UK Election 2019: The Post-Mortem

Following last week’s UK General Election result, here’s a more in-depth look at how things went in Wales and what lessons the main parties can take from it.

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What went right?

There’s very little good news and I suspect everyone in Labour knows it. Despite that, there are some small crumbs of comfort.

Firstly, Labour’s performances in Cardiff and Swansea. Retaining Cardiff North is a big achievement that hasn’t got the attention it deserves. Across all seven seats in the two cities, Labour maintained around 45-50%+ of the vote share. Why? Two proactive local authorities and stronger party infrastructure on the ground – namely large student populations as well as small, densely populated constituency boundaries more suited to a winter campaign.

They didn’t lose any of their more proactive MPs and the MPs they did lose were either close to retirement anyway and should’ve stood down or unlikely to see out more than one term. There’s enough room to rebuild, but rebuild they must. It’s not business as usual anymore.

What went wrong?

There’s their overall campaign strategy and communications. Labour was well within their rights to target Arfon as it was a marginal seat, but the sight of them bussing in Momentum Scousers would’ve been a perfect optics for Plaid Cymru. Corbyn visiting Ceredigion (presumably for the student vote), Clwyd West (!?) yet not visiting any of the Labour-held constituencies in the north-east or the likes of Bridgend was stark raving bonkers. It must’ve been a mix of  overconfidence or internal polling errors.

In Bridgend, Madeline Moon’s campaign was up against it early on – out-communicated by the Tories to an extravagant extent – and the best they could come up with was Mark Drakeford sauntering around Cefn Glas the day before the election; I’m sure that’s the same in places like Wrexham and Delyn.

Now, I quite liked the Labour manifesto as I did in 2017. It was bold and full of hope. There’s only so much sweetness people can take though. Labour threatened us with political Type 2 diabetes. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland compared it to adding spoonfuls of sugar to a cup of tea until it becomes undrinkable and that’s a perfect analogy. These sort of things have to be introduced gradually, not in one big bang. Collectively, the electorate is far more sensible than we’re given credit for and if politicians make big spending pledges that sound too good to be true then they usually are.

Next, Brexit. We know where the Tories, Plaid, Lib Dems and Brexit Party stand but yet again Labour (or rather Corbyn himself) couldn’t make their minds up on the defining political issue of our generation. It’s a Bennite tradition to support leaving the EU but it’s always been at conflict with Jeremy Corbyn’s metropolitan base of support (who could easily have had their heads turned by the Lib Dems) so we end up with a fudge. On the one hand, the Welsh Government backs a position similar to Plaid, on the other we were offered a mythical “sensible Brexit” that would seemingly be negotiated in three months. A “sensible Brexit” that sounded a whole lot like Remain. Labour voters who backed Leave in 2016 saw through it.

Last but not least, Jeremy Corbyn himself and the Corbynites in general. He’s a principled man, but he’s made so many missteps and has so many yes men and yes women around him that he was playing with a massive handicap. I said last week he should’ve bowed out in 2017 on a relative high, but over the last few years, Labour has become even more metropolitan and seemingly turned its back on the core vote in places like northern England (of which north-east Wales is an indirect extension) and the Valleys. It’s easy to promise the Earth from London or places like Bristol and the southern university towns when you already have everything.

This may also be the first time where the Welsh Government’s track record – particularly in health, particularly in north Wales – has impacted a UK-level election. They couldn’t play the “blame Westminster” card when health was so high up the agenda. It also suggests an ever-growing distance between the north-east and Cardiff which the Conservatives have exploited. Labour is an even more Cardiff-centric party now.

What can Labour learn from this? – “You’re not entitled to anyone’s vote.”

People who used to vote Labour and voted Tory (or a different party) this time around aren’t ignorant, don’t lack empathy, don’t hate foreigners or any of the other things that have been seen said over the last couple of days. Whenever Labour loses, the toys promptly get thrown out of the pram. It’s never their fault, it must be something wrong with “the people”. They “won the argument” after all, didn’t they, to spectacular effect?

