they are currently polling just below the threshold at which minor parties start to pick up seats, meaning they’re just going to make it harder to elect pro-Union MSPs and shorten the odds for Alba and the (also separatist) Greens. If they do pick up seats, it will almost certainly just be at the expense of an MSP from a unionist party, rather than a separatist. As Scotland in Union puts it:

“Modelling of the Scottish electoral system suggests that if the share of pro-UK voters supporting minor parties instead of the established parties doubles, the SNP could hang on to a majority of MSPs with as little as 34% of list votes, three full percentage points lower than if all pro-UK voters voted for one of the big three.”

As the force of this reasoning becomes harder and harder to escape, those who have committed themselves to A4U have started to abandon the pretensions of a tactical masterplan. Instead, it’s now all about ousting unionism’s tired has-beens in favour of fresh blood, which Galloway can lead to ‘really take the fight to the SNP’, whatever that means.

In reality, they will have no obvious way to land more blows on a disciplined separatist majority in Holyrood than the traditional parties. Nor will it obviously benefit the pro-UK cause to have as divisive a figure as Galloway become the public face of opposition to the SNP, no matter how high his standing amongst the unionist hard core.

What to do

After decades in retreat, it is understandable that unionist voters are frustrated and looking for options. Nor is the rise of challengers always a bad thing – the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, for example, offers a coherent and under-represented position to the electorate, expands the unionist coalition somewhat, and has already sparked a necessary and overdue realignment on the part of the Welsh Conservatives.

All for Unity are not cast in this mould. Individual good ideas such as a Clarity Act do not justify their existence (and that would in any case be the business of Westminster). Their deliberate construction as a broad-church ‘alliance’ probably prohibits them from doing anything too distinctive, apart from hawking the easy-mode nationalist ‘unionism’ of cutting off awkward connections to national politics. All they seem set to do is get committed unionist voters to cast their ballots in a deeply inefficient way.

They aren’t the only party compromising the cause’s best interests to scare up the vote – some Scottish Tories are doing the same by legitimising the idea that a victory for Sturgeon next month means another referendum, undermining the Prime Minister’s right of refusal. But they have much longer odds of making a constructive contribution. As in almost nil.

So for any Tory voters reading this and wondering how to cast their vote, it’s simple. If you’re minded to vote tactically, head over to Scotland in Union’s calculator, put in your postcode, and back the strongest pro-Union candidate in your constituency. If not, and always in the lists, vote Conservative and Unionist.

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.

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.

Henry Hill: The public want UK-wide rules for Christmas, but we’re a long way from a ‘Four Nations’ approach

5 Nov

The ‘Four Nations’ approach to lockdown – where is it now?

As we noted earlier in the week when looking at the Government’s decision to pivot to a full lockdown, one of the casualties of this summer’s coronavirus confusion has been the ‘four nations’ approach to combating the pandemic. Instead of operating in lockstep, the different devolved governments are now all operating different restriction regimes – raising for the first time the prospect of ‘hard borders’ on the British mainland.

Polling suggests there are limits to the public’s appetite to this – a clear majority of Brits think that there should be uniform policies towards Christmas across the United Kingdom – but for now the Government is unlearning its reflexive deference to devolution too slowly to hope this will be acted on. So what is going on in other parts of the country?

Wales made national headlines with their ‘firebreak’ lockdown. Straying beyond the public health remit of coronavirus regulations (and thus perhaps opening themselves up to judicial challenge), Cardiff Bay ministers decided that ‘essential’ shops which stayed open would nonetheless be forbidden to sell ‘non-essential’ goods, in order to prevent supermarkets having an unfair advantage over smaller retailers.

Despite this, and a raft of other mishandled elements earlier in the pandemic such as priority food deliveries and coordinating volunteers, the latest polls suggest that opposition parties are not yet managing to capitalise (although more on those polls below).

In Scotland, the pandemic is giving the Scottish National Party a chance to give its authoritarian tendencies full vent. In recent weeks the Scottish Government has drawn fire over its puritanical approach towards banning alcohol, and the uneven-handed manner in which Nicola Sturgeon appears to have imposed regional lockdowns on different parts of the country.

This week, Sturgeon has been challenged over proposals to impose movement restrictions, limiting how far Scottish residents are allowed to stray from their homes. In response to suggestions that this might breach human rights legislation, the First Minister merely asserted that “it’s not respecting human rights to leave a virus to run unchecked”.

