Election 2016 – State of the Parties: Greens & UKIP

 

They were once pretenders, however their presence has grown to such an extent that the two largest parties outside the “Big Four” now warrant close examination as Wales edges towards “five/six party politics”.

Green Party


The Current Picture


Although they’ve gone close once or twice in the Assembly, the Greens haven’t made a dent in terms of political office. I don’t think Wales has any Green politicians at any level bar community councils (I know Bridgend has one Green community councillor).

Current membership is said to be in the 2,000-3,000 range (rising from figures closer to 300 before), which even in Wales isn’t much to build upon, though it’s significant growth in a short space of time and deserves to be noted. Despite that, Plaid Cymru have about four times that number, Labour probably seven to eight times.

The Green Party in Wales used to be dominated by two figures and two “camps”; the former leader, Newport-based rent-a-gob Pippa Bartolotti, and Bridgend-based eco-socialist, Andy Chyba (author of the personally-recommended  Green Leftie blog). The latter lost a leadership election and has since left the party, the former was leader until last December, with the mantle since handed over to Machynlleth-based green technology campaigner and consultant, Alice Hooker-Stroud.

The Green’s trump card is the environment and their sense of radicalism, although environmental protection never seems to be a serious election issue unless there’s an unpopular local development. You could, therefore, say the Greens thrive on a pig-headed NIMBYism, but it’s inescapable that every single one of us will have to take aspects of environmental policy like good land use planning, climate change and clean energy much more seriously.

There’s also an argument that negative stereotypes of environmental campaigners as economically illiterate Luddites and hippies has damaged their cause, while ideological in-fighting and personality clashes have been damaging to the Greens in Wales in particular.

Alongside the Greens environmentally-driven politics is their vigorous anti-austerity stance. However, since Jeremy Corbyn’s victory, like Plaid the Greens may struggle to retain their anti-austerity votes and they’re going to have to offer something above and beyond opposing spending cuts in order to keep up.

Strengths


The Green Bounce – Compared to UKIP it’s not much, but their vote is remarkably stable in Wales (albeit piddling) and there was a bounce of sorts towards the Greens in 2015. In mathematical terms they don’t really have to do very much to get to the 6-7% required on some of the regional lists (particularly Mid & West Wales), but it’s a bit crowded on the Welsh left.

Anti-fracking sentiment
– It’s clear fracking is unpopular; you can add opencast mining to that as well. These are two big environmental issues that the Greens can take advantage of, particularly in southern Wales. There are organised campaigns against both, and with Aberthaw power station set to close, people might be more receptive to renewables (though probably not onshore wind).

They’re different
– The Greens in Wales are, in essence, the left of Plaid Cymru on steroids and there’s just enough about them to maintain a distance and stand out. Novelty sometimes counts for a lot and seeing as we’ve had 17 years of the same old, same old in the Senedd, there’s no reason why the Greens couldn’t mark themselves out as the “anti-establishment vote” in the same manner as UKIP. Whether that’ll work will boil down to how they present their policies and how much media exposure they get – something the party have already had struggles with.

Weaknesses


Pippa Bartolotti (not for the reasons you might think) – She’s easily the most visible and “well-known” Green politician in Wales, so her decision to stand down as leader last year is a double-edged sword. There’s  something quirky about Pippa and you can say she stands out (literally and figuratively speaking). It’s good that Welsh politics is gaining more “characters”, but for a party which wants to win seats in very tight circumstance she can’t be allowed to dominate proceedings or become some sort of eminence grise (it doesn’t look like that’s happening to be fair). Likewise, because of Pippa’s visibility, it was a mistake to replace her with the relatively anonymous Alice Hooker-Stroud so close to the election.

Factionalism – There’s an endemic problem within parties of the radical left (or left generally) in that they tend to be small pools full of big-headed fish who each have their own ideas on ideological purity. The Greens are no exception, though I’m not sure how much damage the tug-of-war between Andy Chyba’s green socialism and Pippa Bartolotti’s mirror version of UKIP has done. Hopefully they’ll have some stability as Alice Hooker-Stroud seems level-headed, but perhaps too cerebral.

A patchy presence
– They’re clearly stronger in some areas than others, particularly university towns and cities. Aside from aforementioned community and town councillors here and there – and Cynog Dafis in 1992 – the Greens have no political pedigree, there’s nothing you can really point to as a great success in Welsh politics and their core vote (about 2-3%) is tiny. Also, competing with the more established Plaid Cymru on their own turf could get nasty – the recent defection of one of their more prominent figures, Ashley Wakeling, to Plaid being a case in point.

What can we expect?


