Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Reflections on the 2016 Welsh General Election - by Sophie Williams

Although the deadlock at the Senedd now seems to be nearing its end, Wales will have been without a government for almost two weeks after the 2016 Welsh General Election. Although 29 seats out of 60 is by no means our worst electoral result since devolution, the lack of a clear majority requires cooperation with other like-minded political parties. This need not always be a negative development in itself; however, it requires sufficient desire on all sides to reach the necessary agreement.

Although it is still early days and full result analysis has yet to be undertaken, it is prudent to consider how we have come to be here and the factors conditioning our current state of limbo. These factors are multiple in nature and will vary, constituency by constituency and ward by ward, with local issues, particularly relationships with local councils, certainly having played a part. However, some key trends can be identified.

Firstly, we must look at the nature of the big picture campaign. Jeremy Corbyn achieved an historic victory in the Labour Party leadership last September, in which he won over the vast majority of the Labour party membership (and, indeed, many thousands of people outside the party) with his clear vision for doing things differently. Yet out on the campaign trail in Wales, Jeremy was rarely to be seen. Despite proving popular with Welsh party members (9 Welsh CLPs nominated Jeremy for leader and thousands more personally voted for him), Jeremy visited only a select few constituencies, concentrating on seats like Aberavon and Ogmore where the Labour vote is arguably stronger than in other areas, for example Cardiff North and Cardiff Central.

The steel crisis is a clear factor, yet it does not give the full story. News items reported that Jeremy had been ‘banned’ from Wales. Although the exact terminology was rebutted by Carwyn, there is no question that the Welsh media were allowed to think, and to report, that the Welsh Labour leadership consider Jeremy an electoral liability. In his absence, wider messages of being halfway through a 10 year plan not only lacked inspiration and smacked of the oft-repeated Tory trope, but were also self-defeating: even if a win is achieved in 2016, what will the message be in 2020? We’ve finished our 10-year plan, please let us start another?

Organisational issues complemented the lacklustre nature of the wider campaign. How we campaign and the information on which we base our canvassing has not changed to accord with new technologies and a politically disengaged electorate. In many areas, the same core activists who can always be relied upon saw each other day after day, as constituencies struggled to engage the many thousands of new party members and supporters in traditional campaigning activity. How we derive our data and where we target our resources must be the subject of serious investigation, as strong political messages can still be hampered by poor or complacent activity on the ground.

We must consider the twin challenges of Plaid Cymru, on the one hand, and UKIP on the other. Both made inroads into the Labour vote in post-industrial communities in the South Wales Valleys and North East Wales, albeit for very different reasons. The purchase of the self-presentation of Plaid Cymru as a ‘Welsh’ party, concerned only with Welsh issues requires examination: do voters respond positively to this and do they vote Plaid Cymru because they believe that only Plaid Cymru have a right to govern for Welsh people? Do we challenge UKIP strongly enough on the tough issues like immigration, and have we sufficiently explored why traditional Labour voters are turning to this rag-tag populist band of failed Tories? Is this simply a turn away from Labour rather than actively ascribing to the UKIP policy platform, and if so, what are we doing to revitalise our image?

Finally, we must look at the reasons why, after 17 years and five elections, voter turnout for Welsh General Elections continues to hover around 45% of the electorate. In Scotland on the same day, the turnout was 55.6%. Welsh turnout figures can be further compared with those of other European ‘stateless nations’: turnout in the Basque Parliament elections in 2012 was 64%, while turnout in last year’s Catalan elections was 75%. These are undoubtedly crude indicators which must be contextualised and broken down by category; however, there is clearly more work to do to convince the Welsh electorate that participating in a Welsh General Election should be at least as important to them as participating in a UK General Election.

Following next month’s EU Referendum (after which there may be either no change or complete overhaul) and next year’s local Council elections, we face a three-year election-free period. Perhaps part of that time may be spent considering some of these issues, as we look towards the 2020 UK elections.

