As the dust begins to settle and we look again at the political maps of the United Kingdom, lots of things have changed – some for the better, some for the worse. In Scotland, the big stories are Labour’s decline into third place, behind the Conservatives, confirming that the realignment in Scottish politics away from class and towards a unionist-nationalist bipolarity is now the real dynamic. Labour, which endeavoured to fight this election about austerity and with the politics of class, found itself stuck fighting in the wrong field. The Scottish Conservatives, wiped out in Westminster in 1997 and almost obliterated again in that place last year (2015), have recognised the changed political landscape. They were rewarded with second place. Importantly, though, the 2016 Scottish elections proved that the SNP is also vulnerable. Vulnerable from those who are a bit exhausted by its constant manoeuvres about independence; vulnerable too from the Left, and here we really mean the nationalist Left in the form of the Scottish Green Party; and vulnerable in places it simply does not understand such as Orkney and Shetland, where the Liberal Democrats threw off the insurgents at the castle door. Scotland is still on a remarkable political journey – it’s the first part of Great Britain (and here I mean the island, not any political formation) to undergo the transition away from twentieth century politics, and that has altered what it means to be Left and Right, but the future is not quite as clear as the SNP would have us all believe. That offers some solace to those who would have Scotland run otherwise.
In England, or perhaps should I say in the Englands, for there is quite obviously not a single uniform England any longer, politics is travelling in half a dozen directions. London, which is so often derided by those “in the provinces” as being the big bad wolf stalking us all like some neoliberal slaver, has proven its progressive character once again. London’s politics, particularly in the London Assembly, are multi-party and they are to the Left. Labour, the Greens, and a solitary Lib Dem, easily command a majority over the Conservatives and UKIP (yes, they have seats there too, it’s not just Wales who have elected them). They mayor’s office is also to be run by the Labour Party, although it seems entirely plausible that there will be tension between the Leader’s Office and the Mayor’s Office, just as there has been under the Coalition and Conservative governments (albeit for quite different reasons). This progressive wave in London, from which Jeremy Corbyn has emerged too, let us not forget, serves as a reminder that the rhetoric of the provinces and the realities of the metropolis do not meet anywhere in the middle. London is a progressive city. It may be that class politics – of a twenty-first century kind of course – survive in London longer than elsewhere in England.
Elsewhere in England lots of things seem to be happening. In the North-East, in industrial Lancashire and West Yorkshire, to some extent on Humberside, the map remains Labour red. Twentieth-century politics remain strong in the north, it’s about class and the politics of haves and have-nots. Austerity has put a few too many coins in the twentieth-century meter. But travel further south, to Exeter, Southampton, to Bristol and to Norwich, something different is happening. Here I think politics is undergoing – or perhaps has already undergone and we’ve not noticed it – a shift in dynamic all of its own. Clearly the politics of class matter in Bristol and Exeter, but that’s not really why Labour are winning there. It certainly isn’t why Labour routed the Green Party in Norwich. Labour in these cities, progressive as they are, is not exactly “Old Labour” or “New Labour” but “Twenty-First Century Labour”. By that I mean they’ve worked out how to turn anger and demand for change and acceptance of the economic and political constraints of the age into a powerful political tool. The Exeter Labour Party is an unsung hero of the modern Labour Party and historians of the party in the future will look there, and to Bristol, I think, to understand what might have been.
All of which leads me to Wales. If you listen to the commentary, Wales has produced three big stories: Labour’s electoral strength, which is extraordinarily resilient; Plaid Cymru’s totemic victory in the Rhondda; and the rise of UKIP via the proportionality of the regional list. UKIP was an inevitability, I’m afraid. The Welsh Assembly attracts quite as many frustrations as friends and UKIP does very well in appealing to the constituency of the left-behind. Without being too dramatic about it, there are an enormous amount of left-behinds in Wales. I don’t really think anything more needs to be said about UKIP than that. They played their card very well, and benefitted from people calling them racist, xenophobic, even fascist. (Whatever the merits of those accusations that isn’t why UKIP do well in Wales, and it was the wrong tactic to stop them.)
