Labour’s got a problem in the South Wales valleys

by Leighton Andrews

The success of Labour’s overall campaign in Wales on 5 May should not blind us to the challenges underneath. We may have retained 29 seats, losing only one, and maintained our position as by far the largest party in Wales, but overall, our Wales-wide vote fell by nearly 8 percent compared with 2011 – but was also lower than any national election since 1918.

Our national campaign worked brilliantly against the Tories, who had taken seats from us in the UK general election the year before. Against Plaid, not at all. The situation in the valleys is particularly troubling, and became obvious in 3 valleys seats in particular in 2016 – the Rhondda, Caerphilly and Blaenau Gwent. I am grateful to my colleagues Alun Davies AM and Hefin David AM, and to Peter Hain, for our discussions of the common factors.

These seats throw out clear warnings for Labour in the valleys, and there are wider lessons which need to be learned by the party. The swing against Labour in Blaenau Gwent was higher than the swing against Labour in the Rhondda. In Caerphilly, the Plaid vote was concentrated in the south of the constituency, UKIP was strong all over – but the split opposition saved the seat. Meanwhile, to the West, in Neath, Labour lost a significant proportion of votes to UKIP.

Labour now faces two parties in the valleys whose messages at one level coincide. Plaid and UKIP messages start with a similar pessimism about the future of the valleys, for which Labour’s ’17 years running Wales’  is blamed. This message is particularly attuned to working class voters.

It is worth bearing in mind that Rhondda and Blaenau Gwent were identified by academic experts on the rise of UKIP as the most likely UKIP-friendly Labour seats in the UK  (Professors Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin). They said ‘The ideal seats for UKIP share key characteristics: they have lots of ‘left behind’ voters who we also know from our research are the most receptive to UKIP and its policies.

These ideal seats also have very low numbers of voters who have, instead, tended to remain resistant to UKIP, including university graduates, ethnic minorities and people in professional and economically secure occupations.’ In the Rhondda Plaid won; in Blaenau Gwent, Labour held on by 600 votes from Plaid Cymru- but the swing against Labour was even higher. Also in Wales in 2016, according to these same authors, Labour was down 4 points in Welsh seats with the fewest working class voters, and 12 points in seats with the most working class voters – UKIP were the main gainers, but Plaid too.

Plaid has been in active and high-profile opposition to Labour in both the Rhondda and Caerphilly since the by-elections of the 1960s. They won the Rhondda seat, and the Islwyn seat adjoining Caerphilly, in 1999. They held Caerphilly Council from 2008-12. An independent MP and AM represented Blaenau Gwent until 2010/11 and there was an independent council until 2012, so again there is recent experience of organized anti-Labour opposition.

In all three seats there were significant local factors driving opposition campaigning which made it hard for Labour to establish key campaign themes. Some of these were local authority–related, some health service, some, like the Circuit of Wales, highly specific to a particular place. Plaid campaigning both on the doorstep and on social media was focused on driving disgruntlement over specific issues into a general clamour for change. Plaid made strong links into particular protest groups with a strong social media presence. Their line was that Labour has forgotten about the local area and this plays into a cultural sense of loss that is a very powerful social belief following the closure of the mines and the steelworks.

In these seats, the canvassing experience regularly was of people saying they were Labour or ‘normally Labour’. We suspect Plaid canvassed fewer people but had deeper and richer conversations, using surveys to collect information on what would trigger a voting switch. And identifying people who, while seeing themselves as Labour, might on this occasion move to Plaid as a protest vote. Many if not most of those switching to Plaid saw themselves as Labour people, but they felt they had permission not to vote to Labour this time for a variety of reasons: anger and the desire to send Labour a message; the encouragement of third parties (eg Labour-supporting academics) to give a second preference to Plaid on the list, with literature distributed to that effect.

Plaid’s message was very much ‘you might be Labour but are you happy with what Labour’s been doing’; 17 years is long enough; time for a change; a sense, echoing UKIP, that Labour was the establishment). Many said they would continue to vote Labour in a General Election. The question here is what has Plaid learned in practical campaigning terms from the SNP. Is it the case that Plaid has now identified sophisticated ways of mobilizing disgruntled voters both on the doorstep and through social media?

Many valleys communities are communities often defined by a feeling of being left out of economic growth and excluded and ignored by an establishment based elsewhere, even though in some areas there has been significant Government-led investment (for example in Ebbw Vale). There is a strong sense of loss – of industry, of the past industrial heritage, of services, of community facilities, of opportunities.

UKIP’s vote here is driven by an anger at the political establishment – largely Labour in these areas for decades- and by fears about immigration. Plaid also seeks to exploit the anti-establishment feeling and the sense of loss and anxiety about irretrievable change. Much of our messaging and campaigns do not take this into account. Many valleys seats have been lost to Plaid or independents in the last decade.

In general, our valleys message was right to focus on hope rather than what we argued were other parties talking down the valleys, but it did not get sufficient air-play to make a difference, and too often it felt counter to people’s day to day experience. We have not made enough of Welsh Government investment, whether in infrastructure or in support for local businesses.

