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Wales has witnessed a Tory revolution

13 December 2019

8:06 AM

13 December 2019

8:06 AM

Never in modern political history has there been such a good general election for the Welsh Conservatives. The expectation before election night, shaped by the final pre-election polls, was that the Conservatives would be on the front foot. But Wales has had a very long history of Labour dominance and Welsh Labour had shown resilience in difficult circumstances before. Perhaps they would be able to do so once again?

In the end, the result was better than nearly all Welsh Tories could reasonably have hoped for. The final figures saw the party gain six seats, jumping to 14 overall. All of those seats were won from Labour, who fell from 28 Welsh MPs to 22; the remaining four Welsh seats, all in west Wales, were held by Plaid Cymru.

These seat outcomes reflected the following vote shares across Wales: (with changes on 2017 in brackets):

Labour 40.9 per cent (-8.0)

Conservative 36.1 per cent (+2.5)

Plaid Cymru 9.9 per cent (-0.5)

Liberal Democrats 6.0 per cent (+1.5)

Brexit Party 5.4 per cent (+5.4)

Others 1.7 per cent (-0.9)

This is a genuinely historic outcome. It constitutes the highest Conservative vote share in a general election in Wales since 1900 and thus the party’s best ever total in the era of universal suffrage.

For Welsh Labour, this result followed a campaign in which leadership had been sorely lacking. In 2017, in what had initially looked like a very difficult election, the campaign in Wales was taken over by First Minister Carwyn Jones, who became the face and voice of a Welsh Labour effort that ultimately gained seats rather than losing them.

This time around there was no obvious leadership: not from shadow Welsh secretary Christina Rees, nor from Jones’ successor Mark Drakeford. The latter’s twelve months leading Welsh Labour has encompassed the party’s worst-ever European election result (where they finished behind Plaid Cymru for the first time ever in a Wales-wide contest); their worst-ever Welsh opinion poll figures during the summer; and now their worst general election seats total since 1983. Defending Labour’s dominance of the Welsh Assembly in May 2021 is starting to look like a much harder task than many might have thought.

For Plaid Cymru, a general election which they had never wanted turned out to be better for them than they had feared. They defied many doubters to hold their four existing seats. However, they once again missed out on their key target seat of Ynys Mon: for the second election in a row actually finishing in third place there.

And their vote share once more edged downwards (although this can, in part, be accounted for by them standing down in three seats, in a vain ‘Remain Alliance’ with the Lib-Dems and the Greens). Probably the most positive outcome of the election for Plaid, beyond their seat wins, is that party leader Adam Price raised his profile considerably and performed strongly in televised debates. This, alongside the weakness of Labour, gives Plaid considerable cause for optimism about the 2021 Welsh Assembly election.

For the Welsh Liberal Democrats, an election that started with high hopes delivered another disappointment. For the third general election in a row, the party had a lower share of the vote in the land of Lloyd George than in either Scotland or England. And once again they were wiped off the map in terms of MPs. For the Brexit party, Wales also offered slim pickings and they may be on course to lose their Welsh Assembly representation in 2021 unless they can find a new purpose.

But as in England, in Wales this was the Tories’ night. They equalled Margaret Thatcher’s record total of fourteen Welsh MPs from 1983. They came within a whisker of wiping out Labour in north Wales, winning seats in north-east Wales that had not been Conservative in modern political history. They also captured Bridgend in south Wales – not Tory since the 1983 election and the Welsh Assembly seat of Carwyn Jones – and cut deeply into Labour majorities in many of the most traditional Labour bastions in the former coal-mining valleys. The party’s message on Brexit cut through effectively; and when combined with the toxicity of Jeremy Corbyn to many traditional Labour supporters, this allowed the Welsh Conservatives to escape their own campaign stumbles.

A general election that began in Wales with the resignation of Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns ended with him doubling his majority in his Vale of Glamorgan constituency.

Not everything has changed in Welsh politics. Labour still came first, in both votes and seats – for the 27th general election in a row in Wales. But this result makes Wales look like a very different place politically. For a century it has seen more-or-less uninterrupted Labour party dominance. But perhaps it will no longer be possible for this to be taken for granted?

Professor Roger Awan-Scully is head of politics and international relations at Cardiff University


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