They were too proud and too arrogant to consider working with other parties to defeat the Conservatives and it’s cost them. The map in Wales could’ve looked very different with pacts in Bridgend, Vale of Glamorgan and the north-east. Yes, Unite to Remain didn’t work (as I’ll come back to later), but Labour believes they have an inalienable right to your vote because the other option is somehow “worse”. If they don’t get their heads out of their arses, they’ll get their arse handed back to them again.

It’s worth asking questions about Mark Drakeford’s position as First Minister too. He’s relatively anonymous, doesn’t seem to enjoy the job or have any clear strategy or direction (and gets occasionally pummelled in FMQs), doesn’t seem to be taken seriously by UK Labour (the Welsh branch was effectively ignored) and he’s also led Welsh Labour to two historic defeats in a single year. While you would assume there’ll be a backlash against the Tories in 2021, it’s equally likely there won’t be if the Welsh Government continues to oversee major public service failures. If there’s a bad result for Labour in next year’s Police & Crime Commissioner elections – less than five months away – Drakeford will be in serious trouble.

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What went right?

In Welsh terms, this was a near-perfect result.

The Conservatives were getting vote shares in southern post-industrial areas which I don’t think any of us have ever seen before – 28% in Ogmore, 32% in Torfaen, 30% in Llanelli and just under 30% in Pontypridd, 28% in Caerphilly, close to 20% in both Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil!

While this was most likely a Leave voter backlash, it does suggest the Tories understand the demographic changes which have taken place in these seats over the last two decades. Lots of upwardly mobile families and individuals priced out of Cardiff live in three and four-bedroom Barratt boxes tagged on to mid-Valleys towns, so there’s a settled middle class in the Valleys which is far larger than people think.

The south Walian accent (as with other Welsh accents) is often a great social leveller. While it has working-class connotations, there are plenty of pockets of relative prosperity in the towns immediately around Cardiff. This is before adding the extension of the Chester and Bristol commuter belt into the north-east and south-east respectively.

If you live in a new estate in somewhere like Wrexham, Caerphilly, Blackwood, Cwmbran or Bridgend, commute to work in recruitment or as a middle manager for £25k-a-year plus commission, and pay Band D or Band E council tax you’re going to have your head turned by the Conservatives with their simple messages and (seemingly) workable spending plans, combined with a greater emphasis on security and economic stability. This result isn’t a one-off; it could become permanent after Westminster boundary reforms. Labour needs to start taking electoral system reform in Wales more seriously.

What went wrong?

The Conservatives have a problem in Cardiff (which was one of the strongest Remain-voting parts of Wales, so they would always find it tough), and except for Bridgend they didn’t do as well as they could have along the M4 corridor.

So this result should’ve been even better with the Tories adding Cardiff North, both Newport seats and Gower, maybe even sneaking a seat like Torfaen as well as finishing Labour off in the north-east in Alyn & Deeside. They could’ve very, very easily come out on top in Wales. Maybe the Brexit Party is to blame for that, as I return to later.

The over-reliance on candidates settled as far away as London to stand in seats like Ynys Môn and Aberconwy does suggest a lack of local talent. They could well have elected some MPs who turn out to be unsavoury characters some way down the line. The Tories do have a long and noble tradition of local infighting in Wales and with a weak national leadership they could’ve stored up problems for the future.

When we should be highlighting the election of the first women Tory MPs from Wales, re-electing Alun Cairns says something about the party and its attitude towards women too.

What can the Conservatives learn from this? – “Deliver or be damned.”

A great deal of trust has been placed in the Conservatives by the Welsh electorate, despite all the disappointments and false promises resulting from the last four years of solo Tory government.

They should be able to deliver Brexit, which is probably what a fair share of their voters in Wales want. It’s everything else they have to concentrate on. Bridgend is about to have an economically turbulent 2020 and the newly-elected Tory MP will be expected to get his hands dirty from day one. The Welsh Government have been promised additional funding over the next parliament (“to spend on health”) and we have to see it, even though there’s no guarantee it’ll even be spent on health.

Urgent work needs to start on things like the Shared Prosperity Fund and they’ll somehow have to deliver A55 upgrades. Let’s see which bold promise goes out the window first?

