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Résumé

The 2005 general election results in Wales should not be dismissed lightly by the Labour Party for the profile of these results can be interpreted as a warning from party supporters on the geographical margins of Britain to the central, London-based decision-makers.

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Keywords :

Wales, election 2005
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Texte intégral

Introduction

1The 2005 general election will have a lasting impact on Welsh politics and very likely on relations between the Labour party and its Welsh supporters and activists. The substance of the full results reveals a number of issues for Wales and in particular these results raise questions that also concern the future of devolution and the probable outcome of the next Assembly elections in May 2007.

2The propositions put forward in this paper are: firstly, a reminder that Wales has a long history of support for the Labour party; secondly, that when this support seemed to be fading, when faced with the rise of nationalist feeling, and in the light of political developments in Scotland, Labour held out the promise of increased autonomy in the form of a Welsh Assembly. This was in order to secure Welsh votes for Labour at the UK level , to obtain domination of the Assembly and to sabotage the nationalist vote. The third point is that once Labour support seemed to be secured in Wales at a UK parliamentary level that Labour lack of interest in devolution resurfaced as did the desire to maintain a common, centralized Labour identity.

3A brief over view of the history of Labour politics in Wales is useful in order to better appreciate the scope of the 2005 results.

4Until 1922 the Liberal party dominated political life in Wales, largely thanks to the support of the working classes, and to the party's links to Non-conformism, the Conservative party being identified with the established Anglican chucrch. The Welsh economy was dominated by agriculture until the beginning of the XIXth century when heavy industry and metallurgy took over, their development being aided by the discovery of coal in the South Wales valleys that lie close to the sea and the ports. The coal that was mined was also used in the transformation of imported metals, especially copper, to be smelted, worked and re-exported with no additional transport costs. Between 1850 and 1914 the South Wales area was the most dynamic sector of the British economy, developing more rapidly than any other sector or region in the UK (Abalain, 1.). It was an area that attracted many migrant, English-speaking workers.

5At the beginning of the XXth century the Independent Labour Party had sections in Merthyr, Swansea and Wrexham and in 1900 Labour's first MP in Wales, James Keir Hardie, was elected in Merthyr Tydfil, one of two LRC MPs returned to Westminster that year. In summary, support for the Labour party was therefore essentially a working class vote that cut across other lines. Class solidarity was stronger than religion or language and Labour mainly gained votes from the Liberals, who were weakened by internal dissension and the First World War effort.

6At general elections during the XXth century Labour made steady advances both in urban and in rural constituencies. In 1966 they won 32 of the 36 Welsh seats in Westminster as well as making gains in elections for town and county councils. Welsh nationalists were also starting to enjoy success. That same year, in a by-election in Carmarthen, Gwynfor Evans stood again as the Plaid Cymru candidate and won the seat, increasing his share of the vote from 16.1% to 39%.

7However, support for the party began to erode throughout the UK as well as at national (Welsh) level and Labour only managed to hold on to 20 seats in 1983 when the Conservatives won a record 14 seats ( see table that follows). However, disillusion with the Conservatives at UK level and the relaunching of the Labour party resulted in the 1997 Labour landslide. This was reflected in Wales where Labour swept back to power, obtaining 34 of the 40 Welsh seats, leaving 4 to Plaid Cymru, 2 to the Liberal-Democrats, and none to the Conservatives. The election in 2001 was slightly less glorious in terms of the percentage of votes obtained, but the results were the same. There was no Conservative representation for Wales at Westminster.

8It could be argued therefore that the 2005 election saw a return to more normal party politics when the Conservatives gained three seats from Labour after eight years of Wales being a Tory free zone. In the 2005 election Labour lost five seats altogether: 3 to the Conservatives, (Preseli in Pembrokeshire, Monmouth and Clywd West), 1 to a Lib-Dem (Cardiff Central) and one to an Independent (Blaenau Gwent), gaining just over 42% of the votes, down from the high of 54% in 1997.

9Was the 2005 result therefore a change in voting patterns? Is there evidence to support the idea of a "Blair backlash" (Western Mail, 6 May 2005)? The Labour party's losses across Britain, with their majority slashed from 161 seats to 66, might be evidence of that, the vote being evidence of the electorate's disapproval of British involvement in the Iraq conflict, among other issues. In Wales however, the answer seems to lie in the fact that it is rather more a balance which has been restored. Welsh Labour lost five seats, reducing its total from 34 to 29 but gains by the Tories, Lib-Dems and others is a redressing of historical anomalies rather than any significant metamorphosis and Labour still maintain their historic domination of Welsh parliamentary seats.

