The old line from the Labour anthem, ‘we’ll keep the red flag flying here’, was once a metaphor for South Wales. In parts of Wales it’s been fluttering in the wind for so long that you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a bit battered and all the colour has run out. But not so. In a night of drama and tension, and despite losses across South Wales, Labour emerged from the election contest with its pride intact. Wounded, yes, but hardly down and out as the polling drama of last week might have led some commentators to believe. Nevertheless, there are trends, and the nature of just how Labour’s most consistent base of operations is fraying is becoming ever more apparent.
Here in the Cynon Valley nothing much changed (a bit like Caerphilly, then), at least on the surface. Labour held onto its seats with only a seat in Penrhiwceiber and one in Cilfynydd changing hands. For a district that has known a Labour MP since Keir Hardie’s victory in 1900 this is a genuine Labour stronghold and unless an earthquake happens between now and June 8, Ann Clwyd will almost certainly be returned as MP to serve in her ninth parliament. She is already Wales’s longest serving woman MP having surpassed Megan Lloyd George’s record back in 2015. Whatever else seems to have been going on, 2017 offers a startling case of business as usual for Labour and a quandary for Plaid Cymru. Elsewhere in Rhondda Cynon Taff things are not so rosy. In the former Taff Ely, there are several signs of change: clearly the strengthening Tory vote in Bridgend and Cardiff North is having an impact on the voter base in the southern parts of the county borough. Pontypridd town itself is now rather more mixed with a Plaid Cymru steal in the town centre complementing the incredible stability of the Liberal Democrats in the Trallwn ward and Labour elsewhere. There is growing opposition in the Pontypridd constituency, but seemingly not yet sufficient to dislodge the sitting MP – Labour’s Owen Smith, of course.
Rhondda, on the other hand, offers a lesson to the Labour Party in how not to manage a remarkable insurgency. What began several decades ago with the steady development of Plaid Cymru in the upper Rhondda Fawr has now spread down the Rhondda Fawr pushing Labour out of all but what was once known as Mid Rhondda. The Rhondda Fach – former little Moscows such as Maerdy and Ferndale are different, although Plaid’s Darren Macey did scoop a seat in Ynyshir, to his credit. It is remarkable to write this but Plaid Cymru are now the largest party in the Rhondda, something that hasn’t been true since the election in 1999 when Plaid Cymru swept to power. The post-mortem on the campaign may well reveal the reasons for the nationalists’ steady growth in the Rhondda, but it is certain to include a mixture of popular discontentment with a Labour council that is somewhat over-focused on the Cynon Valley and the former Taff Ely and the genuine success of Plaid Cymru’s working-class message to the people of the Rhondda. How far this carries beyond Leanne Wood’s backyard, however, remains to be seen. For my money, I think this is really more about the former explanation than the latter. The extent to which this will translate over to the General Election is, I think, more limited. Had Plaid Cymru selected someone properly known, they could well have stolen this seat given this base, but I’m not quite sure. Of the three seats in RCT, however, this is the one to watch in five weeks time.
The state of Labour in the biggest authority in the valleys, then? Pretty well, all things considered. Indeed, the total number of seats won by the two major parties sees Plaid still lower than their 2008 total (18 seats compared with 21) and Labour slightly above (47 seats compared with 44). The real difference? There are now more Conservative members of Rhondda Cynon Taff than there ever have been, and there are to be found in those parts of the county that fringe Bridgend and Cardiff North – in those constituencies Labour will have a fight on its hands in June.