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What went right?

Plaid’s vote held up well where it counted the most. There was an all-Wales drop of just 0.5%, which when considering the fact Plaid were squeezed more than usual by the Tories and Labour is fairly good going if nothing exceptional. It could’ve been worse, it could’ve maybe been a bit better – but if you had said before the election that Plaid would retain their four MPs with increased majorities in Ceredigion and Arfon, I think they would’ve taken it.

Through his participation in the electoral debates, Adam Price has raised his profile – though maybe not to the same extent as Leanne Wood (yet). He produced some of the few memorable moments in what was a forgettable set of debates and managed to take the fight to (Welsh) Labour – distancing Plaid from them in the process ahead of 2021.

The big positives on the night were, as hinted, the results in Arfon – which was a close call in 2017 – and Ceredigion, which is now a fairly safe Plaid seat and saw the Lib Dems pushed down into third place (and very close to fourth). Ben Lake is an underrated asset and hasn’t got anywhere near the sort of attention and support as other rising stars in the party.

What went wrong?

Plaid seemed somewhat underprepared for this election. The manifesto was a rushed composite of previous UK manifestos and what’s likely to be the 2021 Senedd manifesto. Considering how high health was up the list of people’s priorities, they had to have a position on it – though it contradicted their endless frustration at people confusing devolved and non-devolved issues at election time.

Also, the Unite to Remain pact failed to deliver any real benefit except perhaps in Arfon (which they won) and Pontypridd (where they secured their largest increase in vote share outside seats they already held, but still finished a distant third). It was somewhat inevitable their Remain stance would cost them votes in Leave-voting areas, resulting in a generally poor Plaid performance in the Valleys.

While Plaid’s vote share nationally only fell slightly, in some seats alarm bells should be ringing, notably Blaenau Gwent (-15.5%) – which looks lost to Plaid now – Rhondda (-8.6%) and a fairly uninspiring performance in their number one target seat, Ynys Môn, where Plaid’s “Director of Political Strategy and External Relations” finished third behind a Chelsea Tory. If there’s a “Green Dam” it must’ve been built by a beaver because there are some very large holes in it. The idea that they’re going to turn this around in 18 months and form the next Welsh Government is “ambitious” or, to put it impolitely, a load of bollocks.

There were no second places for Plaid; they finished third, fourth and lower in seats they didn’t win. Vote share gains – where they did happen – were often in and around 1% and some of the most highly thought of and ramped candidates flopped; too many selfies, too many social media videos resembling Morrissey’s video for Suedehead, not enough substance. There may well be a big disconnect between who Plaid Cymru considers to be a good candidate and who the electorate thinks is one.

What can Plaid Cymru learn from this? – “Embrace being underdogs.”

Plaid has always given the impression of liking the smell of their own brand a bit too much – though it’s noticeable that there hasn’t been much in the way of manufactured triumph on social media, more sober reflection; so maybe they’ve finally learned that lesson.

Like Labour though, it’s often someone else’s fault and Plaid are always victims of circumstance.

I’ve seen complaints about a lack of coverage, but Adam Price – and other Plaid candidates and personalities – appeared in more election debates and election programmes in this election than Leanne Wood ever did and by and large they all came across well too. It didn’t make a difference and perhaps Plaid took the debates too seriously, trying to play chess by chasing the best soundbites when the only people who care about things like that are those living in the political bubble and news junkies. They made more than a few mistakes too.

With 4 MPs, Plaid are never going to be top billing on any programme or newspaper outside Wales. While the argument about the poor state of the media situation within Wales is well-rehearsed, BBC Wales and ITV Wales stepped up to the plate as far as I’m concerned. Any complaints about lack of coverage – beyond the Red vs Blue narrative – are hollow.

You almost get the impression Plaid are offended by people not voting for them, despite having not voted for them in any great numbers since the party’s foundation. It’s false consciousness nonsense, whereby only Plaid Cymru are allowed to be Welsh or have Welsh interests at heart. Plaid, “Wales, it’s us”, lost 10 deposits.