10Nevertheless, a closer look at the results is interesting and we might wonder whether the nature of the "first past the post" system does not in fact mask deeper shifts of disaffection in Wales, which only seem to be perceived at present rather than translated into hard figures. Personal research and some press reports ( "Wales mulls over voters' revenge", Western Mail, 7 May 2005) would seem to bear this out at present.

11This disaffection with New Labour was all too obvious in the most spectacular individual result which came in the constituency of Blaenau Gwent, the former seat of Aneurin Bevan and known as the "Safest seat in Wales". Labour suffered a sensational defeat in this its most symbolic Welsh seat when the Independent candidate Peter Law overturned a 19,000 majority to win by 9,121 votes, which was 58% of all votes. Mr. Law, who is also the Assembly Member (AM) for this constituency in the Welsh Assembly, resigned his party membership in protest at the party's use of all-women shortlists to select a candidate . The London decision to parachute in a woman candidate, albeit one with impeccable credentials. (Maggie Jones is a leader in Unison, the public sector workers' union) failed quite impressively because not only did Peter Law win the seat, but he was backed by significant numbers of party members, the outgoing MP, Llew Smith, having joined in the earlier warnings about the strength of feeling in the constituency. These activists have now been excluded from the party for having backed the winning candidate.

12Rhodri Morgan, First Minister of the Labour-led Welsh Assembly dismissed the news as a "freak result" (Western Mail, 7 May 2005) but since Peter Law is also still a Member of the Welsh Assembly, Labour have technically lost their majority there as well. Rhodri Morgan now faces the problem of trying to run a minority administration.

13In the new post-devolutionary Wales these results need to be measured against two yardsticks: the previous election in 2001 and the last Assembly election in 2003. On both counts the Lib-Dems and the Conservatives have won a larger share of the vote. Labour polled a smaller share of the vote in Wales than in 2001 but improved on their Assembly showing in 2003. In the National Assembly Rhodri Morgan's minority administration now finds itself vulnerable to Opposition tactics as well as being susceptible to a motion of no confidence. It seems unlikely that Labour will form another coalition with the Lib-Dems, as in 1998; what is possible is that Peter Law and the newly elected Conservative MP for Monmouth, David Davies, who is also his constituency's AM, will spend more time in Westminster than in Cardiff and with luck the balance in the Assembly will therefore be maintained as their absences cancel each other out.

14Of longer term significance than this problematical spin off from the general election will be the proposed changes to the Assembly's powers, the electoral system and an anticipated boundary review. The 2005 Labour Party Manifesto promised a White Paper on the future development of the National Assembly and indeed the paper, entitled "Better Governance for Wales", was published on 15 June 2005 and will form the basis for a new Government of Wales Bill to be introduced at the end of this year or early in 2006. In brief, three key areas lie at the core of the White Paper. They are :

  • Concerning Wales, streamlining the legislative process through the Westminster Parliament

  • Formally separating the Assembly government from backbench AMs

    • 1  20 AMs are elected in the same constituencies as Westminster MPs in the classic British "first pas (...)

    At elections, banning losing candidates from still being elected as "list" AMs.1

15These measures fall short of the law-making powers recommended in the Richard Report, published in March 2004 by the Richard Commission. This was headed by Ivor Richard, barrister, MP and former leader of the House of Lords. While Welsh Conservatives called the proposed measures "an unworkable sticking plaster".(newsvote.bbc.co.uk, 15/06/05), the Welsh Liberal Democrats may have been closer to a deeper truth when their spokesman said that the proposals were "cobbled together and put Labour's needs before the needs of Wales" (ibid).

  • 2  The Guardian, 11 May 1999.

16With devolution, the Welsh Labour party seemingly acquired a new role, making policy for the Assembly, which seemed to reverse more than a decade of increasing centralization. Indeed the potential scope for policy differences between British and Welsh Labour is now considerable. But despite devolution, the UK party leadership in London remains anxious to keep the Labour brand. It has not followed the logic of devolution by rewriting the party constitution to federalize the party or to give the party in the devolved territories greater formal independence. Rather, the stress has been on preserving a common Labour identity, a brand or ethos, across the country. Mathew Taylor, former director of the IPPR and now a Downing Street adviser, 2 argued that the party needed ideological unity to win elections. The Labour National Executive committee remains a centralist body with ultimate powers of intervention and a strong English , even London, focus. It is an English executive committee, with no formal representation from Wales and Scotland and it reflects the current Labour leadership's stress on the votes of middle England.