That depends on a number of factors. It looks as though the Greens are edging towards making their long sought-after breakthrough in Welsh politics, but are still likely to fall short. As the latest polling suggests, they don’t stand a chance in any constituency seats, but they can win seats on the regional lists if they heavily target Labour’s regional vote and disgruntled Lib Dem and Plaid Cymru voters to get to the 7-8% of the vote needed to challenge for the final list seats. Even that looks like a massive uphill climb. It seems they peaked in the run-up to the 2015 UK election then suddenly everyone forgot about them.

The problem is that, with the mechanics of the Additional Member System as they are, any vote for the Greens will probably be at the expense of Plaid and the Lib Dems. That could hand extra seats to UKIP or even allow the Conservatives to retain (even gain) more seats than expected. If this were fought under single transferable vote (STV) that wouldn’t be an issue.

The Greens have previously targeted South Wales Central (in particular Cardiff) for Labour regional votes, and that region might return a Green AM due to concerns over fracking and mining, large student populations as well as the expected collapse in the Lib Dem vote. However, overall it looks as though Mid & West Wales will be their best opportunity simply because they probably only need ~7% of the vote to win the fourth list seat.

I wouldn’t put money on Wales electing its first Green AM on May 6th, but I think they’ll go close, which will boost morale and visibility going into the next set of local elections. They’re taking this election very seriously but they could be chasing good money after bad due to the electoral mathematics. If they don’t do particularly well you’ve got to question how the party will keep their momentum going until the Assembly expands to 80 members or more. You would expect them to want to at least maintain a 3-4% share of the national vote to keep up with the Lib Dems and justify mainstream coverage.

UKIP


The Current Picture


UKIP were riding the crest of a wave across England but, until last May, their performances in Wales had been less than stellar outside of European elections. That looks set to change – big time. Having gone from lost deposit territory in 2010 to many third, pushing for second, places in 2015, the proportional system used to elect 20 AMs is set to reward UKIP ahead of the EU membership referendum.

Research has shown the core bulk of UKIP’s vote are the small-c conservative skilled lower-middle class (“Blue collar Tories”), those who haven’t gone to university and the comfortably retired. In short, “angry old men and housewives” – a sizable demographic that’s been written off and taken for granted by every other party in Wales as they chase “hard working families”, women and “da yoof”.

Those of us who exist inside, or near, the political bubble might see UKIP’s concerns over immigration, EU membership and excessive bureaucracy as uncouth and unsophisticated – and that’s precisely why so many people are flocking to them. The press have generated so much cynicism about these issues for their own ends, many people are convinced UKIP are “talking sense”. They don’t, but it no less bollocks than some of the stuff that comes from the four established parties in Wales.

Add to that growing discontent about Welsh Labour’s rule in Wales – with nobody seeing the other members of the “Big Four” as an alternative in the same way as the SNP in Scotland – and you have the makings of a large anti-politics “sod the lot of you” protest vote, particularly in the south Wales valleys.

The Tories and Lib Dems have most to fear; the former because UKIP target their core vote, the latter because the electoral mathematics on the regional lists puts them at higher risk of losing seats (indirectly) to UKIP – so it was  a smart political move for Andrew RT Davies to come out in favour of a “Brexit” early. That’s not to say Labour and Plaid have nothing to fear either – at least two or three Plaid list seats could be threatened by UKIP while UKIP appear to be strongest in Labour heartlands.

UKIP have become distinctively more organised in Wales since 2011-2012, mainly by attracting disgruntled Conservatives and rejects from other parties. They also have a relatively articulate, if weak, Welsh leader in Nathan Gill MEP.

However, there’s a growing schism between the Welsh executive – which seems to take orders directly from Nigel Farage and his leadership bubble – and the local membership, who probably joined UKIP to escape top-down diktats in the belief they were a proper “People’s Army”. There are also signs they might’ve peaked in 2015 while their cash sources are drying up.

Just as UKIP are about to start spinning into a decline the Welsh electorate are – by all indications – about to hand them their biggest ever electoral boost in a domestic election and could even save Nigel & Co. from oblivion after the EU referendum.

Strengths


“They’re not X” – One of the main things they’ve got going for them is the fact Fleet Street (and maybe The Western Mail too) have made them out to be the protest party. This means they’re naturally placed to pick up disgruntled “anti-politics”voters. I don’t think this is because the media particularly like UKIP, but because the press know they’re probably going to provide them with headlines (and entertainment – just as they are with the selection rows). They’re the political party equivalent of Leigh Bowery and as soon as they become boring their support will start to slide.

They tap into a large, often ignored, constituency – The “angry old men and housewives”(perhaps men generally) as mentioned earlier. This includes blue-collar Tories and right-to-buyers; the sort of people who write letters to the Western Mail and dislike rapid social and economic change – there are more people like this in Wales than you would expect. UKIP tap into the feelings of many young people too, and not just basement-dwelling, fedora-wearing Ayn Rand and Maggie Thatcher fans, but people who’ve “had enough” or have been left behind – whether it’s sky high property prices, low wages, or being undercut by foreign workers in certain sectors of the economy like care and retail.