Being a small party unbeholden to corporate or trade union interests presents financial and party infrastructure challenges certainly, but Plaid can at least say they’re up against big machines instead of pretending they’re a big machine themselves. I mean, a party which struggles to get 10% of the electorate to vote for them in the only nation in the UK they stand in has a “Director of Political Strategy and External Relations”. Could’ve fooled me.

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What went right?

The Brexit Party was never going to win any seats. They were there to spoil the vote and did so quite admirably in Wales. They likely cost everyone seats without benefiting themselves.

The performances of the night came in the Gwent valleys, including Blaenau Gwent (20.6%), Torfaen (15.4%), Islwyn (14.1%) – as well as Rhondda (12.6%) in Glamorgan. Yes, we can all chuckle at Nathan Gill’s relatively poor showing in Caerphilly, but if the party is still around in 2021 it does bode well for them, particularly in the south-east and south-west.

What went wrong?

Perhaps because Boris Johnson was leading the Tories on a very clear “Get Brexit Done” platform, they didn’t do anywhere near as well as expected. The party lost 11 deposits in Wales (the Greens lost 17 by comparison) and performed noticeably poorly in Cardiff and north-east Wales (despite the latter being a big Leave-voting area).

I assume this was deliberate; the Brexit Party wasn’t particularly active in Bridgend except on local Facebook hubs and they didn’t do particularly well in any Tory target seat (they stood down in Tory held seats, of course). The goal was to hurt Labour but, as said, they seemed to hurt everyone and perhaps prevented the Conservatives winning Alyn & Deeside,  the two Newport seats and Carmarthen E. & Dinefwr and (EDIT:) their absence could’ve resulted in a closer result in Gower.

Where next for the Brexit Party?

Brexit is going to be locked down in the next few weeks, so the big question is whether the Brexit Party still exists by the end of 2020? The Brexit on the table isn’t the Brexit they want, but it’s Brexit nonetheless. Farage has said he’s considering changing the name to the Reform Party (echoes of another specialist in personal political failure, Ross Perot, there) and would like to switch attention from Brexit to reforming the UK.

Farage’s intention here has always been to create a populist party similar to Italy’s 5-Star Movement, but with the Tories already heading in that direction, and the lack of proportional representation, there might not be any place for them in the end. Expect the Brexit Party Ltd to be palmed-off to the membership or wound-up once there’s a permanent agreement with the EU (or even a No Deal at the end of 2020) – a development which would naturally have implications in the Senedd.

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What went right?

Nothing.

They increased their vote share near enough across the board and remain competitive in Brecon & Radnorshire but by and large it was an increase on the f**k all they achieved in 2017.

What went wrong?

Jo Swinson has been a little hard done by in terms of the personal criticisms – but she was put in an awkward position by how the Lib Dems approached the election.

It was a mistake to make this a presidential campaign with Swinson front and centre as it echoed back to David Steel and “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”; she won’t be known to the vast majority of the electorate and those of us who do remember her, do so as Ms Austerity.

The Lib Dems’ best (perhaps only) asset in Wales is the Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, who’s performed relatively admirably in office and had just overseen Wales’ best PISA results in years. Why weren’t they making more of this? Shame at working with Labour? A fetish for defeat and opposition?

Unite to Remain didn’t work for them either; Cardiff Central and Montgomeryshire seem lost to them now and in the main target seat where there wasn’t an electoral pact (Ceredigion) Plaid Cymru won it relatively comfortably.

Where next for the Lib Dems?

The Lib Dems should make a clean break with the Coalition generation of MPs (many of whom aren’t there anymore anyway), accept that Brexit is happening and rebuild from the ground up. They’ve performed well in local elections in England and that’s probably where attention should be focused in Wales too. Putting as much effort into campaigning for electoral reform as they did towards revoking Brexit wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

They shouldn’t discount electoral pacts in the future despite their experiences with Unite to Remain – it was the right idea, but poorly executed. Above all else, they need humility; they’re not the fount of all reason, they’re not the only internationalists in the UK and as things stand they’re not electable.

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