Welsh Labour survives another election - by Nick Davies

On the face of it, the fifth election to the Welsh Assembly could have been worse for Labour; the result was certainly better than predicted. Only one seat was lost: Rhondda, where Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood ousted former minister, Leighton Andrews. Plaid’s other main target, Llanelli, stayed Labour. Labour held all the Tories’ targets: Cardiff North,Vale of Glamorgan, Gower and Vale of Clwyd. The main story was the Tories’ failure, rooted in Westminster’s complacent response to the steel crisis and the ineptitude of their leader, Andrew RT Davies, to match their own expectations. If the Welsh Tories wanted the election to be a referendum on NHS Wales, they got it: voters took a look at the dysfunctional chaos presided over by Jeremy Hunt, noted that in Wales there was no junior doctors’ strike, and duly came to the necessary conclusion. Driven back to the coasts and borders, their total number of seats went down to 11 from 14, and their share of the vote went down from 2011 and 2015.

Notwithstanding the dramatically tied vote for First Minister when the Assembly met for the first time, it now seems certain that Labour, with 29 out of 60 seats, will form another minority government, probably involving case-by-case consultation with Plaid Cymru, now the second biggest party, and more reliable support from the one remaining Liberal Democrat, Kirsty Williams. Fifteen of the new Labour group of 29 are women (despite Welsh Labour reneging on its own policy on all-women shortlists to ease former MP Huw Irranca-Davies into the Ogmore Assembly seat). However, the women tend to occupy the less safe seats. Across the whole Assembly, there are now three openly lesbian or gay AMs.

This result was against a backdrop of an unrelentingly hostile campaign against Jeremy Corbyn, a cynical attempt to use allegations of anti-semitism to destabilise the UK party, an ongoing smear campaign against the NHS Wales and a media narrative that Labour was ‘tired’ and it was ‘time for a change’.

Therefore, this looks like a job (reasonably) well done.

But all is not well. Labour’s constituency vote of 35.7% was down by 7.5% from 2011. The regional vote dropped to 31.5% from 35.4% from 2011. The drop in some constituencies was calamitous: 27.3% in Rhondda but also 24.3% in Blaenau Gwent and 18.1% in Neath. The electoral system, although generally working against a Labour majority, has its quirks: the net loss of one seat disguises somewhat the extent of the problem.

Appallingly, lost votes went to UKIP. UKIP’s constituency vote of 12.5% was actually slightly down on the general election but that, and a regional vote of 13%, was enough to secure the party 7 seats. As in 2015, the UKIP vote in the Valleys and north-east Wales, was far higher. There was not necessarily a straight transfer of votes from Labour to UKIP; in some cases UKIP’s increase was far higher than Labour’s decline, suggesting that some UKIP supporters were previous non-voters, although possibly former Labour voters. Even in Rhondda and Blaenau Gwent, where Plaid beat or almost beat Labour, UKIP polled well.

UKIP opportunistically exploits the feeling of abandonment felt in some post-industrial communities in which fears about immigration have not been engaged with or challenged. Less a ‘breath of fresh air’, what those voters got was a waft of foul gas: a former employer of cheap labour in ‘bunkhouses’, a failed right-wing Tory who may once have spent a weekend in Wales and Neil Hamilton, one of the most unsavoury characters ever to enter the House of Commons, who now besmirches the Senedd. Those who voted for these chancers ‘for a change’ will find it wasn’t the change they were bargaining for. Hamilton’s leadership coup suggests that UKIP’s indifference to the interests of Wales is matched only by their treachery towards each other.

This result tells us that Welsh Labour’s hold over some of its ‘heartland’ is weak, its organisation patchy, its party bodies inactive and the task of re-engaging with working-class communities alienated by New Labour and metropolitan indifference will be a long one.

The election campaign showed up a deeper problem. There’s been a drift away from the ‘Clear Red Water’ era when Welsh Labour defined itself positively to New Labour’s left. Welsh Labour now finds itself to the right of the UK leadership, demonstrated by its keeping a nervous distance from Jeremy Corbyn. Welcome as the healthy gender balance in the Labour group is, the group, by dint of personnel changes – retirements and recent selections – has moved to the right. Many party officials, answerable to London and appointed in the New Labour years, appear to have a markedly different agenda from the new Corbyn-McDonnell leadership and even from the majority of the Assembly Labour group.

