Eight days ago the Country woke up to an election result that surprised most pollsters, and those of us who watched the various debates unfold.
So what happened? And why were we so surprised? And why am I so blinking (please feel free to insert more appropriate expletive) excited and engaged with the future of Wales, politically?
I’m not given to statistical analyses, so will give them a wide berth here – there are lots that are around – knock yourselves out. Key outcomes, and frankly all that matters, is that (in no order of importance), SNP maxed out in Scotland (and could even have done damage in some Northern English constituencies!!); Tories strengthened almost everywhere except Scotland; Lib Dems (my old Party) were effectively wiped off the Parliamentary map; UKIP polled almost 4M votes (and got 1 MP); the Greens retained their seat, and massively grew their vote (1M); and Labour failed (by varying degrees) to turn their pre-election polling into votes. In Wales, Plaid Cymru showed a marginal improvement, but failed to make the breakthrough their increased exposure may have suggested. I’m going to give my ‘four-penneth’ worth on each Party in a bit, but first let’s consider who switched allegiances and therefore decided that David Cameron could run a majority government for the next five years.
So, I reckon there was more movement than we thought between votes this time than there has been for a while. I’ve focused on three categories of switchers…
The middle of the road voter: the type who has probably voted for Thatcher, Blair & Clegg in their time, this time went (relatively positively) with Cameron. Sure, they were influenced by the scare stories regarding the SNP having a rudder on power. Sure, they were influenced by the lack of trust in Miliband & Balls. But mostly, they thought the coalition had done alright (even if they weren’t quite feeling the benefits as yet), and the beneficiary was the Conservative Party. First past the post elections mean that this group have the biggest influence on Election Day.
The working or non-working poor: this group still don’t vote as much as other groups, so the swing from them is important, but perhaps not defining in its significance (apart from in Scotland). In Scotland, this one is easy – they deserted Labour and voted SNP. In England & Wales, it seems a few went Green, a backbone (potentially from strong Labour areas – such as the former coalfields) stayed reluctantly with Labour, whilst a significant grouping climbed aboard the Farage Express. They went willingly, and will likely do the same again (Euro referendum, local councils etc.). The backbone will continue to desert Labour in my opinion, and will split left (Green, SNP, Plaid) and right (UKIP). I anticipate this move being quick, hence my thoughts regarding the future of the Labour Party (see later).
My final switching group are the Liberal minded centre & centre/left, or the progressives: this group suffered from echo chamber syndrome during the campaign – if they were a betting bunch (unlikely, but hey, go with the analogy), they would have lost a lot of money expecting a rainbow coalition of sorts. The vast majority of this group voted with conviction – they engaged during the contest with politicians, and with each other. They spent little time engaging with the other two switching groups above – had they done so, we may have had a different result. This grouping are likely to have previously voted tactically. They voted for their least worst option. Often, but not always, this was against the Tories; and that often meant Labour. This time their vote was fragmented and diluted. It went the way of the Nationalists (not the Tories!!), the Greens as well as Labour. The significant minority who tactically voted against Labour in the past, are likely to have stuck with the Tories.
Lots of observers suggested the strong showing for the Tories was as a result of people voting scared (scared of the SNP, scared of a mismanaged economy etc.). I’m less convinced. I think, in addition to a very firm support base from 2010, they added the likes of centrist liberals, and the aspiring working families (who’ve never seen a food bank, but would never consider themselves to be well off). They claimed a huge swathe of the centre ground. This support isn’t going to be easy to budge.
The other interesting point about the Tory vote in England was that there was a real under-current of it being a vote for English Nationalism. The rise of the SNP, and the higher profile of Plaid certainly raised the stakes south of Hadrian’s Wall and east of Offa’s Dyke. I can’t see the strength of the SNP diminishing – so I think this increased separation will become more acute as time progresses.
The Conservatives quite obviously had a fantastic election – beyond their expectations. Their biggest strength is paradoxically their biggest weakness. They’ve mapped themselves out as a safe pair of hands, in troubled times – a safe pair of hands will never take the chances needed to bring about the changes needed in the super-networked, unpredictable and emergent world that we’re part of. The forces of Conservatism just aren’t up to that sort of future. They’ve got away with it, as the UK (& the rest of the Western world) has been insulated from the challenges thus far. That insulation is wearing thin. The Tories will, however, remain a strong force fighting (valiantly but without doubt, hopelessly) against the ‘Revolution’ of emergence that is on its way.
I doubt that the tremendous support for the SNP represents a clamour for independence, more it’s a shutting the door on an out of touch, and largely irrelevant Labour Party. The fact that the poorest areas of Scotland voted for independence clearly evidenced that the status quo isn’t an option for them, and given Labour’s failing, the SNP became the party of choice. Moreover, the support for the SNP, I think, goes beyond politics. It is representative of a real belief in Scotland, by the people of Scotland. It transcends the normal ebb and flow of economic data, and political failings. It’s stronger than ever, and for the foreseeable future, insurmountable for the other parties.
There’ll be lots written in the history books by people who were on the inside in Labour between 2010 & 2020. I think it will show a party that shrunk back into familiar ground. And when they got there, they realised their familiar supporters had given up on them, for good. The reason for that, simply, is that they’ve failed to deliver an agenda that improves social justice for all.
Some Labour insiders refer to Wales as being a relative strong base for the Party. I’m far from convinced. The tsunami that swept through Labour in Scotland is building up in Wales, and the interesting thing, is that Welsh Labour just can’t see it. This election (in Wales) was their second worst since 1918. The writing is on the wall. The key issue is, however, we won’t have the patience to allow the Labour Party the time to reinvent itself.
