Valleys of trouble – Labour’s difficulties in their Welsh heartland

Last night’s leaders debate marked the introduction of Leanne Wood, and her party Plaid Cymru, to the British mainstream political audience. Plaid received 165,394 votes in the 2010 General Election, fewer than the DUP (168,216) and Sinn Féin (171,942). Leanne Wood unashamedly played to the audience at home throughout the debate, and it is very likely that her party will receive a boost in the Welsh opinion polls in the aftermath. But, from Labour’s perspective, there was another party leader who has the potential to cause them an even bigger headache. This would be Wood’s sparring partner and UKIP leader, Nigel Farage. The electoral drift from Labour to UKIP in Wales over the last couple of years is one of the most surprising anywhere in the UK.

The graph below shows how party support has fluctuated for the six largest parties in Wales since the 2010 General Election.  Polling was sparse in the first half of the parliament, but the trend can be easily seen. As elsewhere in Britain, the years between 2010 and 2012 saw a collapse in Liberal Democrat support, which was mostly to the benefit of Labour, with the Greens seeing a small increase as well. However, since peaking in July 2012 with a huge 54% share, their support has been falling ever since, and it has mostly been to the benefit of UKIP. A December 2014 YouGov/ITV Wales poll put their support at 36%, lower than the 36.2% they received in the 2010 election.

Wales Opinion Polling

Both the Conservatives and Plaid have had broadly stable support since the election, with Tory support sagging during the parliament but recovering recently.

The question on everybody’s mind is how these movements in support are likely to affect the outcome in a first past the post general election. The problem is that, tricky as the English regions and Scotland are to predict, Wales is the most troublesome of all. In England, despite UKIP’s recent meteoric rise in the polls, they have had an electoral presence for some time and clues can be ascertained from local election results.

However, in Wales, UKIP’s eclipse of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats to become the third most popular party has happened since the 2012 local elections, where they stood in very few wards. It is therefore difficult to extrapolate possible clusters of UKIP support from local election results. However there was one council, the Isle of Anglesea (Ynys Môn) which held their election in 2013, due to the postponement of the 2012 election by the Welsh Assembly.

Currently, Labour’s Albert Owen holds the Westminster seat over Plaid with a majority of 2,461, and polled 3,746 more than the Conservative candidate in the 2010 General Election. From an analysis of betting odds, the analysts at First Past The Post make Labour’s probability of holding the seat at 67.5%. However, at the 2013 local elections, Labour took a hammering, losing votes to both Plaid and UKIP. The table below shows results by council ward.

Anglesea 2013

In the 2012 council elections, UKIP only stood in 14 of 852 council wards, but the results in the wards where they did stand do provide some clues as to how they may poll in May. In the Cornerswell and Sully wards in the parliamentary seat of Cardiff South and Penarth, UKIP polled strongly, with a 22% and 33% share respectively. They also did well in the two wards that they stood in the Clwyd West constituency, topping the poll with 38% in one ward (Glyn).

Cardiff South and Penarth is considered a safe Labour seat, with bookmakers only offering odds of 1/100 on a Labour hold. But Labour only had a majority of 4,709 in 2010 (there was a by-election in 2012 where Labour were returned on a low turnout). The crux of Labour’s problem in Wales is that any advances made by either UKIP, Plaid or the Greens are almost entirely at their expense, and not at the expense of the Conservatives.

It has the making of a perfect storm for Labour. The cannibalization of their core vote by UKIP and Plaid, the resilience of the Lib Dems in seats where they have a sitting MP, and the continuing slow advance of the Welsh Tories mean that there could well be some major shocks on election night. I would suggest that any Welsh Labour seat where either the Conservatives or Plaid (but not the Lib Dems) were within 5,000 votes of winning in 2010 could be a contender for a shock.

There are eleven seats that meet this criteria where the Conservatives could win the seat from Labour. These are Alyn & Deeside, Bridgend, Cardiff South & Penarth, Cardiff West, Clwyd South, Delyn, Gower, Newport East, Newport West, Swansea West and Vale of Clwyd. In addition, there are two seats where Plaid could nick the seat from Labour; the aforementioned Ynys Môn, and Llanelli.

In the space of two years, Labour have went from polling well above 50% in Wales to a situation where they could be vulnerable in what they would have historically considered some of their safest seats. Unlike the situation in Scotland, where the SNP stand to reap the bonanza of Labour’s troubles, it is principally the Conservatives who stand to benefit here. In such a tight election, were Labour to lose ten seats directly to the Conservatives in Wales, it could be key to granting David Cameron a second term as Prime Minister.