Bridgend, however, was a bit of a disaster story – evidenced by the collapse of Labour in a ward such as Brackla which in 2012 saw four Labour councillors elected, and in 2008 at least two. Now, there’s just one. The Tories won the rest. It’s worth considering that in 2012 they had only one councillor in all of Bridgend, too. Now this area has always been slightly weak for Labour. Indeed, the former Bridgend Urban District, abolished back in 1974, first elected a Labour council in 1958 – a steal from the Conservatives. Compare that with, say, Rhondda where Labour had established virtual control by 1914, and you can see how slow the party’s development was in this part of South Wales. As recent ago as 1983, the parliamentary constituency fell to the Conservatives and they absolutely believe they can win it this time. It’s no surprise that the Prime Minister has been in town lately. There is a Conservative surge taking place in Wales, and you can certainly find it in places like this. As to why, well, it’s the same reason why it occurred in Rhondda Cynon Taff in the more affluent wards. South Wales may have a reputation for being poor, and in many places it genuinely is, but there’s wealth aplenty if you look for it, and you don’t have to travel far out of Cardiff to find it, either.
Speaking of Cardiff, well colour me still quite shocked that Labour held onto the city. That’s a genuine triumph. As with retaining control of the other metropolitan councils – Swansea and Newport – this proves the absolute strength of the Labour machine when push comes to shove. The Liberal Democrats should perhaps trouble themselves in Cardiff Central, where Labour ought to retain the parliamentary constituency on this performance, and Cardiff South and Penarth, Jim Callaghan’s old seat, ought not to be a problem for Labour to hold. Cardiff North is almost certainly a goner, now, though, which leaves Cardiff West. Labour did well across many of the wards, but so did the Conservatives, and it is territory that the Tories will win if the polling produced by the Wales Governance Centre is accurate. On this form…this is the seat to watch, really, although the Lib Dems will push as hard as they can in Cardiff Central. Plaid must surely be wondering what they have to do to break out of Fairwater, too. Let’s hope Labour does something to clean up the city, now, though, it stinks and this level of filth is unbecoming any city let alone one that calls itself a capital!
It would be remiss of me, in this short portrait of what happened yesterday, to neglect Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil. The wobbles that began in Merthyr about ten years ago clearly haven’t gone away and the propensity of the population there to give someone else a chance remains strong. Remember that this was Plaid Cymru’s first council, back in 1976, so the people of Merthyr haven’t been as blindly Labour as the stereotyping would have us believe. Speaking to colleagues of mine yesterday, they correctly forecast some upsets and this is what happened. It’s a two-horse race in the upper reaches of the Taff Valley, though: Labour or independents. No-one else got a look in. And then comes Blaenau Gwent: Labour had an inkling something was up there last year during the Welsh Assembly elections when Plaid Cymru ran the party rather too close for comfort. But look carefully and this was similar to Merthyr Tydfil – Labour against the independents, with the other parties not really to be seen. Torfaen might also have taken part in this story, but much of the Labour vote held up.
This really could be like 1931. May is Baldwin. New national govt. Labour wrecked. Can only hope they don’t need world war to recover #LE2017
— Lewis Goodall (@lewis_goodall) May 5, 2017
So, where does this leave Labour, then? The Sky News journalist Lewis Goodall tweeted (see above) that we’re heading for a 1931-type scenario in this election with the Conservatives rampant. If this is true, and on current form he’s more right than wrong, then the other narrative of 1931 seems also to be true (to a large extent – don’t forget that the Bridgend constituency used to be split up amongst very safe Labour seats, notably Pontypridd). Back in 1931, Labour’s support up most strongly in the South Wales Coalfield. This has been the most consistent Labour-voting region for a century – forget about Scotland, that’s slightly mythical – and on the evidence of the local elections this will remain so. But the end of Labour dominance is surely coming, for Wales, like the rest of Britain, is changing, is becoming more right-wing and more conservative, and is happy to vote that way too. How long it will take, however, is anyone’s guess. What I will say, though, is that whereas Labour is definitely caught up in a fight for its very existence, the one comfort to take from yesterday’s vote is that they’re not done yet. History, and the omens that we can read from its pages, is just about still on their side. If Labour had lost Caerphilly, Rhondda Cynon Taff, Neath Port Talbot, and Torfaen, too, then the funeral peel could have been practised. That didn’t happen. So yes, for now, the red flag is still flying here.