She has also warned Scots that a broader range of tough new restrictions may be in the offing, and picked a very favourable battle with the Treasury over furlough cash which only ended when the Government announced a full lockdown in England and turned the taps back on. The Scottish Parliament has also accused her administration of ‘disrespect’ over ” the way plans for scrutinising covid restrictions were announced”, according to the Daily Record.

(In other Holyrood news, MSPs have voted for the Scottish Government to publish its legal advice in the Alex Salmond row, with all the opposition parties including the Greens backing a Scottish Conservative move to force ministers’ hands.)

Over in Northern Ireland, there is growing unease amongst the Democratic Unionists about lockdown, mirroring that increasingly found on the Conservative benches in the Commons. Sammy Wilson, a DUP MP, has clashed very publicly with the local head of the BMA over the measures, and some of the party’s MLAs are also starting to voice concerns.

The News Letter reports that opposition MLAs (of which there are a tiny handful) are also increasingly angry that the NI Executive is preventing Stormont from debating its Covid-19 measures until only a few days before the current set of restrictions expires.

Poll suggests devosceptics could win seats in Wales

As mentioned above, there is new Welsh polling out: Professor Roger Awan-Scully has released the new Welsh Political Barometer. The top line is that Welsh Labour’s vote is holding up – if the results came through in a general election it might wipe out all but one of the Tories’ 2019 election gains. For the Senedd it would see the Tories rising from 11 seats to 16 but getting nowhere near a position to take power, which is the stated objective of the current Welsh Conservative leadership (although it would take Labour and the Lib Dems below the 30 MSs needed for a majority).

But as Awan-Scully points out, perhaps the most intriguing result is that Abolish the Assembly, the insurgent anti-devolution party, has matched its highest-ever polling showing. With seven per cent support, Abolish would pick up four regional list seats, giving organising devoscepticism a political voice for the first time since the advent of the system in the 1990s.

And their support could rise further still. The Barometer also shows the Brexit Party, which too has pivoted to a devosceptic position, picking up a further five per cent support (although no seats). If Abolish can poach this vote – and they recently poached Mark Reckless from the Brexit Party – then it would put them at the same vote share that delivered UKIP seven AMs in 2016.

Suffice to say that if Abolish can establish themselves as a permanent fixture on the unionist right of Welsh politics, there will almost certainly be no pathway to government for the Conservatives that doesn’t involve a deal with them.

Meanwhile one Tory MS is also having to fend off a deselection battle, according to Wales Online. Nick Ramsay, who has represented Monmouth since 2007, faces a fight for his seat after more than 50 members signed a petition calling for a meeting to ‘discuss his future’.

Henry Hill: Conservatives explore plans to buy off SNP with… yet more powers

22 Oct

Tories draw up plans to ‘buy off’ SNP referendum demands

Ever since New Labour first set up the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales, there has only been one game in town when it comes to how to defeat the nationalists and hold the United Kingdom together: “more powers”.

It’s fair to say that it hasn’t worked so far. In the just over two decades since the advent of the Scottish Parliament, for example, the SNP have gone from a marginal force to a political hegemon and independence from a minority pursuit to, at best, a parity position in public opinion. In Wales, meanwhile, the Senedd is brute-forcing nationalist sentiment out of the most incoherent foundations.

Yet the sheer weight of intellectual inertia that has built up behind devolution is such that it remains, despite everything, the reflex response to political difficulty, and this week Bloomberg revealed that this Government might be no exception. They have reportedly seen a memo drawn up by Hanbury, a consultancy working with the Government on the separatist problem, which suggests adopting a policy of ‘accomodation’ to forestall a second independence referendum:

“The government should instead focus on a “Four Nations, One Country” policy by transferring further financial powers, differentiation on policies connected to the EU vote, such as immigration. The document says that the new settlement will be the subject of another paper.”

It goes without saying that there is no mention anywhere in the piece of policies to give effect to the ‘One Country’ part by re-asserting Westminster’s rightful prerogatives as the seat of this country’s sovereign, national government, in the manner of the UK Internal Market Bill.

All of this comes as Michael Gove pledged this week to ‘reset’ relations with the devolved administrations, which have deteriorated in the course of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the FT, this will take the form of ‘institutional’ reforms to improve inter-governmental communication rather than new powers (although it may well just preparing the ground for the concessions envisioned by Hanbury).