The Conservatives major weakness also applies to Labour too. Their controlling, statist agenda is far too cumbersome for a future that rewards agility and risk-taking. Taken together, my view is that by 2020 Labour will have effectively disappeared as an electoral force. It’ll be that sudden, and that final.
The 2010-2015 coalition Government was judged twice by the electorate – everything they liked (the economy, um…., um…., that’s about it) they congratulated the Tories on. Everything they disliked they shoved at the feet of Nick Clegg and his unfortunate band. The fact that the Lib Dems were central to much of what was perceived as worthwhile in the last five years mattered not a jot.
With not many more than a handful of MPs, the Lib Dems have a long way to go, in order to have any relevance to the UK electorate. Paddy Ashdown’s management of the Lib Dem’s election campaign, where their main argument was ‘we’ll be best suitor to the other two’, failed catastrophically. The loss of significant politicians like Vince Cable and David Laws is as much a loss to the Country as a whole, as it is to the Lib Dems.
The UK (& Wales for that matter) need a truly liberal voice, and I do think we’ll be weaker without them as a force. With a wholesale policy review (that should be easy as I’m not sure they have any at the moment??), they could become an influential player once again. Liberalism as an ideal will have a stronger voice in the future than Capitalism IMHO. I’ll deal with Socialism later…. 🙂
Pre May 7th, most thought that UKIP’s success would come from disaffected, right wing Tories – there’s been an assumption for a long time, that the less well off you are, the more left leaning you will be, and vice-versa. This election has, I think, thrown that assumption in the bin. The working and non-working poor are scared – they are the recipients of food banks; they live in sub standard housing; they suffer the consequences of health inequality; and they often, instinctively put their own needs above the rest of society, and who can blame them. It’s no wonder that when a party such as UKIP blames the usual suspects (migrants, health tourists, the EU) for the Country’s woes, this group will follow. The group are even more likely to follow if they struggle to understand the manifestos in any meaningful way. I’d imagine very few Tories defected to UKIP this time round – perhaps the hard core right wingers, but they’ve been gone a while anyway, and I’m sure Tory strategists are secretly quite pleased with that.
They’ve got a great MP in Caroline Lucas, by all accounts – but this was the first election they’ve been treated seriously. I’d imagine the 1 million voters they attracted (perhaps previously Lib Dem voters) will stay the course. Their policies didn’t really get the testing that would have highlighted where there were deficiencies (neither for that matter did the SNP, UKIP or Plaid). But, the Greens have established themselves – they’re here in Britain for the future, and I think that’s good news.
I voted Plaid for the first time, this time round. In the (perhaps formerly) Tory/Lab marginal I live in, I knew I wouldn’t be voting for the winner, but I was impressed with the way Leanne Wood led the campaign, and importantly, how the Party framed the debate solely in terms of Wales. Wales could be perfectly placed to be the Sweden of the 2020s and beyond. Small is the new economy of scale, and with a population of 3 million, where the values of community, family and environment are stronger than individualism and capitalism, we’re perfectly set. The other often forgotten value the Welsh hold as important is that of non-conformitism (albeit we’ve had it knocked out of us across the years). Free-spirited, creative communities will thrive in the future.
Plaid could take up that mantle. Much of their policy remains in the dogma of Socialism, but their field of vision seems right. The argument for an extra £2.1bn from a recalculation of the Barnett Formula is an example as to where they’ve got the question wrong. The challenge should be, whether inside or outside of the Union, how can Wales do without the Barnett Formula? With it, we remain poor, guaranteed.
Perhaps there is an opportunity to redefine Socialism in the context of a dramatically changing world. Less about state control of key resources, and more about emergent, collaborative & connected communities working together for common purpose. Remember, our strength as a nation resides with the people, not the levers of state.
For me Plaid are well positioned, but they do need to attract and listen to fresh, new voices. I get the impression some in the Party will be keen, some will be dismissive. For those whose inclination is to dismiss, I’ll happily buy you a pint or two, and let’s chat.
CHAOS – where opportunity lies
I think tomorrow’s political battleground’s lines have been drawn. The issue is, only the Conservatives are set for the fight. They represent a steady rudder hand – they represent conservatism. Ideologically opposed to the chaotic, emergent world we are already in, they will fight to preserve the status quo – big business (including continued pandering to big oil), citizen management (snooping etc.), and capitalism in its current form.
The fight needs to be taken up. And the first place to take it up, could, and should be Wales. The ideals of emergence, liberalism, socialism (as redefined 😃), freedom, environmentalism & localism need to be represented – and soon. The question is who is up for it – Wales’ disaffected need a vision, Wales’ centre & centre-left need one too, and if that’s got right, the floating voters will follow.
There’s lots of ideas to turn these fanciful words into something real, but they’re out there – in our communities – in Aberystwyth, in Garndiffaith, in Pontardawe and in Newtown. In pubs, in schools, and in workplaces – in me, and in you. It’s time for Wales to regain our spirit, our Hwyl. Hiraeth isn’t translatable for good reason.
My job takes me around the whole of Wales. I get to speak to lots of people, and often these conversations get on to how we can develop a stronger, fairer, more sustainable Wales. Without doubt there is the capacity to achieve great things. We don’t need to go to MIT in Boston to find the next great thing, or Sweden, or Ireland, or Scotland or even England. We have the capacity. Small is the new big.
I’m up for it. Are you?