On the face of it, the fifth election to the Welsh Assembly could have been worse for Labour; the result was certainly better than predicted. Only one seat was lost: Rhondda, where Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood ousted former minister, Leighton Andrews. Plaid’s other main target, Llanelli, stayed Labour. Labour held all the Tories’ targets: Cardiff North,Vale of Glamorgan, Gower and Vale of Clwyd. The main story was the Tories’ failure, rooted in Westminster’s complacent response to the steel crisis and the ineptitude of their leader, Andrew RT Davies, to match their own expectations. If the Welsh Tories wanted the election to be a referendum on NHS Wales, they got it: voters took a look at the dysfunctional chaos presided over by Jeremy Hunt, noted that in Wales there was no junior doctors’ strike, and duly came to the necessary conclusion. Driven back to the coasts and borders, their total number of seats went down to 11 from 14, and their share of the vote went down from 2011 and 2015.
Notwithstanding the dramatically tied vote for First Minister when the Assembly met for the first time, it now seems certain that Labour, with 29 out of 60 seats, will form another minority government, probably involving case-by-case consultation with Plaid Cymru, now the second biggest party, and more reliable support from the one remaining Liberal Democrat, Kirsty Williams. Fifteen of the new Labour group of 29 are women (despite Welsh Labour reneging on its own policy on all-women shortlists to ease former MP Huw Irranca-Davies into the Ogmore Assembly seat). However, the women tend to occupy the less safe seats. Across the whole Assembly, there are now three openly lesbian or gay AMs.
This result was against a backdrop of an unrelentingly hostile campaign against Jeremy Corbyn, a cynical attempt to use allegations of anti-semitism to destabilise the UK party, an ongoing smear campaign against the NHS Wales and a media narrative that Labour was ‘tired’ and it was ‘time for a change’.
Therefore, this looks like a job (reasonably) well done.
But all is not well. Labour’s constituency vote of 35.7% was down by 7.5% from 2011. The regional vote dropped to 31.5% from 35.4% from 2011. The drop in some constituencies was calamitous: 27.3% in Rhondda but also 24.3% in Blaenau Gwent and 18.1% in Neath. The electoral system, although generally working against a Labour majority, has its quirks: the net loss of one seat disguises somewhat the extent of the problem.
Appallingly, lost votes went to UKIP. UKIP’s constituency vote of 12.5% was actually slightly down on the general election but that, and a regional vote of 13%, was enough to secure the party 7 seats. As in 2015, the UKIP vote in the Valleys and north-east Wales, was far higher. There was not necessarily a straight transfer of votes from Labour to UKIP; in some cases UKIP’s increase was far higher than Labour’s decline, suggesting that some UKIP supporters were previous non-voters, although possibly former Labour voters. Even in Rhondda and Blaenau Gwent, where Plaid beat or almost beat Labour, UKIP polled well.
UKIP opportunistically exploits the feeling of abandonment felt in some post-industrial communities in which fears about immigration have not been engaged with or challenged. Less a ‘breath of fresh air’, what those voters got was a waft of foul gas: a former employer of cheap labour in ‘bunkhouses’, a failed right-wing Tory who may once have spent a weekend in Wales and Neil Hamilton, one of the most unsavoury characters ever to enter the House of Commons, who now besmirches the Senedd. Those who voted for these chancers ‘for a change’ will find it wasn’t the change they were bargaining for. Hamilton’s leadership coup suggests that UKIP’s indifference to the interests of Wales is matched only by their treachery towards each other.
This result tells us that Welsh Labour’s hold over some of its ‘heartland’ is weak, its organisation patchy, its party bodies inactive and the task of re-engaging with working-class communities alienated by New Labour and metropolitan indifference will be a long one.
The election campaign showed up a deeper problem. There’s been a drift away from the ‘Clear Red Water’ era when Welsh Labour defined itself positively to New Labour’s left. Welsh Labour now finds itself to the right of the UK leadership, demonstrated by its keeping a nervous distance from Jeremy Corbyn. Welcome as the healthy gender balance in the Labour group is, the group, by dint of personnel changes – retirements and recent selections – has moved to the right. Many party officials, answerable to London and appointed in the New Labour years, appear to have a markedly different agenda from the new Corbyn-McDonnell leadership and even from the majority of the Assembly Labour group.
This problem bubbled to the surface when, in the face of the ‘anti-semitism’ media-storm, Jeremy’s planned visit to Wales was called off. Although it was made clear that Jeremy was not ‘barred’ from Wales, the media was allowed to infer that Welsh Labour regarded Jeremy as an electoral liability.
This is not the first time that journalists have been allowed to make such an inference; there was a similar instance at the Welsh Labour conference in February. This is despite Jeremy’s huge mandate and his proven ability to connect with many of those voters Welsh Labour has shown that it cannot reach.
Carwyn also made a public demand that Ken Livingstone be immediately expelled from the Labour party: a knee-jerk reaction, like so much of the response to Ken's remarks. While Ken’s remarks were, to say the least, not well-chosen, and he should have known, in the build-up to an election, and in the present climate, that the remarks would be used to attack Jeremy Corbyn, and the party, they were not anti-semitic (contrary to the hysterical accusations of John Mann and others) and had some basis in fact. However, Carwyn stated that his comments ‘give license [sic] to intolerance in our schools and our communities’. Even if there were substantial grounds for this view, it was surely premature to demand Ken's expulsion, in advance of any investigation and without due process. Again, in the context, it merely gave comfort to opponents of Labour and, because Livingstone, by virtue of their long association, is seen as a proxy for Jeremy Corbyn, of the leader himself. This was not just a bad judgment call in the heat of the moment but a positioning by Welsh Labour on the wrong side of a dividing line between those in the party who support Corbyn’s legitimacy as leader, and his determination to break from the Westminster consensus, and those who do not.
A shorter version of this article appears in the current issue of Labour Briefing magazine.