The Labour party in Wales experienced something strikingly close to good news last week. After the shock of the first opinion poll of the general election campaign, which put them ten points behind the Conservatives, and facing their first general election defeat in Wales for ninety-nine years, pessimists were braced for another body-blow in the local elections.
But Labour won those elections in Wales. True, they did suffer net losses of more than 100 councillors, and ceded control of three local authorities. But these setbacks were very much at the lower end of expectations. Labour remain the dominant party of local government in Wales – even after last week, neither Plaid Cymru nor the Conservatives have anywhere close to half the number of local councillors that Labour does.
Further evidence that the Labour party is not about to roll over and die in its ultimate heartland has now been supplied from the second Welsh poll of the general election, which showed Labour support to have increased five points in a fortnight. While some of that jump may be more apparent than real – sampling error, random polling variation etc – you would always rather be rising than falling in the polls.
But a quick glance at the rest of the new Welsh Political Barometer poll offers a swift reality check to any surge in Labour optimism. While they may have firmed up their own support base, Labour face a Conservative party which is stronger than ever before in Wales at a general election. There is simply no precedent for the Tories’ 41 percent support in the latest poll. Theresa May and her party continue to be formidable opponents, and on course for a historic breakthrough in Wales at this election.
The recent local election campaign was very much fought under the banner of Welsh Labour. So too was last year’s Welsh Assembly election. Similar results were achieved in both: in difficult times, while the Labour vote fell the party displayed impressive resilience in many key areas, and held onto most of what they had won several years previously. Labour went into the local elections as the governing party in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. When the votes had all been counted, the party still held majorities in Wales’ three largest cities.
Both the devolved and local election campaigns demonstrated that when Labour in Wales fight as Welsh Labour they can still win. But does this experience offer useful lessons for a general election?
There are plenty of incumbent Labour MPs and candidates who will be hoping that ‘Welshing-up’ the campaign might help them buck the Britain-wide trends currently favouring the Tories. The latest Welsh poll showed once again that First Minister Carwyn Jones is one of the three most popular politicians in Wales – the others being Theresa May and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood. He is likely to be much more prominent in the general election campaign than he was two years ago. Expect his face to be seen far more in Welsh Labour leaflets and broadcasts than that of Jeremy Corbyn. Expect Jones also to speak for Labour in the two planned Welsh television debates – whereas in 2015 the party was represented by then Shadow Secretary of State Owen Smith.
Labour will also talk much more on the Welsh Government and Assembly than the shambolic parliamentary party at Westminster. At the Welsh campaign launch, five key pledges were highlighted; rather inconveniently, journalists soon pointed out that three of the pledges concerned devolved matters not at play in a UK general election.
The irony is that relations between the Cardiff Bay and Westminster branches of Welsh Labour have often been strained. Owen Smith accurately represented the views of many parliamentary colleagues, during his period as Shadow Welsh Secretary, in making clear that he shared little of Carwyn Jones’ oft-stated enthusiasm for further devolution and the wholesale reworking of the UK constitution. But needs must… Facing their first general election defeat in Wales since the heyday of Lloyd George, Labour are reaching for the best card they have left – the First Minister.
In the longer-term, many would like to see much more substantial autonomy from London for the party in Wales as in Scotland. But there are organisational problems with this – the party in Wales is financially dependent on the UK-wide party, and most Labour staff in Wales are employed by the part in London. Even if achieved, autonomy is no guaranteed electoral panacea. It would only be likely to reap benefits in a general election if voters were, first, aware of it and, second, thereby given reasons to change the basis of their voting decision in a way that was favourable to Labour. Jim Murphy was the undisputed leader of Scottish Labour – and much good that did him…
In the short-term, Labour in Wales will continue to try to insulate themselves from the party in London. They face an uphill task. Scotland these days is largely a distinct electoral arena, but Wales is much more closely tied into English political rhythms, particularly during the a UK-wide vote. The London-based media will continue to focus attention on May versus Corbyn as the two potential Prime Ministers. This framing of the contest does not play well for Labour – in Wales as much as anywhere else.
Welsh Labour is emphatically not dead. But it could be forgiven for a sense of being shackled to a corpse.