This will please Scottish business organisations, which have reportedly urged Westminster and Holyrood to end the ‘stand-off’ over Brexit as the negotiations enter the closing straight.

Stephen Daisley has a great piece for the Spectator outlining why Westminster’s retreat-to-victory approach to the Union is so, so wrong, and I explored similar issues in a recent piece for These Islands on the folly of federalism. If a Government with a majority of 80 really feels it needs more than “once in a generation” to refuse a second referendum, better arguments are available.

Reckless joins ‘Abolish the Assembly’ as ex-UKIPs MSs set up new group

It has become a source of visible irritation to a section of the Welsh devocracy how often the MSs (formerly AMs) who were elected under UKIP’s banner in 2016 have re-organised themselves in the years since.

UKIP broke through in Wales with seven AMs, but the group was almost immediately riven by internal power struggles. Following the decline of UKIP it has splintered yet further, with some joining the Brexit Party before that too ran out of steam. Now the ‘unionist right’ of Welsh politics is dividing over another question: whether or not to abolish the Senedd altogether.

This week, Mark Reckless became the second MS to defect to Abolish the Assembly, the leading devosceptic party (which despite initial refusal is apparently now going to rebrand to reflect the institution’s new name). It will be interesting to see whether this means they will adopt his preferred solution: Reckless doesn’t favour full re-integration, but rather an arrangement wherein Wales’ devolved competencies are exercised by MPs.

Abolish face competition for the abolitionist vote with Neil Hamilton, the sole MS still sitting under the UKIP banner, who has set up his own ‘Scrap the Welsh Assembly’ campaign – a reminder of the personality clashes which have dogged the UKIP caucus. Meanwhile three other ex-Brexit Party MSs have set up the Independent Alliance for Reform, who has the aim suggests are opposed to getting rid of devolution (and with it, of course, their own roles).

Reckless’ defection will give Abolish a high-profile front-man for the upcoming devolved elections and could make them more dangerous to the Conservatives, whose leadership have been firefighting outbreaks of anti-devolution sentiment amongst the grassroots for months.

All of this comes amidst fresh tensions over the Welsh Government’s anti-Covid-19 strategy. As Guido reports, Mark Drakeford has tried to bounce Westminster into stumping up the cash for his ‘firebreak’ lockdown by announcing it before securing sufficient funding. This is a repeat of tensions we saw between the Scottish Government and the Treasury earlier in the pandemic, and is starting to spark calls for the devolved governments to ‘pay for their own lockdowns‘.

Commentary

  • Unionists must stop playing by separatists’ rules – Stephen Daisley, The Spectator
  • A fundamental misunderstanding – Ian Smart, Blog
  • Where is the media scrutiny of Labour in Wales? – Matt Smith, ConservativeHome
  • The little-known £5 billion subsidy which helps unravel the RHI riddle – Sam McBride, News Letter
  • The Prime Minister must not resign himself to the union’s demise – Jeremy Warner, Daily Telegraph
  • Can Unionists better game Scotland’s two vote electoral system than the Nats? – Graham Stewart, The Critic
  • Wales has never been a nation – Polly Mackenzie, UnHerd
  • Why are the devolved nations so ungrateful? – Toby Young, The Spectator

The Tories’ hard pivot against the Cardiff Bay establishment reveals the power of Welsh devoscepticism

25 Jul

Back in May, I wrote about how the widening cracks within the Welsh Conservatives risked undermining their bid to capitalise on strong polling and deliver historic gains at next year’s devolved elections, with devolution becoming ‘Europe 2.0’.

Not only did a section of the grassroots appear to be getting much more vocal on the question, but the Party faced the prospect of being outflanked on its right by parties formally adopting a devosceptic agenda.

Despite what I was hearing from the rank and file, more senior sources – including some not personally ill-disposed towards devoscepticism – assured me there was nothing to see. This was a perennial debate amongst the membership, yes, but they expected everyone to fall into line in the end.

Two months on and it appears that the leadership may have been more spooked than this analysis suggested.

Paul Davies is nobody’s idea of a revolutionary. But following a ‘relaunch of his leadership’ in March in which he took aim at the Assembly gravy train’, the Welsh Conservatives have adopted a much more strident tone on the question. Davies now says Wales needs a ‘devolution revolution‘ – you can listen to the speech here – and has even gone so far as to say Cardiff Bay needs a “dose of Dom”.

Meanwhile Darren Millar MS, the power behind the Tory throne, has trained the Party’s guns on the devocracy (although of course not using the term).