Let’s turn our attention now to Plaid Cymru. Didn’t they do well! Err, no. The Rhondda victory was undoubtedly impressive, it showed very careful tactical knowledge – built up during the General Election last year (when Shelley Rees-Owen did extremely well) – and tapped into a seam of discontent, particularly with the Labour-run local council. And although I have a lot of time for Leighton Andrews, there is no doubting that amongst some he has been divisive at times. Make no mistake about the impact of his loss as a minister, however. It is substantial. I think the reasons for victory in the Rhondda came in that order, though. We must acknowledge Plaid’s tactical nous, it would be wrong not to. But bubbling under the surface, completely disregarded by the outside media and commentariat, admittedly, is considerable discontent with local government in Rhondda Cynon Taff, and more so in the Rhondda than in other parts of the county. As in 1999, when Plaid Cymru stunned the Labour establishment with a victory in the Rhondda, it was local government matters that provided the well-spring from which an overthrow of the Labour machine was made possible. Know your place, as historians are often told. Should the local government elections go ahead in Wales as planned next year – not entirely a given – the Rhondda wards will be worth watching.
The Rhondda was symptomatic of another trend which the Labour Party needs to pay close attention to. Right across the South Wales Valleys, its support was being hollowed out by Plaid Cymru. I think – and I will stand by this – it represents both an electoral advance by the nationalists and a verdict on the performance of local government. Since the crash happened (and in the Valleys the pre-crash was being felt by at least 2005), local government has been shown to be completely wanting. Yes lots of money has been splashed around on building new schools, hospitals, and roads, but an awful lot has been shut down. When you build one new super-school and close half a dozen others which all provide a local community with an element of its identity, you do enormous damage in the name of progress. Austerity absolutely derives from the economic policies of Westminster, and devolution absolutely gets lumbered with the responsibility for implementation and the resulting blame; but you don’t have to impose austerity at the bottom either. This next term in the Assembly shouldn’t be about a decade of delivery but about looking again at everything and building a Wales – a Labour Wales – from the bottom up.
But really, none of that is the biggest story of the night in Wales. The Rhondda, for all of its spectacle, won’t be regarded in the long term as the most important turnaround of the 2016 election. The real story was in Llanelli. Here we have a seat which is extremely volatile: it has never been held by the incumbent party and the margins between the two parties have been as little as 11 votes (as in 2003). Until now. Plaid Cymru’s Helen Mary Jones had a considerable head start over her Labour rival, who was not even appointed until the late-summer of 2015, having essentially begun her “long campaign” during the General Election last year. Week after week, the Plaid cohorts were in Llanelli working away to win back the seat for her. All to no avail. As in several of the other key marginals across the South – the Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff North – Labour actually widened the gap. In 2011 the majority for Labour was a mere 80 votes, it’s now a slightly more healthy 382. And although both parties lost votes compared to 2011, Labour’s losses were slight (10,359 votes in 2011, compared with 10,267 in 2016, or 92 votes) and Plaid’s more substantial (10,279 in 2011, 9,885 in 2016, or 394 votes). UKIP’s intervention, winning nearly half the number of votes Plaid did, undoubtedly had an impact, but Llanelli is the ultimate bell-weather seat in the Welsh Assembly – it, more than the Rhondda, had to be won. It wasn’t.
Me saying on twitter that Llanelli was more important that the Rhondda raised a few eyebrows, I know, and it may well do here too, but it’s surely our role as commentators to look beyond the headline narratives and to point to broader trends. Local government is failing (and in Cardiff it has been utterly shambolic). Plaid Cymru are still, for all of their increasingly efficient and effective political machine, treading water. Wales remains a nation wedded to the Left: two thirds of the Assembly members can be placed in left-wing or progressive boxes. Let us not make this about UKIP or tokenistic victories. 2016 was about more than that. In short, this election offered Wales the choice of heading down the path towards a politics of unionism versus nationalism as in Scotland, or remaining on the path towards a twenty-first century politics of class, as in London. We rejected the former and it is beholden now on all of us who care enough to act to make sure that we make the most of the latter, to define it better, to make it meaningful. And you know the funny thing, for all the anti-London rhetoric that’s spouted in Wales, our assembly and theirs, our politics and theirs, might not be so different after all. And that, in the end, is why we need to talk about Llanelli.