Unquestionably, there has been significant alienation from politics since the Parliamentary expenses scandal and the global recession, which has strengthened the feelings that ‘politicians are in for what they can get’ and ‘they’re all the same’. Labour is losing out to right and left populism and economic anger which is seen in other European countries and in the United States. The neo-liberalism dominant since 1980 has left behind many working class people and a significant slice of the middle class too.

The collapse of mining and the loss of large factories has meant a disappearance of trade unions operating in large workplaces with a culture of camaraderie and community directly connected to CLPs and the national Party. Local clubs (miners welfare, rugby, the Legion etc), have often experienced collapsing membership or often closure, These were places to which local people would come to drink and be at leisure, but they were also spaces where issues could be debated rather than be reinforced as they are in the privatized world of social media.

In the Valleys where working class men once had pride in high status jobs with pensions, trade union organised protection, people owned their houses and could expect the same for their children, now people believe that jobs are low-wage and insecure and the housing options limited. Many of those low-paid jobs are held by women who themselves see childcare and educational issues as key and changes at a local level are sparking understandable resistance from them and anger at the system.

Social media, particularly Facebook local groups and pages, provide an expression for these concerns and a mutually-reinforcing sense of ‘us against them’ which is very difficult to cut through. Parties able to offer simple opposition and simple slogans, such as Plaid and UKIP, have been able to take advantage of these groups and we must be aware of the use of them to facilitate electoral organization. Social media lends itself to the simple riposte – whatever positive message you give out, the nationalists and Kippers respond with ‘yeah but Labour did this/closed this/ have been in charge for decades and nothing gets done’ repetitively and negatively.

There are some urgent lessons for Labour

  • Plaid have learned how to win seats in low turn-out elections by targeting disgruntled and left-behind voters: people whom the academic research suggests might otherwise be open to UKIP. The marked register needs to be scrutinized to see whether as well as turning Labour voters Plaid mobilized voters who don’t turn out in other elections.
  • Labour needs to change its canvassing scripts and its approach to voter conversations and to invest in a much more sophisticated approach to voter identification with richer and deeper conversations
  • Labour needs to understand modern social-media driven campaigning in a more profound way and to train activists and staff in effective use of technology such as Nationbuilder and the collection of email addresses, and the use of Facebook-based campaigns
  • Labour needs to understand that our core vote in valley seats is angry with the consequences of austerity, which despite being dictated by Westminster, are having to be implemented by local Labour councils. They often regard the Assembly as a distant establishment. We need to give much more thought, at a time of austerity, to how to maintain voter loyalty when it is Labour or Labour-led institutions – the Welsh Government and local councils – implementing service changes and closure of facilities.

This May’s election results demonstrate that the National Assembly elections, like local government elections, far from being a Welsh general election, remain second order elections. This means that issues relating to local government dominate, rather than the key national issues being argued at an all-Wales level. This is dangerous for Labour and unless addressed could be even more damaging in 2021.

 Leighton Andrews was AM for the Rhondda from 2003 until 2016 and a minister in the Welsh government from 2007 to 2013 and 2014 to 2016

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4 Responses to “Labour’s got a problem in the South Wales valleys”

  1. james says:

    Yes it’s not very nice is it to be losing. Aside from `technical issues` you do realise that that having no political competition lets down the very people you wish to serve? Perhaps these people want solutions to their problems rather than broadbrush memes?

  2. Dafydd Rhys Morgan says:

    So all of this happened by itself did it, Leighton? And had nothing to do with rushed, white elephant schemes and extremely poor policies which have failed an entire generation of schoolchildren?

    Welsh Labour is dying, and not a moment too soon.

  3. Tafia says:

    Having ‘gone south’ for a day to help in Llanelli, may I take the time to say you are missing the point entirely (luckily).

    The Labour voterds that moved to Plaid did so because they regard Labour Wales as something run by London. Until you develop wholly separate policies to London, going and voting against them at times etc etc and never dancing to their tune and putting Wales above the UK in all matters all the time, then they will not come back to you. And research after research has shown that once core voters shift, they rarely return.

    The Labour voters that moved to UKIP did so because they remeber the good old days of plentiful high paying no skill/low skill jobs in the mines, the steel etc etc, plenty of social housing and the like. Now they – if they are lucky, have to compete with east europeans for jobs in cheese factories, chicken processing plants and stacking shelves at Tescos, bailed-out by tax credits and having to compete with east europeans for scarce social housing, school places and GP surgery places. Until Labour condemns all that, prom,ises to reverse it and is seen to revrse it then you won’t be getting them back weither. By the way, did you not notice how many young voters voted UKIP? Now you know why – you offer them no hope, just more of the same. They don’t want more of the same, no matter how much you try and sell it to them.

    I love Labour Wales – it is dying because it’s simply ignoring reality, still believes it has a ‘right’ and doing anything it can rather than admit it’s followed entirely the wrong path and backed the wrong policies. Long may ity continue.

  4. Tafia says:

    “When millions of workers already have low pay and poor job security in Britain and we add high levels of low skilled migration mostly from within the EU, some benefit but some lose out,. It isn’t prejudiced to believe that.”

    Ed Miliband, 2014.

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