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  • Galloglass

    It makes no difference which of the leaders of ConLab become PM…….The really important issue for the UK is the 12 months leading to the Scottish General Election in ’16 and the inevitable Non-Implementation of “Home Rule/Devomax”

  • Aber1

    Thanks for an interesting and well-documented analysis. Few commentators have mentioned the rise of Ukip in Wales, where it’s successes do seem to be at the expense of Labour. Even Nigel Farage confesses that he doesn’t quite understand this. There are, of course, some big ‘ifs’ here. One is whether the Ukip vote will hold up in general election conditions, where organisation on the ground is key, and the other is how that vote is distributed. A big increase in the party’s vote took place in what was once the South Wales Coalfield. This former industrial area is ‘the Valleys’; it’s not a generic term, and only two of the constituencies mentioned above are even partly within it. It’s been solidly Labour since 1922 and that’s unlikely to change in this election. So a lot of the Ukip vote is likely to be wasted. The north Wales coast is more promising for Ukip. However, Lord Ashcroft’s polls show that there’s a difference between what voters say about general voting intentions and what they say about the seat they will vote in, so it could be that the Ukip vote will be squeezed. We’ll see. As it is, three Plaid Cymru seats are worth watching, the two mentioned above and Ceredigion which is held by the Lib Dems.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Go to Newport and you will understand why voters are transferring to UKIP.

  • Aber1

    Could you explain further?

  • terence patrick hewett

    As an engineer I work a lot in Wales and Ireland and although yr offer is tempting I am afraid I shall have to decline to do so. The train fares are extremely reasonable and the pubs welcoming so you may gain an insight to yr advantage.

  • Ghyl Tarvoke

    I’m sorry but this is terrible data analysis. For a start the poll DOESN’T show an overall Labour decline – it shows an increase in Labour support in 2011-2012 and then a dissipation in support in 2013-2015 to…. back to the levels they were at the 2010 election. No change. So why would Labour be in danger in ‘their safe seats’ if they are at the same level of support as in 2010? Furthermore, what this poll indicates is that it is the Lib Dems who are losing support and their support is going everywhere, but especially to the UKIP. Current Lib Dem total + UKIP total is pretty much equal to the 2010 Lib Dem total while Labour, Tory and Plaid support has remained static from the last election. This should indicate where vote movements have gone. You provide no evidence that Labour’s vote is ‘being cannibalized’ by UKIP and Plaid except some selective council results. What has to be noticed in that is this means there is more political parties there to take the Anti-Labour vote indicating that in Labour held seats split votes between more opposition parties are more likely. In other words, this indicates that Labour should be looking to gain seats in Wales at this election according to the evidence you have provided yourself, not lose them.

    Second of all, Ynys Mon is absolutely not stereotypical of Wales in any way. A basic look at its voting history in comparison to other Welsh seats would show unusual patterns and a very strong pro-incumbent bias. While Plaid gaining the seat can’t be ruled out, its council results can’t be held as representative of anything other than its particular area.

    Third of all, On the UKIP council areas. Have you considered that the reason why UKIP decided to run in those areas where they did was because they expected to do well there? It seems highly unlikely to me that their selection of council areas was a random sample. On this basis, using council results to predict UKIP totals by assuming that where UKIP ran is ‘typical’ will probably massively inflate their projected vote.

    Fourth of all, How are the Conservatives benefiting as you say in your final paragraph? You portray their vote as essentially static – and as demonstrated Labour are not losing votes, it is hard to see how they will benefit. You have also provided no historical context on the nature of the seats in question. Some of the seats you have mentioned have been held for Labour since at least 1945 – not even losing them in 1983 and 2010 when their national vote was lower than it is now according to the polls (and according to some polls, significantly lower).

    The fact of the matter is despite great media hype there is little evidence in the polling data of the massive UKIP-Green surge that has been suggested. Rather their gains have been made at the expense of the collapsing Lib Dems. Note that in some recent polls the combined Tory and Labour vote is actually at a higher level than c.65% it received in 2010 and this is despite the SNP surge in Scotland. While a hung parliament is the most likely outcome, let’s not get all overdramatic on great claims of fourth party tidal waves that are based on no polling evidence until, at least, the results are in.

  • salmonofdata

    Your theory that the the rise in the UKIP vote is due to disillusioned 2010 Lib Dem voters is frankly daft.

    The polls quite clearly show two migrations; one from 2010-12 from the Lib Dems to Labour, and then another from 2012 to the present away from Labour, principally to UKIP, but with Plaid and the Greens benefitting to a lesser extent.

