Monday, 12 June 2017

Election 2017: The Post-Mortem

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My final post on the 2017 UK general election (June – in case I have to do this again later this year) takes a more detailed look at how the election panned out in Wales and what it means for the parties.

Labour

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The best way of describing it is that Labour lost the election but "won" the campaign.

In Wales, they gained vote share in every constituency except Blaenau Gwent, finishing with 49.1% (+12.1% compared to 2015). In the space of two years that's a dramatic turnaround. At least five seats saw vote shares increase by at least 15%, while the biggest increase of the night was in Cardiff Central (+22.4%) - blowing the Lib Dems into third place and making it one of Labour's safest seats in Wales.

On all objective measures this was a successful campaign for Labour in Wales, spoiled a little bit by narrowly missing out on taking Arfon, Preseli Pembs. and Aberconwy by a few hundred votes.

Across the UK as a whole though, this wasn't an unqualified success and the Welsh results make absolutely no difference whatsoever. However, considering what Jeremy Corbyn was up against from within his own party and the character assassinations in the right-wing press (whose influence finally seems to be waning) it'll certainly feel like a victory – but they shouldn't get too carried away.

I don't get the hype about Jeremy Corbyn to be completely honest. He's not PM material because I doubt he would cope making the sort of decisions PMs have to make - he's a good protest/anti-establishment politician and that's about it. Having said that he seems like someone who genuinely believes in social justice, managed to do the unthinkable and get the under-35s to turn out in big numbers, deserved more support at the start and deserves another shot at it. Just because he isn't PM material now it doesn't mean he couldn't elevate himself to the position.

If Labour had a more effective and credible front-bench team around him (they still can if the senior nay-sayers/carpetbaggers/snakes get back on board), they would now be in a position to govern, not stay in opposition.

Like it or not, in this day and age we don't elect "genuine" people at the higher level, but carefully stage-managed ones who know what to say and when. We expect professionalism and for leaders to be on message and at the top of their game as much as possible. That's why, even though it was a bit underhand, it was right for "Welsh Labour" to put Carwyn Jones front and centre here.

That presents problems for Welsh Labour too. As the most senior Labour-led administration in the UK they'll now be expected to deliver some of UK Labour's manifesto commitments in Wales, like nationalisation of the railways and free university tuition. Carwyn's not going to like that - not because he doesn't support it, but his favourite argument: "No money, no policy".

If they try and brush it off in the Senedd chamber, people will be right to ask if Welsh Labour have just conned them and, as has been the case for generations, taken their vote for granted?

Conservatives
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In mathematical terms this was one of the best results the Conservatives have ever had in Wales, but it's still a defeat.

They increased their vote share by 6.4% nationally compared to 2015 and only went backwards in a single seat – Cardiff North (-0.3%). They made up significant ground in northern Wales and even managed to pull of big vote increases in places traditionally hostile to the Conservatives like Ogmore, Pontypridd and Islwyn. However, they lost three seats and both Guto Bebb and Stephen Crabb came close to losing Aberconwy and Preseli Pembs. respectively.

The Tories also failed to win any of their key target seats like Bridgend, the two Newport seats and Delyn; in many cases these seats will now be more difficult to win because Labour hoovered up not only a surprisingly large chunk of the UKIP vote (perhaps due to a working class distrust of the Tories), but also voters from other parties like Plaid and the Lib Dems who are either as rabidly anti-Tory as Labour, die hard Remainers or support a "Soft Brexit".

So how did something that turned out (on paper) so right end up going so badly wrong?

Let's start with the manifesto. I doubt anyone but politics geeks read manifestos, but....fox hunting, the "dementia tax", clamping down on the internet (without an understanding of how it works), ditching Leveson II, no costings....Why not bring back the workhouse and repeal the Reform Act while you're at it?

Theresa May's record as Home Secretary when it came to cuts to policing (post-Manchester attack) and the communication failure that surrounded plans for social care in England (do the Welsh Conservatives still oppose devolution of broadcasting now?) seems to be a major turning point in the campaign. All it needed was for Theresa May to explain the policies and defend them against her opponents – she didn't.

