Wales is not going to follow Scotland on the road to independence

Not any time soon at least.

Not any time soon at least

As a result of the late unpleasantness north of the border, a number of commentators have been investigating the possibility of something similar happening in Wales.

One example is a report by John Harris for the Guardian, where Harris does the thing of interviewing someone with a vested interest, vox-popping a couple of people and coming to the judicious conclusion that politics/the economy/the UK/the universe and everything in it is going to change forever.

The video paints Plaid Cymru as an insurgent political force on the verge of blowing apart the “cosy political assumptions” of the 20th Century, in particular threatening Labour in South Wales.

For Harris the two parties are personified by Plaid’s leader Leanne Wood (Rhondda born and bred, Welsh speaking, apparently the head of a Valleys-based anti-establishment guerrilla army) and secondly by Labour PPC Stephen Kinnock (Literal scion of the establishment, English accented, emissary of the Dark Lords of Westminster in their plot to flood safe constituencies with SPAD-a-like drones).

The difficulty with Harris’ argument is that, rather than being the coming force in Welsh politics, Plaid’s electoral history since devolution is one of decline, albeit from a considerable high in the aftermath of devolution.

This decline can be seen pretty clearly in the graphs below, showing Labour and Plaid results for Westminster, National Assembly, European and local elections between 1999 and 2014.

Wales graphj

Above – share of the vote in National Assembly elections 1999-2011

Wales graph 2j

Above – assembly members 1999-2011

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Above – councillors 1999-2012

Wales graph 4j

Above – overall control of councils 1999-2012

Wales graph 5j

Above – share of the vote in European elections

Wales graph 6j

Above – share of Westminster vote 1997-2010

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MPs 1997-2010

Plaid’s best period since the early successes of devolution came in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 elections when Labour were struggling with Tony Blair’s miserable stumble towards retirement (2007) and catastrophic economic and political collapse (2008 & 2009). However these gains were small and in 2008 Plaid actually lost overall control of its only council.

Since 2009, Plaid’s performance has been dreadful – they lost either vote share or elected representatives in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. Notably, between 2011 and 2014, Plaid achieved:

  • Its lowest ever share of the regional and constituency votes for the National Assembly and its lowest ever number of AMs in 2011
  • Its lowest number of councillors since devolution (again failing to gain overall control of a single council) in 2012
  • Its lowest share of the European vote since devolution (the worst since 1989) in 2014

Plaid’s decline has been less significant in Westminster elections, mainly because it didn’t have a lot to lose in the first place. Its share of the vote went down in 2005 and 2010 and the party remains stuck on 3 MPs.

Neither is there much recent evidence of Plaid making gains. A September YouGov poll found Plaid’s support at 11 per cent for Westminster, 19 per cent in the Assembly constituency vote and 16 per cent in the regional vote – roughly the same as their results in 2010 and 2011 (11.3 per cent, 19.3 per cent and 17.9 per cent respectively).

Furthermore, while Harris has Welsh Labour in terminal decline, the results of elections since 2010 have actually been reasonable and suggest a growing gap between Labour and Plaid. For example, while Plaid had its worst Assembly election in 2011, Labour had its joint best. The 2014 Euro result wasn’t great (an improvement on 2009 but still the second worst Euro result ever) but even here Plaid fell further behind Labour.

If these are the indicators of a gathering political insurgency, then I’m the reanimated corpse of Owain Glyndwr.

Harris’ assertion that Plaid are a threat to Labour in South Wales is equally ropey. The video focuses on two constituencies, Rhondda and Aberavon, where Plaid haven’t exactly been pulling up trees.

In Rhondda, Plaid finished 37.2pp behind Labour in 2010 and 33.6pp behind in 2011. In Aberavon it was 44.1pp and 49.3pp. Across all four elections Plaid’s share of the vote only grew in one (Rhondda 2010 by 3.1pp on 2005) while in 2010 Plaid finished fourth in Aberavon. More broadly, in each of the three South Wales assembly regions, Plaid’s share of the vote declined in 2011 and in each case they finished behind the Tories.

As the graph below shows, in 2011 Plaid’s share of the vote in these regions was a long way down from 1999, while Labour’s was up.

Wales graph 8j

Share of the vote in South Wales regions 1999-2011

The closest Plaid have come to good news in recent years is that support for independence appears to have grown slightly. YouGov polls posing a simple independence question found 10 per cent in favour in February 2012, 12 per cent in favour in February 2014 and 17 per cent in favour in September 2014 with 62 per cent, 74 per cent and 70 per cent opposed (these polls are not comparable to the ICM poll from February which also offered a ‘devo-max’ option and found support for independence at 5 per cent).

In essence support for independence has gone from being extremely low to very low while opposition has remained high. Any referendum in the foreseeable future would almost certainly result in a no vote.

None of this means that Labour’s position in Wales is especially strong. Harris is right to say that Welsh Labour is no longer a particularly loved institution.

The graph above showing Labour’s declining share of the Welsh vote between 1997 and 2010 terrifies me. The 2011 and 2012 elections were decent but it remains to be seen whether this was a passing gesture of electoral disgust aimed at the coalition or whether it might translate into longer term support. Opinion polls show generally decreasing support for Labour since 2012. Labour certainly won’t dominate Welsh politics like it did in the mid-20th Century.

However, the key point is that on Welsh Labour’s long list of problems, Plaid are somewhere towards the bottom of page two. I get why a journalist like Harris wants to focus on Leanne Wood – she hits loads of soft-left sweet spots and seems unlikely to do anything so vulgar as secure a position of genuine power or responsibility (Cf Lucas, Caroline & Democrats, Liberal (pre 2010)).

However, if there is going to be a rupture in Welsh politics it seems more likely to come from UKIP. Plaid, on the other hand, really don’t seem to be going anywhere.

Tom Higgins is a Labour activist from Cardiff

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