Does Wales Still Vote Left-Wing?

By: Ieuan Smith, Masters student at Keele University studying Political Parties and Elections. I have a particular interest in Welsh politics, particularly Plaid Cymru.

Credit: www.gettyimages.co.uk

I have regularly heard a reference to how Wales is a 'left-wing' country and always votes as such. I can remember watching a Question Time before the 2015 General Election and hearing Leanne Wood say that Wales have never returned a Conservative government (and then continued on to say why a UK Conservative government is unfair on Wales and why it needs more autonomy, but this is another debate for another day). Whilst Leanne Wood is correct, I was aware of the fact that the Conservatives had been making gains in Wales (they were the second largest party in the Assembly at the time) and I was sure that the Conservatives would make gains in the 2015 General Election (which they eventually did). So this got me thinking, is Wales still this left-wing country that everyone claims it to be? Is it now more right wing or becoming right-wing? And what sort of impact would this have on Welsh politics? Now, it must be noted that many people will disagree that Labour are simply a left-wing party and that the Conservatives are simply a right-wing party. This is certainly a fair point to raise, but in the UK we generally view both parties as falling in these respective wings and this does influence our thinking of the parties. It also makes analysis much easier but it is proper to identify there is a debate.

For the purpose of this analysis, Labour and Plaid Cymru are taken to be left-wing parties, the Conservatives and UKIP are right-wing and the Liberal Democrats as centrist. In the 2015 General Election (results here: http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/ge15/seats.htm) the Conservatives had 11 seats, gaining three (two from the Liberal Democrats and one from Labour). This compares to 25 seats for Labour and three for Plaid Cymru, giving 28 seats out of 40 to left-wing parties. The remaining seats went to the Liberal Democrats. So in 2015, roughly one third of the seats went to a right-wing party. Is this the sign of a right-wing country? Well let's compare this to the height of the Blairite government, with the results of the 1997 General Election (results here: www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/ge97/seats97.htm). In 1997 the Conservatives won no seats at all. Labour won 34 and Plaid Cymru won four, meaning 38 out of 40 seats went to left-wing parties. The remaining two went to the Liberal Democrats. In light of these results, the Conservatives going from zero seats to 11 in just under 20 years is a very impressive feat. And shows a significant shift to the right in Welsh politics. Even in 2005 (results here: www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/ge05/seats.htm), the last election of a Labour government, the Conservatives only had three seats. So in an eight year period the Conservatives went from zero seats to three, yet between 2005 to 2010 (2010 election results can be found here: www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/ge10/seats.htm) the Conservatives gained five seats and then finally another three between 2010 to 2015. Not small gains, but rather large. This would suggest that Wales is becoming right-wing in its voting patterns. However, the UK voting system is known to swing a lot and we have only compared the election results of one Labour government to a Conservative government (ie, one swing).

Does Wales have any other history of right-wing voting? Well, the 2015 General Election is actually not the biggest amount of seats the Conservatives have ever gained in Wales post-1945. The most seats that the Conservatives have ever had in Wales was in the 1983 General Election (results here: http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/ge83/seats.htm) where the Conservatives won 14 seats. In fact, 2015 is only joint second for the highest number of seats the Conservatives have won in Wales, the other being 1979 (the results can be found here: http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/ge79/seats79.htm). What this shows us is that Wales have been just as right-wing in the past, before going back to a truly left-wing spell. This would suggest that what we are seeing now in Wales is not unique and is only Wales fleetingly voting right-wing and will most probably return to a left-wing voting pattern in the future (rather than increasingly voting right-wing). Despite this, there are some problems with the analysis I have done here, namely that I have focused on the number of seats gained. This is an unfair analysis of voting behaviour in Wales due to the plurality voting system used for UK general elections, which does not give seats on the share of the vote. Therefore, to get a clearer picture of the voting pattern in Wales, it would be fairer to look at the share of the vote the Conservatives achieved, rather than the seats. In 1997, at the height of the Blairite government, the Conservatives received 19.58% of the vote, rising to 21.38% in 2005. We can take this as the low point of Conservative voting in Wales. In 1983, the most amount of seats the Conservatives have ever received in Wales, the Conservatives achieved 31.03% of the vote. In 2015 the Conservatives achieved 27.22% of the vote. These results still appear to support the conclusions we have drawn from the distribution of seats. The right-wing vote has increased, but has not reached the peak that the right-wing vote has historically reached in the past.

However, this analysis ignores one key party - UKIP. In 2015 UKIP achieved 13.64% of the vote, which means the total right-wing vote in Wales in 2015 was 40.85% - the highest share of the vote right-wing parties have ever received (and nearly 10% higher than in 1983). What these results shows us is that nearly half of the Welsh electorate voted for right-wing parties in 2015, which has never been seen before in Welsh politics post-1945. This raises many questions about the previous conclusion that this could be just a minor right-wing voting trend in Welsh politics that will return to an even stronger left-wing one in the future. These results point to a stronger right-wing voting trend in the Welsh electorate, and some feel this is not the end of an increasing right-wing vote. No one can predict what will happen in the future. 2015 could be like 1983, the peak of right-wing voting in Wales which will gradually (or dramatically as happened in the 1980s) fall in the coming years. Alternatively, this could be the sign of a new voting trend in Wales that is here to stay. What is most likely, at least from the current results, is that a fall in the right-wing vote to levels seen in 1997 is unlikely. I suspect this current right-wing trend will have some long lasting impact, most probably seeing right-wing voting hover around 30% in the future decades. But I would not be surprised if this is a sign of a change in the voting behaviour of Wales, which could have a big impact on Welsh politics that no one could predict. This is certainly something to watch! Ending Note It must be noted, that this analysis has focused only on General Election results. It would be unfair to analyse and predict Welsh electorate voting patterns solely on General Elections now there has been a Welsh Assembly for 15 years. As many scholars have shown, voting patterns do tend to be different between General and Assembly elections. Therefore, this analysis should be compared with another analysis of Assembly elections to get a truer picture of the voting behaviour of the Welsh electorate. Something I may look into at a later date.
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