Writing on Gwydir, the blog of the Cardiff University Conservatives, he promises a cull the algal bloom of quangos (“cronies and hangers-on in civic society”) which has spread across the stagnant waters of Cardiff Bay under two decades of unbroken Labour rule. Or to drain the swamp, as it were.

Yet perhaps the spiciest passage is the one which really drives home that this is no gradual evolution, but a definite and deliberate shift in approach:

“Over the summer the process of developing a full first draft of the Welsh Conservative manifesto will be completed and I can assure you that it won’t be Butskellism with a dragon on it. The days when you could take paragraphs from a Welsh Conservative manifesto and slot them randomly into documents by Plaid or Labour or the Lib Dems are over.”

That is a barb with a target, and it is clearly causing some unease amongst the devophile wing. David Melding, a retiring MS of pronounced nationalist sympathies, hit back on Twitter, but it feels suddenly as if he’s sailing against the wind. ‘Ever looser Union’ no longer looks like an inevitable future.

None of this is to say that the current leadership has converted to devoscepticism. It certainly has not, and Millar especially is viewed by devosceptics as something of a witchfinder-general on the constitutional question. The ferocity of the response to Daniel Kawczynski’s call for the Senedd’s abolition is a better indicator of their true feelings on that fundamental question.

But they have clearly concluded that it is no longer sufficient simply to have the whips machine-gun the parapet and force people to keep their heads down. Devoscepticism is a constituency, and the question is breaking out whether they like it or not. Candidates are penning pieces criticising devolution.

One has even gone so far as to suggest, in a piece for the Centre for Welsh Studies, that the Party is approaching a make-or-break moment:

“In next year’s Senedd Elections I see the future of Wales at a crossroads and my view is clear: if Conservative policies cannot deliver the positive changes we need to see to drive forward improvements in our public services, infrastructure and economy then we must campaign for a different settlement. That settlement would not include a Senedd.”

Given how recently devoscepticism was anathematised by the Party hierarchy, it’s remarkable that someone aiming for office should feel able even to hold out the prospect of opposing devolution.

Their framing, however, reflects that of the leadership. In materials from a recent strategy session, seen by ConHome, Tory strategists included the slogan “Abolish Labour, not devolution”. The goal is evidently to harness mounting dissatisfaction with Cardiff Bay and channel it towards a Conservative programme, rather than abolition.

But is this feasible? The Party is acting as if it were. Notwithstanding their polling, their operation includes a concerted effort to mobilise the hundreds of thousands of Tory voters who turn out to consistently deliver it second place at Westminster contests but ignore devolved ones, leaving it bumping along at roughly level pegging with the Welsh Nationalists.

Were the Conservatives to hit their goal of getting 75 per cent of their 2019 vote (557,234) to turn out next year, it would give them almost 418,000 votes. For comparison, they took just 190,846 in 2016. Indeed Labour, which took 29 seats at that contest, only won just over 319,000 votes in that election.

But is this goal realistic? We have covered the gulf between the two Welsh Conservative electorates several times since 2018. Last year, I explained that “‘leaning in’ to the devolutionary status quo and trying to align themselves as possible coalition partners with Plaid Cymru” made it impossible for the Tories to motivate their devosceptic stay-at-home voters.

On this front, the tough new rhetoric and rumoured shift in stance against governing with other parties is a good start. Operationally, the Conservatives also have an advantage in that they have the data to know where these voters are. The various parties scrapping for the anti-Senedd vote will need time to build up their own electoral intelligence.

But it still seems a long shot, not least because any strategy built on mobilising non-voters always is (ask Jeremy Corbyn). There is also a danger that the Tories might rouse these slumbering dragons only for them to plump for Abolish, even if just for the regional vote, once they get to the polling station.

It also seems unlikely that the Conservatives could marshal hundreds of thousands of new voters without provoking some kind of response from the the Left. There are a good number of Labour voters who don’t turn out for Cardiff Bay too – will they stay idle if it looks like the Tories might be about to take power?

There also remains a big question mark over whether the leadership would really turn out an opportunity to turf Labour out, after so long, even if the price were a compact with Plaid.

A big win next year might slice this strategic Gordian Knot. But should this plan fail, and grassroots Conservatives despair of ever taking power in the Senedd, it seems likely that pressure will continue to build for an even more devosceptic position.