Next, there's how the campaign was run. I received about 6 or 7 leaflets from the Conservatives, including those contrived personally-addressed letters, and you couldn't escape them on the internet either; they must've spent an absolute fortune on targeted online ads. In each case they heavily featured Theresa May droning on about how strong and stable she was; the local candidates were squeezed in somewhere as an afterthought.

While Labour gave (or rather, Welsh Labour imposed) a central role in the campaign for Carwyn Jones, there doesn't seem to have been any co-ordination between Tory MPs and AMs – that may be partly down to CCHQ's poorly-concealed anger about Mark Reckless being allowed back into the fold in Cardiff Bay. And the less said about the nonsense surrounding the debate line-up the better.

The Conservative Assembly group will (to a certain extent) rightly grumble about how they weren't engaged, but that's what you should expect when it's London
über alles. It's the "Conservative & Unionist Party" after all and the Welsh Conservatives exist mostly in name only (as do Welsh Labour).

As a result, the Conservative campaign seemed overly-centralised, with very little attention given to local matters or local campaigning, an inordinate amount of effort focused on Brexit (which was barely mentioned at all) and a near presidential campaign by Theresa May which created a binary choice and subsequently galvanised anti-Tory voters behind Labour.

As we've only ever had one female UK Prime Minister, it was inevitable Theresa would be compared to Margaret Thatcher. I suspect many who backed her leadership bid saw her as a second coming, and a few days ago she was Britannia made flesh; but I've always believed that if someone has to tell you they're a hard worker or a "strong and stable leader", they're probably not. Show, don't tell.

If anything, this campaign's shown her up as the second coming of Ted Heath. She called the election and blew it. Her authority's shot but she's going to squat in Downing Street until a credible leadership candidate sticks a knife in her. As a result, the UK looks ungovernable (here's my long-term solution to save ourselves from becoming part of a failed First World state).

As well as failing to defend her own policies, Theresa resorted to dry and robotic sloganeering, has zero people skills and proven herself decisive in making the wrong decisions – pursuing the hardest possible Brexit and the proposed DUP pact being cases in point. She's undoing a decade of work that's gone into making the Conservatives socially mainstream and has managed to unite the Labour party in one day.

I can't say anything of the practicalities, but if I were in her position, due to the current political instability it would be worth seeking to form a National Government, shelve any controversial legislation and major changes to public finances, focus efforts on getting a cross-party Brexit deal and major constitutional reforms that a super majority of MPs can agree on and rubber-stamp, then call an election in May 2019.

As things stand, I wouldn't at all be surprised if we go to the polls again within a year and if we do it's likely the Tories will be severely, and deservedly, punished.

I hope I'm proven wrong, but I can already picture Andrew RT Davies being silly enough to try and defend any DUP agreement in the Senedd – and that will probably be the beginning of the end of him too.

Plaid Cymru
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Plaid ended the night with more seats than they started it with, but all in all it's not good reading.

For once luck was on their side as, instead of missing out by narrow margins, they won by narrow margins. As said on Nation.Cymru last week, a tiny number of votes the other way would've been a major setback for Plaid.

Their vote only dipped 1.7% nationally, but when you look at individual seats, some performances were embarrassing. They came nowhere in Rhondda or Caerphilly, finished third in Llanelli, Neath and Ynys Môn and were a few votes away from losing Arfon. They clearly had big problems in south west Wales and Cardiff, and in total lost 15 deposits (£7,500).

The good news is they saw a large increase in vote share in Blaenau Gwent (+12%) and are slowly becoming a serious player there, while they also managed to increase their vote share in traditionally strong seats like Dwyfor Meirionnydd and Carms. E & Dinefwr.

The victory in Ceredigion was unexpected and welcome, but it was a fluke caused by a surge in (traditionally weak) local Labour and Tory votes and big dip in the Lib Dem vote, perhaps because exam season was over and many students will have gone home. Plaid's vote nudged up slightly (+1.5%), but it was enough and credit to Ben Lake and his team for getting it.



Plaid's main campaign message was about shielding Wales against the Conservatives. The Tories had to be beaten back at all costs because they were determined to extinguish Wales from the annals of time etc.

The Conservative's natural predator is Labour. So what Plaid did was give supporters living in constituencies where they stand no chance (i.e. most seats) a green light to vote Labour "to keep the Tories out" – and they did....except this happened in Plaid's target seats too (Llanelli, Ynys Môn etc.) and there's no guarantee they're going to come back. In short, Plaid helped squeeze their own vote, which Labour "graciously" accepted as you might expect.

