Corbyn surge confounds Wales Labour leadership
LABOUR SECURED 48.9% of the vote in Wales on 8th June, its best result since 1997. It won back three seats from the Tories – Gower, the Vale of Clwyd and Cardiff North – the last of which they had held since 2010.
And the Party came tantalisingly close to winning in several other constituencies: notably, Aberconwy, the Vale of Glamorgan, Preseli Pembrokeshire and (from Plaid Cymru) Arfon. Plaid captured the Lib Dems’ final Welsh stronghold in Ceredigion, leaving Wales without a Liberal MP for the first time since 1859, but overall its vote share fell back from 12.1% to 10.4%. With Labour and the Tories together taking some 83% of the Welsh poll, all other parties were squeezed – happily, including UKIP, whose string of second-place results in Valleys constituencies was the biggest story two years ago. Undoubtedly, there was widespread tactical voting for Labour candidates on the part of Plaid, Green and to some extent Lib Dem voters.
The results were, of course, a shock to the Tories, who had been expecting to win a series of marginals from Labour, including Bridgend and Newport West in South Wales and Wrexham, Clwyd South and Delyn in the North. Theresa May had even visited Bridgend on the first day of the campaign to underline her confident expectation that her party was poised to rob Labour of seats the party had held for decades. In the event, the Tories made no gains at all and most Labour MPs massively increased their majorities. But the Welsh Labour leadership and party machine also seemed taken aback by the scale of Labour victories, First Minister Carwyn Jones admitting that he had not expected such success. The whole Welsh Labour campaign proceeded on the basis that Jeremy Corbyn and his policies were certain to be a vote-loser with the Welsh electorate and that the best that could be achieved would be to hold on to Labour’s existing seats, rather than making any gains.
This translated into a rather conservative electoral strategy, in which resources were concentrated on Labour-held seats, to the almost total exclusion of Tory-held marginals, which were denied full-time organising support.
On the same basis, the Welsh campaign also strenuously avoided any acknowledgement of Jeremy Corbyn and instead focused on Carwyn Jones and Labour’s achievements in the Welsh Assembly – a rather confusing strategy, given that the devolved policy areas involved were precisely those shielded from the direct influence of the Westminster election.
When the contents of Labour’s UK manifesto were leaked to the media, the Welsh party’s spokesperson made much of the fact that this document was of very limited relevance to Wales, which would soon have its own devolution-friendly Labour manifesto. By the time the latter publication finally appeared, however, the British manifesto had been widely discussed and had proven to be a big hit with the voters, including in Wales. The distinctiveness of the Welsh manifesto proved to be more superficial than expected – indeed, it was largely a slightly rewritten version of the original document, with Welsh Labour’s key assembly pledges spliced in and it had very little discernible impact on the election debate in Wales.
The only remotely credible basis for such doom-mongering regarding Labour’s prospects in Wales came from an initial opinion poll that put the Tories ten points ahead of Labour – yet this was soon contradicted by other polls – and the results of the local elections, which saw Labour lose its grip on Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend and Merthyr Tydfil councils. The latter losses were largely due to local factors, however, and Labour had retained control of its other seven Welsh local authorities, a creditable result in what was always going to be a difficult election, after five years of Labour town halls carrying out Tory cuts.
The resonance of Labour’s manifesto commitments, and the increasing effectiveness with which Jeremy and his frontbench team presented the Party’s message to the electorate, propelled a growing army of canvassers – many of them young and newly-politicised – onto the streets, where they did well to fill the gap left by the pessimism of the official campaign. Welsh Labour Grassroots/Momentum members were often in the forefront and in Cardiff North they were bolstered by the provision of support by Unison.
As the results came in, many of those who had previously been Jeremy’s outspoken critics – including his erstwhile leadership rival, Owen Smith – were moved to pay tribute to the campaign he had run and, in some cases, to admit they had underestimated him. The campaign has exposed the continuing tensions within the party in Wales, which remain to be resolved