    This is great for Labour in, say, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney, where they are defending a majority of 4,056 against the Lib Dems and the Tories and Plaid are essentially nowhere. It’s not so good in Vale of Clwyd, where Labour are defending a majority of 2,509 against the Conservatives, and the Lib Dems only polled 12.6% in 2010. The Conservatives can narrowly win in a number of Labour seats merely by holding on to their 2010 support.

    The problem for Labour is that their vote may pile up uselessly in safe seats where the Liberal Democrats came second in 2010, such as in the two Swansea seats and Aberavon, but they could end up narrowly losing to the Tories in a raft of seats. Opposing the AV referendum could come back to haunt them.

    There is ample polling evidence that Labour have lost ground to UKIP in Wales over the last year. I’m not sure what you mean when you say we should wait until after the results are in. Predicting elections that have already taken place doesn’t sound like much fun.

  • Ghyl Tarvoke

    “Your theory that the the rise in the UKIP vote is due to disillusioned 2010 Lib Dem voters is frankly daft.”

    While obviously there are greater complexities then just Lib Dem voters switching to the UKIP the actual data is suggestive when comparing polls from the 2010 general election (which is our base data) to the current polls. As you can see Labour and Tories are basically static from 2010 despite changes in the meantime (actually the most recent polls have put Labour ahead of the 2010 level. The most recent has them 15% ahead of the tories, 5 percentage points ahead of the 2010 level) while the Lib Dem vote has floored massively meanwhile UKIP and the Greens have picked up support that is approximately equal to the Lib Dem collapse. Of course there is a myriad of factors to consider before saying there is a necessary causal relationship… but does this seem the most plausible hypothesis from the data you have presented yourself (more likely is that there has been an about equal switch from Tory to UKIP on the one hand and from Lib Dem to Tory on the other thus balancing each other out made slightly more confusing by the fact that many ex-Lib Dem voters turned to Labour in 2011 and 2012 but that patterns has seemingly dropped off).

    “The polls quite clearly show two migrations; one from 2010-12 from the Lib Dems to Labour, and then another from 2012 to the present away from Labour, principally to UKIP, but with Plaid and the Greens benefitting to a lesser extent.”

    Correct. Except that this leaves Labour in the exact same base position as in 2010. Plaid gains on the other hand are miniscule.

    “This is great for Labour in, say, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney, where they are defending a majority of 4,056 against the Lib Dems and the Tories and Plaid are essentially nowhere. It’s not so good in Vale of Clwyd, where Labour are defending a majority of 2,509 against the Conservatives, and the Lib Dems only polled 12.6% in 2010. The Conservatives can narrowly win in a number of Labour seats merely by holding on to their 2010 support.”

    No. For that to happen there would need to be a) a decline in the Labour vote from 2010 and/or b) an increase in Tory from 2010. Neither of those are visible from the polling data. Instead what we have is a more split opposition.

    “The problem for Labour is that their vote may pile up uselessly in safe seats where the Liberal Democrats came second in 2010, such as in the two Swansea seats and Aberavon, but they could end up narrowly losing to the Tories in a raft of seats. Opposing the AV referendum could come back to haunt them.”

    Ummm… That assumes that Lib Dem switches are necessarily going over to Labour. As I have already shown, that is not necessarily the case.

    Not even considering that in many places where the Lib Dems finished second last time might well have been a tactical vote of “Not Labour” (or “Not the Tories” for that matter although there are few Lib Dem-Tories marginals in Wales)

    I will add here that while you have mentioned council elections you didn’t bring up assembly elections, which show more favourable results for Labour and this was where UKIP had a more formidable presence.

    “There is ample polling evidence that Labour have lost ground to UKIP in Wales over the last year.”

    Source? I’m skeptical given that UKIP support nationally has mostly stagnated or declined slightly since just after the European elections.

    “I’m not sure what you mean when you say we should wait until after the results are in. Predicting elections that have already taken place doesn’t sound like much fun.”

    That isn’t what I meant. Rather I believe your analysis to be baseless and depends on a misreading of voters intentions, history, and the polling data. It is also far too dependent on lazy media driven narratives about the state of the two main parties rather than serious empirical analysis. This I will maintain unless the results show me to be utterly, utterly wrong.

  • salmonofdata

    UKIP support did rise from the European election until the end of 2014, from 10% in the YouGov/University of Cardiff poll on the 22nd of April to 18% in the YouGov/ITV Wales poll on the 3rd of December, although it’s fallen since.

    The notion that the movement in the polls between 2010 and 2014 is due to equal numbers of Tory to UKIP and Lib Dem to Tory switchers completely ignores the fact that Labour polled 54% in July 2012, and completely flies in the face of common sense. Why would there be a mass migration from the Liberal Democrats to their coalition partners the Conservatives? The movement everywhere in the UK has been the desertion of left-leaning LD voters to Labour, and this is what happened in Wales too.