17Soon after devolution, the events around the election of the First Minister (the attempt by London to impose Alun Michael, former Secretary of State for Wales and the eventual victory of Rhodri Morgan, one-time MP for Cardiff West) showed the limits of the ability of London to manage the Welsh party. Leaders of the Welsh party have not sought (yet) to challenge the existing structures and press for the loosening of ties with the British party. But it would seem that the London definition of the Labour brand is starting to be challenged by the Welsh Labour administration; it could be argued that it is an ideological battle between right and left, Old Labour and New Labour. This was announced in a speech by Rhodri Morgan in Swansea in November 2002 prior to the 2003 Assembly elections campaign when he spoke of putting "clear red water" between Cardiff Bay and Westminster. This implied leftward lurch away from the Westminster party is revealed in certain policy decisions where Wales has not followed central government's lead, for example on specialist schools, foundation hospitals, and the introduction of PFI projects.

18However, Welsh Labour is not seen as a threat to the Labour brand, even if there are the occasional mishaps. This is partly because policy differences are not that great and partly because Welsh political realities differ from those in England where the Conservatives are the main opposition. In Wales the main electoral threat is from Plaid Cymru, and what is now clearly rising interest in the Lib-Dems. Yet, the Welsh historical legacy is one dominated by public sector institutions, so this has given an in-built policy bias towards direct public service provision rather than towards policies to marketize the public sector. The take-up of PFI projects too is influenced by the willingness of local councillors and health trust members to implement them, yet many of these people are still resolutely old style party members.

General election results in Wales - representation at Westminster 1966 – 2005

Labour

Conservative

Liberal/

Alliance/Lib Dem

 Plaid Cymru 

Election

 % votes

elected

 % votes

elected

 % votes

elected

 % votes 

 elected 

1966

32 (31)

3

1

(1)

1970

51,6

27

27,7

7

6,8

1

11,5

0

Fév '74

46,8

24

25,9

8

16

2

10,7

2

Oct '74

49,5

23

23,9

8

15,5

2

10,8

3

1979

46,9

21

32,2

11

10,6

1

8,1

2

1983

37,5

20

31,0

14

23,2

2

7,8

2

1987

45,1

24

29,5

8

17,9

3

7,3

3

1992

49,5

27

28,6

6

12,4

1

8,8

4

1997,

54,7

34

19,6

0

12,3

2

9,9

4

2001

48,6

34

21,0

0

13,8

2

14,3

4

2005 *

42,7

29

21,4

3

18,4

4

12,6

3

+ 1 independant

19The watering down of the Richard Commission proposals and the appointment of Peter Hain, MP for Neath and Welsh Secretary, to the simultaneous post of Northern Ireland secretary (BBC news, 9 May 2005 ) are viewed as a downgrading of Wales's status and, apart from being seen as an insult to the people of both Wales and Northern Ireland, would seem to point to a lack of interest that is potentially perilous. Perhaps the result in Blaenau Gwent should not be seen as a "freak result" but a warning. If the Lib-Dems continue to attract votes, and if Plaid Cymru especially resolve current internal differences which include leadership and policy issues, as they seem to be doing, the next general election results in Wales could be even more interesting than those of 2005. The next Assembly elections, in 2007, will therefore be an interesting pointer.

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Bibliographie

Abalain, H. - « Le pays de Galles : regards croisés sur le passé et l'avenir politique », [unpublished paper], 2004

Bogdanor, V. - Devolution in the United Kingdom, Oxford : OUP, 1999

Morgan, K.O. - Rebirth of a Nation, Oxford : OUP, 2002

Osmond, J. - New Politics in Wales, London : Charter 88, 1998

Rawlings, R. - Delineating Wales, Cardiff : UWP, 2003

Websites

National Library of Wales ; http://www.llgc.org.uk

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Notes

1  20 AMs are elected in the same constituencies as Westminster MPs in the classic British "first past the post" system; 40 AMS are elected by proportional representation, 4 in each of the 5 large "Euro" constituencies.

2  The Guardian, 11 May 1999.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Moya Jones, « Wales and the Labour Party », Observatoire de la société britannique, 1 | 2006, 253-259.

Référence électronique

Moya Jones, « Wales and the Labour Party », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 1 | 2006, mis en ligne le 01 février 2011, consulté le 19 septembre 2017. URL : http://osb.revues.org/578 ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.578

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Auteur

Moya Jones

Professeur de civilisation britannique à l'université de Bordeaux 3 Michel de Montaigne

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Droits d’auteur

Observatoire de la société britannique

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