They talk the talk – Other political parties would consider it a weakness, but one of UKIP’s great strengths is they say what they think. They don’t use buzzwords, they’re politically incorrect and they’re not particularly academic or over-analytical. They give the impression of having more in common with the average voter than any other political party, and this is one area the other parties need to learn from desperately. Ditch the “sustainability”, “key stakeholder”, “due diligence”bullshit.

Weaknesses


UKIP’s a clown car, with Nigel Farage as ringmaster
– If you were kind you could call UKIP“eccentric”, if you were unkind you would call UKIP “unelectable”. They clearly have candidate selection issues and put up people who have fantastical, Walter Mitty-esque careers. UKIP may celebrate everytime someone defects from another party, but these people are unlikely to be team players. Trying to unite people who used to members of different parties – ranging from the BNP to Plaid Cymru – under a populist banner has all the makings of a clown car crash.

No policies of any note
– You look under the bonnet of that clown car and find nothing there. We all know they want the UK to withdraw from the EU and aren’t fans of immigration. Other than that, as their UK manifesto in 2015 proved, they have massive internal contradictions in policy and don’t really offer anything at all other than nostalgic longing for an England that never was and never will be again. They’re experts at bandwagon jumping and not much else.

They’re not well-liked – The big paradox with UKIP is that despite their self-perceived popularity standing up for the “silent majority” UKIP are incredibly unpopular. The public might not like politicians as a group, but you have to at least trust them. Nigel Farage and UKIP are held amongst the least regard as party leader and party respectively. I suspect this won’t matter to hardcore UKIP supporters, who’ll take a Millwall-esque approach of, “No one likes us, we don’t care”. It does mean they’re going to struggle to be anything other than a protest vote.

What can we expect?

Unlike previous Assembly elections it’s a question of how many seats UKIP win not whether they’ll win any at all. It seems the 2014 European Parliament elections were the catalyst for their current levels of support.

The latest indications are their support has peaked, and the bad publicity caused by their selection issues and parachuted candidates has dented their polling figures. 

It looks as though UKIP will win 7/8 seats instead of the previously-projected 9 or 10. Either way the signs are good, but if there are further screw-ups over the coming weeks (it’s inevitable), I wouldn’t be surprised if the figures take another dip and we start talking about 4/5/6 UKIP AMs. Do-do do-do-do-do do-do do-do.

Where those AMs will come from within Wales is hard to determine, but you would expect North Wales and South Wales East to return 2 UKIP list AMs, South Wales West to return at least 1, while things will be more difficult in Mid & West Wales and South Wales Central. It doesn’t look like they’ll win any constituencies, but there are a few – like Caerphilly, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney, Islwyn and Alyn & Deeside – where they could do particularly well based on their performances in 2015.

I wouldn’t mind one or two credible UKIP AMs in the Assembly to break the complacency that dominates current proceedings (same for the Greens and the minor parties) and give AMs from the “Big Four” a well-deserved and long-overdue kick up the arse.

The Bay Bubble has gotten a bit too cosy and self-reverent, and AMs have been mostly shielded from some of the genuine hostility and antipathy many people feel towards devolution and the Assembly. AMs have never been properly challenged (for better or, in UKIP’s case, for worse), need to start thinking on their feet more often and need to strengthen their arguments. So for the other parties, the election of a UKIP cohort will reveal who amongst their own ranks truly deserves to be there.

Any more than one or two will become grating if the candidates aren’t up to the task. Let’s face it, despite attempts at putting a professional spin on things, the goings on of the last 6-8 weeks show UKIP up as a single-issue 1970s-inspired comedy club, not a serious political party that has anything constructive to say on the future of public services in Wales.

I understand why people would consider voting for UKIP en masse as I’m often as frustrated with politics, parties and politicians as anyone else – but when it comes down to it it’s a dumb move. Current AMs are far from perfect but I wouldn’t exchange them for this lot in a million years; though I suppose the price you pay for living in a democracy is that we have the freedom to make bad choices.

It could seriously impact the quality and standard of Assembly scrutiny – particularly in the committees – and if their AMs behave anything like their MEPs it could bring the Assembly as an institution into disrepute. I’m sure many people are rubbing their hands at the prospect of them saying or doing something stupid; this is going to be like ten Christmases at once for Martin Shipton.

If they take anything less than one seat on each regional list (5 AMs) they ought to be disappointed considering the expectations they’ve placed upon themselves. Anything more than that will count as a good result, and we should all be bracing ourselves for “a good result”.