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.

A qualified accountant and data analyst, interested in politics, economics and data. Twitter: @peterdonaghy