    I don’t understand at all your point about the 2011 Assembly elections. UKIP didn’t have a formidable presence at all; they didn’t even stand in a single first past the post constituency, and only polled 4.6% in the regional list election, in line with their Westminster polling at the time (4%).

    I don’t know what “lazy media driven narratives” I am depending on, as I don’t recall seeing or reading anything in the media regarding UKIP in Wales. And history is completely irrelevant, due to the number of changes to the political landscape in the last few years.

    At risk of repeating myself, Labour’s problem isn’t that they might not win the popular vote in the election in Wales. Their problem is that their politically shortsighted decision to back keeping the first past the post system in a multi-party democracy has led to the situation where their vote could be stacked up inefficiently, with crushing majorities in some seats, but leaving themselves exposed in others. Any post debate bounce for Plaid could well exacerbate the problem for them.

    Labour’s average majority in Wales in 2010 was 6,044, whilst in Scotland it was 11,527, and look what’s happening there. The Conservatives have an even bigger problem in swathes of English seats, where Labour could sneak through because of Tory to UKIP switchers. Call it the law of unintended consequences.

    In any case, thanks for the feedback, it was certainly detailed and passionately argued.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Thanks for looking at this, Salmon. I have to say that I agree with those who suggest that the shift is not dramatic on the face of it, with both Lab and Con at or a little bove their 2010 figures. What is significant of course is that Labour are not much further ahead than that. In the UK as a whole they are consistently polling around 34%, 5% higher than in 2010; in Wales that would mean 41%, 5% more than 2010’s 36%, and from the graph it’s clear that they are struggling to reach it. So, perhaps not as dramatically as Scotland, Wales is failing to deliver its part for Labour.

    The other point that strikes me is that the collapse of the Lib Dems is so complete that all three of their Welsh seats must be considered at risk. The second party in those seats are the Conservatives (9% behind in Brecon and Radnor, other parties nowhere), Labour (12% behind in Cardiff Central, Conservatives a strong third but probably not strong enough) and Plaid Cymru (22% behind in Ceredigion, other parties nowhere).

    I anticipate that 8 May will likely see the party standings much the same as they are now in Wales, apart from the Lib Dems. Labour may also pick off the Tories’ wafer-thin majority in Cardiff North, but they need to be doing better than that – and specifically, gaining from PC – to build for a good GB-wide result.

  • salmonofdata

    In all three Lib Dem seats, the party topped the polls in the 2012 local elections. They are the betting favourites in Brecon and Radnorshire and Ceredigion, but in Cardiff Central they polled extremely strongly in 2012 (with a 43% share), and that Lib Dem resilience may be stronger than is realised.

    In fact, it is certainly possible that despite their plunge in the polls, the Lib Dems could end up with more seats in Wales than they won in 2010. This would happen if they held all three of their seats, and then won back Lembit Öpik’s old seat of Montgomeryshire.

    Their situation may be the opposite of Labour’s; their vote is very small, but it appears to be efficiently distributed for a first past the post election. It would be rather ironic if the Lib Dems ended up the beneficiaries of the inherent unfairness and silliness of having a first past the post voting system in a multiparty election.

  • Aber1

    One correction to the last statement. The Lib Dems hold the Westminster seat of Ceredigion but they didn’t top the polls in the 2012 county elections, Plaid Cymru did with 39% of the vote; Independents were second on 28% and Lib Dems third with 25%. The council is run by Plaid in a coalition with a single Lab councillor and a few Independents. The Lib Dems are the official opposition on the council. Plaid also hold the local seat in the National Assembly. This provides the basis for a serious challenge to the Westminster seat, although incumbency counts for something and the Lib Dems are fighting tenaciously to hold on.

    A scenario in which the Lib Dems hold all their seats in Wales and even increase their representation in May is plausible, for the reasons given above, but it’s equally possible that they will experience a complete wipe-out. The Welsh Lib Dems are in a precarious condition.

  • salmonofdata

    D’oh, you’re quite right on Ceredigion. My bad. The Lib Dems do have a hefty majority of 8,324 though. It could come down to tiny margins on the night in any of the four seats where they are competitive.

  • Davros64

    ??

  • Dewi

    I’ve yet to register any panic from Labour on losing any seats to the Tories….Lib Dem collapse will overcome any UKIP surge probably. indeed mmy prediction is lab up 2, Tories no change, Plaid up 1, Libs lose all 3…

  • Kevin Breslin

    Most obvious trend in the graph is LibDem to Labour.