This problem bubbled to the surface when, in the face of the ‘anti-semitism’ media-storm, Jeremy’s planned visit to Wales was called off. Although it was made clear that Jeremy was not ‘barred’ from Wales, the media was allowed to infer that Welsh Labour regarded Jeremy as an electoral liability.

This is not the first time that journalists have been allowed to make such an inference; there was a similar instance at the Welsh Labour conference in February. This is despite Jeremy’s huge mandate and his proven ability to connect with many of those voters Welsh Labour has shown that it cannot reach.

Carwyn also made a public demand that Ken Livingstone be immediately expelled from the Labour party: a knee-jerk reaction, like so much of the response to Ken's remarks. While Ken’s remarks were, to say the least, not well-chosen, and he should have known, in the build-up to an election, and in the present climate, that the remarks would be used to attack Jeremy Corbyn, and the party, they were not anti-semitic (contrary to the hysterical accusations of John Mann and others) and had some basis in fact. However, Carwyn stated that his comments ‘give license [sic] to intolerance in our schools and our communities’. Even if there were substantial grounds for this view, it was surely premature to demand Ken's expulsion, in advance of any investigation and without due process. Again, in the context, it merely gave comfort to opponents of Labour and, because Livingstone, by virtue of their long association, is seen as a proxy for Jeremy Corbyn, of the leader himself. This was not just a bad judgment call in the heat of the moment but a positioning by Welsh Labour on the wrong side of a dividing line between those in the party who support Corbyn’s legitimacy as leader, and his determination to break from the Westminster consensus, and those who do not.

A shorter version of this article appears in the current issue of Labour Briefing magazine.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Election Review - by Mike Hedges AM

This is the first election I can remember when people were looking to blame the national party leader for the result before the first vote had been cast, never mind counted. Outside Scotland, which I will discuss later, the results were somewhere between OK and good.

Winning all the mayoral elections - including London and Bristol, both of which were lost last time - would have been described as a breakthrough by political commentators in any other year, except it did not fit into the current media thinking.

In Wales, we lost one seat, which is attributable to the enormous publicity gained by Plaid Cymru’s leader over the last two elections. As party leaders get more publicity during election campaigns, the unintended consequence appears to be a massively increased vote in the constituency they are fighting.

In Scotland, although the result for Labour was better than last year, it was hugely disappointing to only win three constituency seats, but putting it into context the SNP won 7 constituency seats in 1999 and 9 constituency seats in 2003. Labour in Scotland is still paying the price for campaigning with the Tories against independence.

The English council elections were better than the critics expected. As Parliaments since 1979 have usually been 4 years, with 3 exceptions, also except for this year, the governing party lost parliamentary seats at that election, meaning that council gains were almost inevitable. These council elections were last fought a year into the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, when Labour made gains.

Six key points I have learnt, as a candidate, from the election:
1.    All politics is local: the issues I was given on the road outside polling stations were traffic speed; apprenticeship with the council; housing repairs; blocked drains; overhanging trees and overgrowth.
2.    Internal party disagreements hurt: the average voter pays little attention to the issue but just sees a split party.
3.    When party leaders are given huge media coverage, it gives them a huge boost as a constituency candidate, as can be seen by the increase in the votes for both Kirsty Williams and Leanne Wood in Wales. Labour’s one defeat in Wales can be clearly linked to the profile and exposure that Leanne Wood had during the General Election and Assembly Election. This is a consequence of the “presidential” style elections we now have.
4.    Candidates matter: victories by Jane Hutt in the Vale of Glamorgan,  Julie Morgan in Cardiff North and Ann Jones in the Vale of Clwyd owed a lot to hard the work done locally, personal popularity and some close associations with the locality and key local organisations.
5.    Social media works - but not as well as word of mouth and text messaging amongst friends and we failed to use the new members and supporters to spread our message in the workplaces, the community centres and amongst friends and neighbours.
6.    Campaigning is important - but it has to be done over 5 years not 5 weeks. People who meet you are more likely to vote for you and more likely to vote than people who do not know you. Visits to community groups and interest groups builds your profile and you cannot be in the local paper, on local radio or on television too much. People will mainly forget what you said but just remember that you were in the media.

These are just personal thoughts and I am sure that others will have different opinions.