Reasons to be cheerful
Nick Davies, Swansea West CLP, argues that New Labour has been seen off in Wales.
The collapse of Labour’s vote in Wales did not materialise, at least not on the scale gleefully predicted by the media. Labour lost votes, its share dropping to 36.2%, lower than 1983’s 38% and indeed the lowest since 1918. The swing against incumbent Labour MPs, including the re-elected left wingers Paul Flynn, Martin Caton and Nia Griffith, followed the UK pattern, with many being cushioned by large majorities. However, despite voters’ loyalty being tested to breaking point in the New Labour years, and despite the increasingly rickety party apparatus in many areas, the prospect of a return to the 1980s concentrated minds. With 26 seats out of 40, Wales stays largely red.
Despite their predictions of 15 seats, the Tories only increased their total from three to eight (although their deposition of Lembit Opik from Montgomeryshire will not be seen as a national tragedy). The Tories’ share of the vote, 26.1%, was still well short of the 31% in 1983, when they won 14 seats. Although Wales is not the Tory free zone it was in 1997, the hatred felt towards the Tories is visceral and widespread, and has prevented them from breaking out of the coasts, borders and well-heeled Cardiff suburbs.
Plaid Cymru, with three seats, was squeezed between the three biggest parties – perhaps party because they were excluded from the TV debates. However, the results in Ynys Mon and Llanelli, both with Plaid AMs and Labour MPs, suggest that some Plaid voters decided that voting Labour was the best way of keeping the Tories out of power in Westminster.
The Lib Dems also did poorly, failing to take either Newport East or, despite a very determined and well-funded campaign, Swansea West from Labour. Across Wales, the BNP averaged less than in England, although its 5.2% share in Swansea East should rule out any complacency.
Of profounder significance for Wales than the election results was the post-election manoeuvring which eventually produced the Con-Dem coalition. Representatives of Labour, Plaid and, no doubt, many Lib Dems favoured a “progressive coalition” with the SNP and the one Green MP. Labour “tribalism” was blamed by some in Plaid for the failure of this project. The truth is that regardless of the obvious hostility of some Labour MPs towards Plaid, not only were the numbers probably not there, but the obvious trajectory of the Lib Dem leadership was towards a deal with the Tories.
This development could have serious electoral implications for the Welsh Lib Dems. Lib Dem-dominated coalitions run councils in Swansea and Cardiff. Cuts in jobs and services have already made them unpopular. Once the Con-Dem cuts start to bite, they will feel the backlash.
Next year, there are elections to the Welsh Assembly. In the coalition negotiations following the 2007 Assembly elections, two of the Lib Dems’ six AMs, including the current leader Kirsty Williams, made clear their opposition to any deal with the Tories. She will now have the awkward task of explaining to her constituents how her complicity in imposing George Osborne’s savage attacks on jobs, services and living services can be reconciled with Lib Dem “fairness”.
The Lib Dems’ political self-immolation can be Labour’s opportunity. First, any doubts as to which are the progressive forces in Welsh politics should by now be dispelled: the Lib Dems pretensions of being “progressive” or “left of centre” lie in tatters. There is a clear division between the Tories and the Lib Dems on the one hand, and Labour and current coalition partners Plaid Cymru on the other. Labour can energise its existing supporters and win back those it has lost by fighting the 2011 election on the basis of defense of the people of Wales against Cameron and Clegg’s cuts. By first leading the campaign for a “yes” vote in the forthcoming referendum on primary powers, Welsh Labour can use the power provided by democratic devolution to try to prevent the Cameron-Clegg era from being a rerun of the 1980s.
Labour’s electoral defeat, following the collapse of the economic model on which it was based, should spell the final, ignominious end of the New Labour project. The New Labour clique is on the defensive, giving lip service, at least, to the need for political renewal. After 6th May, the only Labour Government anywhere in Britain is in Wales, where we do quite nicely without PFI, City Academies, Foundation Hospitals and everything to which, apparently, there has been “no alternative”. Any genuine renewal worth the name should look to Wales. “Clear Red Water” might be made in Wales, but it can, and should, work in England and Scotland too.
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