As the dust settles on the 2015 General Election, it seems appropriate to begin some sort of clear-headed analysis of what went on. As I said previously, the real story of the evening is the rise of UKIP in Labour’s heartland areas and what this means for Labour as they seek to tack to the right again. This isn’t about right and left politics, but about the politics of the present versus the politics of the past. Or, put another way, about who can provide voice and meaningful responses to the politics of precariousness. At the moment, UKIP are winning that battle.
By now the electoral map of Wales will look quite familiar: the red block in the north-east and the south, the western fringes of green and yellow, and blue in rural areas and retirement central on the North Wales coast. Not much has really changed. That is, not much has changed on the surface. But let’s look more carefully at the outcome.
Over on his twitter feed, BBC Cymru/Wales journalist Vaughan Roderick posted an intriguing map comparing Labour’s heartlands with a map of the former coalfields of England and Wales. It’s a striking congruence, as you can see. Apart from London, Brighton, and Exeter which represent different political enthusiasms, Labour won in post-industrial regions. The kinds of places that have struggled to move on from the 1980s, which are generally not talked about in the national media, and which were deeply uncomfortable with the Blairite tack of the Labour Party in the 1990s and 2000s.
We know quite a lot about the sociology of these places, not least because they were precisely those areas that generated a lot of BNP members. Let’s take a heat map of BNP support generated back in 2008 and compare it with the coalfields. As can be seen, there is a strong correlation not just between coalfield support and BNP membership but the wider trend towards the Labour Party in England and Wales in 2015.
Now, then, let’s compare this to the rise of UKIP. UKIP did not win a single parliamentary seat in the former coalfields of England and Wales. What they did do, however, was come second in many of the parliamentary seats representing those parts of the country. Take a look at this comparative graphic.
It’s not a perfect correlation at the moment, but there is little doubt that for many in the former coalfields this election came down to a choice between Labour and UKIP. As I mentioned previously, this is about who can best represent the precariat. There are some important caveats to this – as the two maps demonstrate. Number one is the former North Wales Coalfield which seems to have been essentially absorbed into the pattern of secondary support evident in Lancashire and Cheshire. The South Wales Coalfield on the other hand is split three ways: to the west (aside from Carmarthen East and Dinefwr where Plaid won comfortably) the second place party was Plaid Cymru. To the east, almost universally, the second placed party was UKIP (only Torfaen bucks this trend, with the Tories coming second). And in the more prosperous southern parts of the former coalfield, the second placed party was the Conservatives. This disguises, however, the pattern of UKIP support established in Merthyr, Caerphilly and Blaenau Gwent (to name just three). Of those seats in the coalfield in which UKIP came third, some were very tight indeed. In Ogmore, UKIP were beaten by the Tories by just 200 votes; and in Cynon Valley they were beaten by Plaid Cymru by just 150. Even in Neath, where there was some twitting about a potential Plaid win, the difference between Plaid and UKIP was a mere 628 votes.
There is cause for comfort, however. In Llanelli, a seat which will benefit from considerable reflection from commentators on all sides, the distance between Plaid and UKIP was some 2584. Likewise in Rhondda, you could drive a seam along the 4523 vote gap between the support amassed for Plaid and that gathered for UKIP. Of the two, I think Llanelli is the more useful – the Rhondda candidate has a degree of profile as a local councillor and former TV star and it is, of course, home to Leanne Wood. If Plaid were sure to get any kind of coalfield bounce it would be there. As proved by the 27% share of the vote the party achieved – a rise of nearly 9% for Plaid.
Turning our attention to Llanelli, then. The Welsh Assembly’s briefing document on the constituency – published in 2010 – reveals some useful characteristics. A few stand out, I think. This is much more heavily Welsh-speaking than most other parts of South Wales, some 42 per cent compared to the average of 27 per cent across Wales’s 40 constituencies. Compare this to Blaenau Gwent wherein just 16 per cent of people spoke Welsh. Back in 2010, 4.7 per cent of people in Llanelli were claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance compared to 8.2 per cent in Blaenau Gwent and average wages were higher in Llanelli (at £468 a week) compared to Blaenau Gwent (at £412 per week). But do these characteristics make Llanelli less prone to UKIP than Blaenau Gwent? I think not, seeing as though the number of votes cast for the party were pretty similar (6269 in Llanelli versus 5677 in Blaenau Gwent). What made the difference, I suspect is language. Plaid Cymru got less than 3,000 votes in Blaenau Gwent (an increase of 4.9% over 2010) where as in Llanelli they were not far shy of 9,000. Three times the number of Welsh speakers (give or take), three times the number of votes. Having followed the Llanelli campaign from a distance, I really don’t think it’s quite that simple but the ratio is striking nonetheless.
And so, when we look at the South Wales Coalfield now, what do we see? Well, I think we see the fundamental need for a party of the Left to take on the question of precariousness, to become the party of the precariat. That has to be the priority now. Too many people are turning to UKIP because they hear anti-immigration rhetoric and believe that to be the panacea for an economic and political system which leaves them behind. As the BNP did a decade ago, so UKIP does not – it speaks to the fears of the precariat, stokes them, nurses them, and feeds on them. But UKIP does not offer a true solution to the challenges of living precariously. Nor, I’m afraid does Labour, and that is why they lost.
Those in Plaid Cymru have an opportunity, probably their best opportunity since they Party spectacularly won control of Merthyr Tydfil council in 1976 (and became the largest party on Rhymney Valley district council in the same year). Emrys Roberts, writing in his autobiography, reflected on that victory and how it was achieved:
We used the methods detailed in our booklet How to Win an Election – i.e. persistently working to listen to people’s views and act on them where possible and explaining our ideas and policies to them and how they would benefit the local area.
And what did they achieve? Well, they developed job creation schemes to clear sites for development, established a housing association to redistribute funds for building new council houses, set up play schemes in the summer, built the Rhydycar Leisure Centre, established a heritage trust to promote the town’s industrial past, and instituted a policy of bilingualism. And this, described in Roberts’ own words:
[Undertook] surveys to establish whether people wanted us to keep rates as low as possible or were prepared to pay more provided the increase was used to meet their priorities. In all parts of the borough, from the richest to the poorest, two-thirds of the people wanted us to raise and spend more to provide good services.
This was a council built from concerns on the ground.
Plaid can, I think, become the party of the Welsh precariat, but to do so the national movement must also be able to speak as the labour movement, and vice-versa. It is not merely that we are ignored, that we do not have parity with Scotland, and that we have no line of defence because Labour is still playing a game it keeps losing. If there is one lesson we can draw from the SNP’s rise, that is it. They have successfully leap frogged the Labour Party to speak to the disadvantaged and to the afraid. They are able to speak to the precariat – and not because of “baseless nationalism” as so many English commentators would have you believe, but because the party speaks the language of social democracy. Just look at Glasgow North East – one of the poorest constituencies in Britain, similar in many ways to Blaenau Gwent. There the SNP secured nearly 22,000 votes and UKIP did not even bother to stand. And in Glasgow East the story is the same. UKIP stood there but got a merely 1,105 votes – less than half of the Tory Party. It takes engagement to do that, but if the Welsh dragon is ever to roar as the Scottish lion has recently done, that’s what we need. I’m not sure Welsh has a word for precariat as yet, but if it helps lets invent one. It’s a first step on the road to building a new Wales.