It was 2007 when things started to go seriously wrong for the Scottish Labour party. In that year they finished narrowly behind the SNP in the Scottish Parliament election (winning 46 seats to the SNP’s 47).
Actually, that Labour performance, making a net loss of only four seats in an election held during the last, dog-days of the Blair premiership, was far from discreditable. And although the election result enabled the SNP to enter government, they did so as a minority administration holding barely 36% of the seats in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP was in office, but barely in power.
But the platform of holding office helped the SNP establish a new credibility with much of the Scottish electorate. This provided the basis for the party’s much more resounding victory in 2011. As the most detailed analysis of that election has shown convincingly, the SNP’s 2011 majority had little to do with support for independence; it was far more about the reputation the party had won by then for effectiveness in government. In the language of political science, the SNP’s victory was about ‘valence politics’ – otherwise known as ‘competence voting’. However, the 2011 majority gave the SNP its mandate for an independence referendum. And though that referendum was lost, it nonetheless gave rise to further changes in the Scottish political landscape – changes which produced the SNP landslide victory in the 2015 general election, and at present appear to put them on course for an increased majority at Holyrood this year.
As we all know, and has been discussed elsewhere, the political landscape of Wales is very different from that of Scotland, in all sorts of ways. One of those ways is the much greater continuing strength of Labour in Wales than in Scotland. Yet here’s a strange thing. In the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, the share of the vote won by Labour on the constituency ballot was 32.2%. In the Welsh Assembly election, the share of the vote won by Labour on the constituency ballot was 32.2%. (For completeness, I should point out that on the regional list ballot Scottish Labour won 29.2%, while Welsh Labour achieved 29.6%).
These near-identical performances by the Labour party in the two nations, moreover, reflected a much more serious fall in the party’s support in Wales than in Scotland. Between 2003 and 2007, Labour’s support on the constituency ballot fell by 2.5 percentage points in Scotland, but by 7.8 points in Wales. If 2007 began a crisis anywhere, you might have thought, it should have been within the Labour party in Wales. And yet it is Scottish Labour that has spent much of the ensuing nine years in a steadily spiralling decline, while Labour continues to be much the strongest party in Wales.
Divide and conquer
Why? There are many elements to the story of the contrasting fates of Labour in the two nations. But a central factor to any explanation must be the very different nature of the opposing forces that Labour has had to face. In Scotland, of course, that predominantly means the SNP. In those 2007 devolved elections, the SNP increased their vote share on the constituency ballot by 9.1 percentage points, and by an even more impressive 10.2 points on the regional ballot, to narrowly edge ahead of Labour as Scotland’s leading party. By contrast, even as Labour’s support declined substantially in Wales there was no single party that emerged as a clear challenger. Thus, Labour’s 2007 losses in support were distributed between several other parties: Plaid rose 1.2% on constituency vote from their 2003 performance, the Conservatives were up by 2.5%, and the Liberal Democrats vote share rose by 0.7%, while minor parties (including People’s Voice, who won the Blaenau Gwent constituency seat) also saw a boost of 3.5% on the constituency vote. With the opposition so fragmented, even as their support declined much more substantially than in Scotland, Welsh Labour remained well ahead of all the other parties. This absence of a single strong challenger also protected Labour from substantial seat losses: six constituencies were picked off, and the party also saw its majorities slashed in other seats. But Labour still emerged from the Assembly election with more than three times as many constituency seats as the next-strongest party, Plaid Cymru, and in a position from which it could bounce back in more promising circumstances in 2011. In retrospect, 2007 looks like the beginning of the sad decline for Labour in Scotland; in Wales it was little more than a bump in the road.
Does this lesson in electoral history have any contemporary relevance? Well, we know that Labour face yet another very difficult Scottish election in 2016. The more interesting situation, in many respects, may be that facing the party in Wales. As in 2007, Labour will be campaigning against the background of a difficult UK-wide political context. Having achieved great success in 2011 (and in the 2012 Welsh local elections) largely by positioning themselves in opposition to the Conservative-led government in London, Welsh Labour may find the going much stickier in 2016. The most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll put Labour on 35% for the constituency vote, some ten percentage points below where they were at this point in the electoral cycle before the 2011 election. Given also recent trends in local council by-elections, and Labour’s tendency to significantly underperform its opinion poll rating in Wales, it currently appears very likely that Labour will be losing ground in Wales in 2016.
Yet Labour could well be saved from a challenge to its position as Wales’ leading party by the divided nature of the opposing forces. Even if Labour does lose a number of constituency seats, those parties likely to pick off such seats will themselves be liable to losing regional list seats, particularly to UKIP. Indeed it is not totally implausible (although certainly towards the lower end of current projections) that Labour might fall below 30% on both the constituency and list ballots in Wales, yet still emerge with about twice as many Assembly seats as any other party.
Whether any such outcome would be good for Welsh democracy is one question. It would, though, be a pretty good outcome in a difficult year for Welsh Labour, a party that has enjoyed, and may well continue to enjoy, considerable good fortune in its political enemies.
This blog first appeared at the Centre for Constitutional Change site and is reproduced with permission