Wales has not been the source of good electoral tidings for the Conservatives for a very long time. The party last won a general election here in ’59 – that’s 1859. Since then, Wales has had successive lengthy eras of Liberal and then Labour dominance, with the Conservatives rarely able to mount a serious challenge. The last person to defeat Labour in a general election in Wales was the Liberal, David Lloyd George – just after he led Britain to victory in world war one. Since then, Labour have come first in both votes and seats in the last 26 successive general elections.
For a while, early in the 2017 campaign, it looked as if things would be different. The first two Welsh polls of the campaign gave the Conservatives significant leads over Labour, apparently putting them on course for substantial gains. But then Labour managed to turn things around decisively and ended up gaining three seats from the Welsh Conservatives, rather than losing ground.
What are the chances, then, of Wales making any contribution to a parliamentary majority for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in 2019? If the Tories are to win a majority in the Commons, they may need plenty of seats in Wales. Brexit, and the departure of Ruth Davidson, will probably make it difficult for the party to defend all of the twelve seats that it gained in Scotland last time. The Liberal Democrats may also be able to pick off some Conservative seats, particularly in more Remain-friendly parts of southern England. So any Conservative gains in Wales – which did, after all, vote Leave in June 2016 – could make all the difference.
The first Welsh poll of the campaign, published a week ago, was encouraging about Tory prospects. It put the party neck-and-neck with Labour. On uniform swings since 2017, that would project the Conservatives to take nine Labour seats in Wales (as well as recapturing the Brecon and Radnor constituency which they lost to the Liberal Democrats in a by-election in the first days of the Johnson premiership).
Those nine Labour seats do not include any of the former mining communities of the south Wales valleys. Even though the valleys all voted Leave, the Tories have just too much ground to make up there, and in any case memories of the 1984-85 miners’ strike linger long in many of those communities. But a clutch of five Labour seats in Leave voting north east Wales are all currently on course to change directly from red to blue.
Or at least they were on course – until the Welsh Conservatives contrived to deliver quite possibly the worst start to a general election campaign in history. That the candidate for ultra-marginal Gower was found to have said online that people who had appeared on the reality TV show Benefits Street should be ‘put down’ was unfortunate. Much more serious has been an issue that has already forced the resignation of Alun Cairns as Welsh Secretary, and generated more than a week of intensely negative publicity for the Conservatives in Wales.
The details that are undisputed are shocking enough: Ross England, who was recently adopted as a Conservative National Assembly candidate, caused a rape trial to collapse in 2018. He was accused by a crown court judge of doing so deliberately, but was still appointed as a Welsh Assembly candidate (Cairns has denied knowing about the trial until this month). What has yet to be fully clarified is: who knew, what and when did they know, and what did they do about it? Detailed investigations by the BBC’s Welsh political team have raised serious doubts, not only about the conduct of Cairns, but also several others in the Welsh Conservative hierarchy. More generally, the issue has been handled with an ineptness and insensitivity to the victim that has almost defied belief, and which has helped keep the issue prominent in the news agenda.
In trying to understand why the Welsh Tories could have conducted themselves so poorly, some have pointed to the lack of women in senior reaches of the party. The Conservatives have never elected a female MP from Wales, and the leadership here is male dominated. A more general issue though, may be simply the lack of strong Welsh leadership for the party. Responsibilities in the party are divided between several people, including the Assembly leader, Welsh party chair, and Welsh Secretary – none of whom have clear command over their party in Wales.
We have yet to see any new polling evidence which might tell us how these events have connected with voters. But it cannot have exactly helped. At a time when the Conservatives should be trying to hammer home their core election messages, many voters will have been associating the party brand with incredibly distasteful and upsetting events. The route to a Conservative parliamentary majority probably runs at least partly through Wales, and the path just got even steeper.