Some in Wales are already suggesting that, notwithstanding efforts to keep them off the lists, it may not be long until an anti-Senedd candidate contests and even wins the leadership. The alternative could be the slow bleed of activists and councillors to Abolish growing to a haemorrhage.

Henry Hill: Reserving control of ‘level playing field’ provisions to Westminster should be just the first step

16 Jul

Government’s fight over post-Brexit powers is late, but welcome

The big constitutional story this week is the news that the Government is squaring up to the devolved administrations over control of vital ex-EU powers.

According to the Financial Times, Boris Johnson intends to retain control over ‘level playing field’ provisions and state aid at Westminster, in order to prevent different parts of the United Kingdom undermining each other. This has revived specious claims by Edinburgh and Cardiff that London is engaged in a ‘power grab’, seizing powers which are rightfully theirs.

The Scottish Conservatives have come out fighting for the pro-UK position: Ruth Davidson has penned an op-ed in the Evening Standard supporting the move. Douglas Ross, who recently resigned from the Scottish Office, challenged the SNP on this basis:

“If it is a power grab there most be powers currently held by the Scottish Parliament, enacted by the Scottish Government on behalf of the people of Scotland that we the UK Government are taking away.”

Luke Graham, the former MP for Ochil and South Perthshire and now head of Downing Street’s Union Unit, has taken the same line: that these powers have never been devolved (indeed Holyrood was only established after many were already vested in Brussels), so there is no attack on devolution.

This is a welcome shift in position. During the pivotal clash over the misnamed “post-Brexit devolved powers” in 2017 and 2018, several leading Scottish Tories were at the forefront of the campaign to force the Government to scrap the part of the Withdrawal Bill safeguarding ex-EU powers in Westminster. Indeed, senior MSPs lent credence to the ‘power grab’ claim.

Defenders of Section 11 of the Withdrawal Bill, as-was, advanced detailed arguments about the dangers posed by ceding powers necessary to harmonise a common market below the highest level of political authority in that market, and were met with little more than airy rhetoric about the “spirit of devolution”.

Whilst some, such as the Institute for Government, believe the new, more centralised approach is “not a sustainable long-term strategy”, in fact the reverse is true.

It is not sustainable to continue trying to deliver pan-UK rules whilst bending over backwards to avoid our pan-UK institutions setting and enforcing them. It should be taken as read that any devolved administration committed to breaking up Britain will exploit any opportunity to foul up the proper functioning of the UK common market, whether that be through setting different standards or exploiting new consultation and dispute-resolution mechanisms as platforms for grievance.

Any power previously exercised at the EU level should, by default, be executed at the UK level. They were, after all, passed upwards for a reason. Ministers should re-acquaint themselves with the arguments over Section 11, and consider casting their powers net much wider yet.

Separatists attempt to game Holyrood elections with new party

An ex-SNP MSP has set up a new pro-independence party, with the aim of hugely inflating the number of separatist MSPs returned at the next Holyrood elections.

STV reports that the Alliance for Independence anticipates that it might win up to 24 MSPs by running exclusively for the Scottish Parliament’s ‘list’ constituencies.

Under the Scottish electoral system, voters cast two ballots: one for their geographical first-part-the-post constituency, and another for a regional list. When the parties contest both, the list vote is used to ‘top up’ those parties which under-performed under FPTP and ensure something resembling a proportional outcome.

But if the Alliance for Independence only contest list seats, and SNP voters lend it their support en masse, it could result in the ‘official Nationalists’ winning most of the constituencies and the ‘unofficial nationalists’ a huge share of the list, resulting in a chamber in which the unionist parties were seriously under-represented compared to their vote.

Some commentators, such as Kenny Farquharson, have argued that this would undermine the legitimacy of the resulting parliament – a possible boon to the Government if it truly intends to resist calls for a second referendum (as it should). Rory Scothorne, writing on a pro-independence site, sums up the approach as ‘magical thinking’.

There may also be more to the AfI than gerry-mandering. The SNP civil war, which David Leask profiled a couple of months ago, rages on. A new separatist party could provide a rallying point for Nicola Sturgeon’s internal opponents and provide a vehicle for Alex Salmond’s latest re-entry into politics.

On the other side of the argument, George Galloway is carving himself a space in unionist politics with the launch of his new ‘Alliance for Unity’. Based on the Scottish branch of his new Workers Party of Britain, it will provide a vehicle for his particular brand of energetic, left-wing unionism.