Plaid's campaign was a bit downbeat and I can't think of any stand out policies at all. Their problem is it's hard to attack Labour's record in Wales when Plaid have so many informal and formal agreements with them in the Senedd – like the Brexit white paper - and it's nigh on impossible to attack Jeremy Corbyn from the left because you can't go much further left without growing a moustache and opening gulags.

Plaid don't have a USP. As the self-appointed custodians of "the national project" they've done little to foster and develop it themselves (by drawing concessions from others, certainly). All they've got left is a mish-mash of cultural protectionism and various progressive "causes", when they could do more to build a broader base of support - who doesn't have its head turned so easily - instead of trying to out-Labour Labour (more from Dan Lawrence), which hasn't worked for them since the Iraq War.

Then there's the leadership. TV debates don't make much difference, but Leanne Wood didn't perform particularly well in any of them and has lost the shine that won her Rhondda last year. She's been (as someone else put it recently) "Borgenized": built up by the party as the lead character in an entirely fictional political drama, where Plaid are only a few steps away from governing Wales and she's a First Minister in waiting.

Instead of being a pet Guardian columnists pat on the head every now and again for bringing them a virtue-signalling bone, I'd rather see more of Leanne from Penygraig – the same one who made the divorce quip to Eddie Hitler. It's something she has that Carwyn Jones doesn't: authenticity and a grounding in "Real Wales".

This is the sixth national election in a row where Plaid have either under-performed, underwhelmed or failed to make the sort of progress that generates serious returns. I believe it's because unrealistic expectations are fuelled by an unjustified high self-esteem that Plaid's social media echo chamber have helped foster. I'm crossing my fingers that Nation.Cymru and Yes Cymru don't end up going down the same road.

Before I get, "B-b-b-but THE GAINS! 35% SURGE in council ward X!!!! LEAFLETING OUR FEET RAW ON THE DOORSTEP!!!!1!!!111 #YMLAEN": seats count, you don't win anything for increasing vote share (unless it's sustained or in a PR electoral system) – and in most cases you didn't even manage that.

Other commentators are getting over-excited about a leadership change. This is hardly a crisis and changing leader would be a silly over-reaction. Despite the foundations being built on sand, Plaid have still matched their best ever result in a Westminster election and there are no more scheduled elections until 2021 (assuming the UK leaves the EU in 2019 as planned).

Nevertheless, it's time to take stock and seriously consider what direction the party are heading in, because the Lib Dems have just given Plaid a warning of what the future could look like.

They got away with it this time.

UKIP, Lib Dems & Greens
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The map demonstrates how badly things have turned out for UKIP. 2015 and 2016 will likely be looked back as a "moment of madness" by the Welsh electorate, and it's not looking good for the long-term prospects of their 5 AMs; where they stood (Neil Hamilton, Caroline Jones etc.) they lost their deposits, along with every other candidate. £16,000 pissed up a wall. A 2% national share is extinction territory and I don't think even a return of Nigel Farage can save them. Right-wing populism's slowly being put back in its box across the western world and I think we have Donald Trump to thank for that.
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Having been snuffed out in Wales for the first time in 150+ years, for the Lib Dems fringe party status beckons. The graphic illustration of the results will depress everyone involved, but it's getting to a point where it's difficult to justify including them alongside the other parties in a Welsh context. They're just about there because of a reasonable number of councillors and a Welsh cabinet member. I would've thought they'd have hit the floor by now but there's a bit more to go. Many of their vote shares barely registered on an individual constituency basis, but a 4.5% national share isn't extinction territory and they retain 4 or 5 constituencies where they remain competitive, albeit also-rans

The Green vote wasn't even statistically significant – 0.3% nationally (though their individual candidates managed around 1% each). They somehow managed to do worse than 2015, but – to the relief of their bank balances – only lost £5,000 in deposits this time around. If they were a hospital patient, the Green Party in Wales would have already been given the last rites.

After a short break, normal service resumes next Tuesday (20th) with First Minister's Questions, but if anyone even hints at another election, referendum or plebiscite any time soon, I'm going to shove a 🍍 right up your....

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