Is the Labour party heading for a 'meltdown' in Wales?
An explosive opinion poll last week indicated the Conservatives could be heading for their best general election result in Wales since the 19th century. James Millar reports as the campaign gets underway
If Scotland and the SNP’s incredible takeover stole the show at the 2015 general election, then Wales looks set to hog the spotlight this time round. But it’s not another nationalist tsunami that’s on the cards – instead, folk appear to be flocking back to Theresa May’s Conservatives and could hand them an historic victory.
An electric poll last week suggested the Tories could win a swathe of new seats and top the vote in Wales for the first time in over a century. The Labour party have won the most votes and the most seats in Wales at every general election since 1922 – and the Conservatives have not won a majority of Welsh seats since the 1850s. But the YouGov/ITV survey gave May’s party a 10pt lead over Labour, and put them on course to win 21 of the 40 Welsh seats.
For all the caveats about approaching a single poll with caution, every party accepts that something is stirring in the valleys.
Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards tells The House there is “a sniff of the 1922 election in the air”. “Wales used to be a Liberal stronghold, but that was the election when all the valley seats switched to Labour,” he says. “There’s no doubt Labour are under huge pressure, their vote seems to be in complete meltdown.”
However, if Stephen Kinnock is anything to go by, Labour will be coming out fighting. The MP for Aberavon doesn’t mince his words when it comes to the prime minister’s public reasoning for calling a snap poll for June 8. “Theresa May is trying to create an elected dictatorship,” he claims. “She needs a ‘united Westminster’ – which is a chilling phrase – to steamroller through a Tory vision of Brexit and to give her a free hand to walk away. She is trying to turn parliament into a rubber stamp and people don’t like the idea of a one party state.”
But, he adds, “the vast majority of people on the doorstep accept the need for scrutiny and they will listen to the message of a strong local champion”.
Given the unpopularity of Labour’s national leadership it’s no wonder Kinnock claims any success the party chalks up in Wales will be down to hard work at the grassroots level. “I’m confident we’ll have more than half the Westminster seats,” he says. “When I look at the list of seats that are supposedly under threat, I look at the fantastic MPs in those seats and I’ve no doubt they’ll fight brilliant, dynamic campaigns that show they are the best voice to stand up for their local community.
“It’s never ideal to go into an election 15 to 20 points behind in the polls, but this will be a very localised constituency by constituency election.”
And how confident is he that he’ll retain his own seat? He points to the work he and other MPs have done to help the ailing steel industry as something that’s going down well with locals, but he adds: “All MPs should fight every day for their seat. If you’re not worrying about it you’re doing it wrong.”
Kinnock says that after a “turbulent two years” Labour is clearly in “a difficult place” to fight a general election. And whatever the result, he adds, the party must ask itself tough questions about how it got here.
“We have to go in to win this thing. Anything less than victory is failure, I don’t like these ideas that only losing 20-30 seats will be a success,” he says.
“My only prediction is that whatever happens we must take a long hard look at ourselves on the morning of June 9, learn the lessons and make a plan.
“After the election the party must have a debate about why we are where we are and it must be a robust discussion.”
And should a vacancy arise would he take a tilt at the leadership? “I’ll be playing a very active and committed role. This is a party I care so deeply about, I’m very concerned about the future.”
One figure more sanguine about his own future is Paul Flynn. His Newport West seat is one of 10 that could fall to the Tories. Also in danger are Welsh Labour stalwarts like Kevin Brennan in Cardiff West, David Hanson in Delyn and Madeleine Moon in Bridgend.
“Our problems are fairly obvious but I think the good people of Wales will come to their senses and do what they have done over the years and vote Labour,” Flynn tells The House. “Conservative roots in Wales have always been very shallow. I’m very optimistic.”
The 82-year-old has been fighting elections in Wales for 45 years. Last year he became the oldest MP to serve in the shadow cabinet for over a century with a brief stint as both shadow Welsh secretary and shadow Leader of the House. He does concede there’s a danger of him losing his seat. “I’ve great faith in the voters but it’s just possible they will interrupt the trajectory of my promising young career,” he says. “If so I will come strongly back.”
And like everyone campaigning in this election, Flynn is all too aware of the important role Brexit will play. He claims that although Wales voted to leave the EU, many voters were now having second thoughts. Welsh farmers that broadly backed Brexit are now “panicking” at the prospect of having to compete with New Zealand’s lamb industry, he says.
However the Tories, led in Wales by Assembly Member Andrew RT Davies, are hoping to cash in on the Brexit effect. “I campaigned for Brexit, that was the majority view in Wales and it still is. The parties of the left are in complete denial about this,” he says.
“People get it that their vote is important. Would they rather have Theresa May round the negotiating table with the presidents, prime ministers and chancellors of Europe looking them in the eye or would they rather it was Jeremy Corbyn?”
Ukip’s march in Wales has been entirely undone by a combination of last year’s EU referendum and all too familiar infighting. With the Conservatives scooping up the former Ukip vote and the Remain vote split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, it’s no wonder the Tories appear to cruising to a remarkable result. However Davies is cautious.
“Twenty years ago the Conservatives were wiped out in Wales. I’ve been around since then, I remember how that feels. That wipeout is in our DNA, we take nothing for granted, we work twice as hard and we fight for every inch in Wales.”
There’s no chance of a nationalist surge like the one that engulfed Scotland two years ago, but Plaid Cymru are looking to that example and hoping to increase their representation from the current three seats. Edwards, MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, explains: “The people of Scotland sent a very strong contingent of SNP MPs at the last election and Scotland is at the top of the UK political agenda. If people want Wales to matter, if they want Wales to be defended they should vote Plaid Cymru.”
Indeed the party even seem to be taking a page out of the SNP playbook by bringing back a former leader to Westminster, just as Alex Salmond bounced back two years ago. Ieaun Wyn Jones – who led the party from 2000 to 2012 – has been selected as candidate in Anglesey, the seat he represented at Westminster until 2001. With Labour’s Albert Owen holding a wafer thin majority of 229, Plaid will be disappointed if Jones doesn’t make a Westminster comeback after a 16-year absence.
The Labour seat of Rhondda is on Plaid’s radar too, despite party leader Leanne Wood’s decision not to contest it. Edwards also points to the Lib Dem’s sole remaining seat in Ceredigion as a target.
He summed up the election: “It’s an opportunity for Plaid Cymru to do very well. I’m confident we’ll get our best ever result.”
Despite a potentially disastrous result for Labour, Flynn says he’s “excited” at the prospect of yet another ballot box battle. “I figure if I keep doing it I will get the hang of it eventually,” he chuckles.
Davies, likewise, is surely looking forward to this election night more than ever before given the Tory woes in Wales at previous polls? He confesses: “I just look forward to elections. I’m one of those sad individuals!”
If the polls are right, he won’t be sad come the start of the summer. While on the Labour side there’ll be individuals who will be distraught if the result is as historic as currently forecast.