Galloway’s decision to return to Scotland and contest elections there might be bad news for Scottish Labour, the ailing giant of the left-unionist quadrant of Scottish politics. But who knows, perhaps the WPB will confine itself to the lists…

Brexit Party shift to anti-Senedd stance

There is now a three-way battle for the votes of Wales’ sizeable devosceptic minority. Mark Reckless, the leader of the Brexit Party’s MS group, has made it his party’s policy to scrap the Senedd.

Whilst differing in detail from the position of rival groups – Reckless’ plan is to hand the Welsh Parliament’s powers to Welsh MPs, rather than wholesale reintegration – this puts him in contention both with the rump of UKIP, led by Neil Hamilton, and the new Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party.

Dividing this vote, which is already reluctant to even turn out for devolved contests, may provide a short-term boost to the Conservatives. But should one of the three emerge triumphant it could pose a serious threat on the Tories’ right-unionist flank.

Op-eds:

  • Sunak was right to bypass the SNP with UK-wide splurge – Alan Cochrane, Daily Telegraph
  • Devolution is dragging the UK’s economic recovery down – Matt Smith, CapX
  • Six things the Conservatives need to do now – Andrew Waddell, The Majority
  • The Union is in graver danger than ever – James Forsyth, The Spectator
  • Stand up for the Union or lose it – Stephen Daisley, Website
  • Sturgeon’s quarantine threat is an anti-English dog whistle – Henry Hill, Daily Telegraph

Henry Hill: Sturgeon sets out plan to ‘unlock’ Scotland… one day before England

25 Jun

Sturgeon unveils timetable for ‘mass unlocking’ of Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon is planning a major easing of lockdown restrictions, the Daily Telegraph reports, including lifting a five-mile travel limit and opening up access to holiday homes.

In proper devocrat fashion, this new regime will kick in one Friday, July 3rd – the day before Boris Johnson’s own changes take effect south of the border.

This comes as the Scottish Government faces continuing criticism over its handling of schools, with its plans for so-called ‘blended learning’ coming under attack from both the press and SNP politicians. Scientists have also attacked the evidence base (or lack thereof) underpinning Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to lockdown.

(The Welsh Government is not doing any better, with their Education Secretary unable to say when schools will reopen and likewise committed to ‘blended learning’.)

Local government in the spotlight

The Scotsman reports that several Scottish councils are facing severe financial black holes as a result of the pandemic. Three council have deficits adding up to hundreds of pounds per resident – the highest is £411 – which adds up to hundreds of millions of pounds in total.

This is the latest twist in a long-running battle between the Nationalist administration at Holyrood and Scottish local government. Arch-centralisers, the SNP have been using Scottish Government financial support to reduce the independence of councils.

In Wales, meanwhile, the Centre for Welsh Studies has published a new report which suggests that the Shared Prosperity Fund – the UK-administered scheme which will replace EU funding post-Brexit – should be administered by Westminster and local councils, rather than being handed to the Senedd.

This proposal will doubtless outrage the devocrats, who are consistently opposed to letting Westminster control UK-level policy in the way that Brussels controls EU-level policy. But if the SPF is to become an instrument for strengthening the Union, keeping it out of devocrat hands is essential.

DUP again press Johnson on post-Brexit border arrangements

Their moment in the Commons sun may have passed, but the Democratic Unionists are still trying to hold the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire over his promises to Northern Ireland.

Speaking at yesterday’s PMQs, Sammy Wilson challenged Boris Johnson over the fact that the Port of Larne is reportedly making preparations for extensive customs infrastructure, ready to receive shipping from the British mainland.

In response, the Prime Minister said that “I can tell him absolutely, categorically that there will be no new customs infrastructure”, citing the Withdrawal Agreement’s recognition that Ulster remains inside the British customs territory.

Abolish the Assembly get their first MS

After a few months of growing media attention, following some good poll showings and the defection of their first councillor, the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party (‘Abolish’) have secured their first representative in that institution.

Gareth Bennett, an independent MS who previously served as leader of UKIP’s Assembly group, has now signed up to the group. (And if you want an idea of why devosceptics might be rare in Welsh political life, check out the extraordinarily aggressive interview he got from Wales Online).

Apparently Abolish, which recently launched a membership programme, will consider it a good result if they win three seats at the next Senedd poll.

(In other devosceptic news, I spoke to David Leask at the Herald on Sunday about why opposition to devolution appears to be waxing during Covid-19. Most of my section seems to be missing from the online version, but it may return.)