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.

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