Wales and the Euro-elections
by Nick DaviesIt would be nice to report that on May 22nd, Wales, the only part of the UK with a Labour government, with a proud tradition of solidarity, hospitality and equality, which has benefited from European funding and which has previously been less Eurosceptic than England, roundly rejected the small-state, anti-immigration, anti-devolution, little-Englanders of UKIP. It would be nice, but it wouldn’t be true.
After the disaster of 2009 when Labour came second with 20.3%, the vote recovered to 28.1% and first place, still about 18,000 short of a second seat. The other three seats were won by the Tories, Plaid Cymru, (scraping home in fourth place), and UKIP, which came second. While the UKIP vote in Wales was lower than anywhere except London and Scotland, the swing in Wales to UKIP, its vote increasing from 12.8% to 27.6%, was the highest. Where Labour won, in ten of the twenty-two authorities, UKIP came second. Where Plaid won, in four authorities, UKIP pushed Labour into third place. UKIP won six authorities, three of which, Wrexham, Flint and the Vale of Glamorgan, should have been won by Labour. The best news was that the far-right vote (BNP and Britain First) was down to a combined 1.9% from 5.4%, tempered by the fact that many of its voters may have migrated to UKIP. The combined far left parties did little more than confuse a few people.
The reasons for UKIP’s success in Wales are broadly the same as elsewhere, albeit with Welsh peculiarities: dissatisfaction with the Westminster parties (the Liberal-Democrats, collapsing from 10.7% to 3.9%), weeks of virtually uncritical media coverage and the scapegoating atmosphere against immigrants whipped up by the Tories to try to neutralize the UKIP threat to their own vote. UKIP was helped by an ignorance or indifference to many of its policies on public services and workers’ rights and its opposition to Welsh devolution. As was the case elsewhere in the European Union, voters gave the benefit of the doubt to parties claiming to be against ‘business as usual’ Many people who voted for UKIP must have done so in the belief that it was in some way anti-austerity.
Without a convincing, clear anti-austerity narrative, and without an adequate challenge (or indeed any challenge at all) to UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric and myth-peddling (Blaenau Gwent, where UKIP scored 30.2% has a population which is 99.1% white, for example), Labour was always vulnerable.
Labour’s failure, over the course of the campaign, to challenge UKIP, on the assumption that it was merely a party of Thatcher-loving golf club bores which threatened only the Tories was as much a failure of Welsh Labour as the UK party. A sign of how wrong the party leadership got it was the result in Merthyr Tydfil where UKIP was a close second. The Tories are an irrelevance in Merthyr; those UKIP votes must have come from Labour supporters.
There are more serious and chronic failings to consider. Many constituency parties in Wales, including many where UKIP did well, are small, ageing and moribund. Labour may have large majorities but that vote is soft, and vulnerable to UKIP’s populism.
Wales lacks a robust and informative media in which the political reality of modern Wales can properly be analysed and debated. Wales’ only national newspaper, the Western Mail, has a small and declining circulation; otherwise, the people of Wales are at the mercy of the London press, or on the parish-pump local papers. Because of the topography many areas in east and central Wales receive television broadcasts from England; recent editions of BBC’s Question Time broadcast from Wales have been reduced to a farce because whoever commissions panel members appears to be blissfully unaware that Wales has its own government.
Although that government has retained a publicly funded and provided NHS, in the tradition of Bevan, sparing Welsh from the nightmare of insolvency and fragmentation facing the NHS in England, it is shocking, though perhaps unsurprising given the above, that according to a recent opinion poll, 43% of people in Wales thought the UK government ran the NHS and 31% thought it ran education. Given all these circumstances, it is unsurprising that UKIP’s version of the truth remained largely unchallenged.
Some of UKIP’s vote will melt away in 2015, and the revelations now emerging about the MEP may damage UKIP, but if Labour’s campaign is as muddled and inept as this one, much of it is here to stay.
This article appears in the July 2014 issue of Labour Briefing magazine.