The results of a recent YouGov poll suggested that, for the first time in the past 100 years, the Conservative Party was ahead of Labour in Wales, both in terms of the share of the vote, and the number of seats the parties are projected to win on June 8.
The reactions across the board – both in public and private – were unsurprising. The leader of the Conservatives in Wales, Andrew R.T. Davies, gave a very calm and almost muted reaction, claiming, rightly so, that this was only a poll, and pollsters had got it very wrong in the recent past. Leading the study, Professor Roger Scully also warned that caution was needed: “… there are more than six weeks of both national and local campaigning to go”, he wrote.
In other quarters, media figures and commentators opined that, were this poll to translate into 21 real Welsh seats for the Conservatives, an “earthquake” would have taken place. They are certainly not wrong. To displace Labour as the dominant political force west of Offa’s Dyke would smash a century-old tradition. Away from Twitter, this will have put a very pronounced spring in the step of Welsh Tories.
But to the historically astute and the politically sensitive, this should not necessarily come as hugely shocking news, and nor should anyone be fooled into thinking that Conservative support – and supporters – have somehow sprung up out of nowhere.
If this poll proves accurate (and I have my doubts that it will) then, yes, the Conservatives have indeed encouraged more of the Welsh electorate into their fold. But in doing so, the party would be building upon relatively solid and stable foundations.
The popular perception of the Conservative party in Wales is that of a marginalised figure on the fringe. This isn’t helped by memories of Labour landslides, such as the 1997 general election which, in terms of seats, witnessed a complete Conservative wipe out. This result was so dramatic that Tony Blair used his first Prime Minister’s questions against the new opposition leader, William Hague, to mock the fact that the latter had no representatives in Wales and Scotland.
Just over a decade before that, however, Conservative prospects were much brighter. In 1983, there was a landslide for a different leader: Margaret Thatcher. The Tories won 14 seats – one short of the “Welsh rugby team” of Conservative MPs the then prime minister had optimistically hoped for. That time, the party won in marginal (and supposedly naturally Labour) seats like Bridgend, and Newport West – constituencies that are now firmly back in the Conservatives’ sights, if one judges where a party leader campaigns as an indicator of such things.
The Conservative appeal
Other recent history further demonstrates that this potential looming success has not come out of the blue. Take a look at, say, all the general elections since World War II: it is easy to see that while the Conservatives were undeniably never as popular in Wales as they were in England, they were, nonetheless, almost always the second party both in terms of the vote share and number of parliamentary seats won. There are plenty of this type of generally middle-class, British-identifying voters in Wales who were, and are, receptive to a Conservative message.
Indeed, these groups tend to be more receptive to a Conservative message than to the politics of the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, which almost always falls into third or fourth place nationally. In the 1991 Monmouth by-election, even Screaming Lord Sutch of the Monster Raving Looney Party polled more votes.
And yet, I regularly hear news reporters refer to “the main parties in Wales: Labour and Plaid Cymru”, even though this is patently not the case. At least it is understandable, Plaid are a Wales-only phenomenon, and this grants them more attention than their relatively narrow support base perhaps warrants. Generally left-leaning and/or nationalistic media outlets and universities also mean that studies of historic or contemporary politics in Wales tend to side-line (or even ignore) Conservatism.
This, perhaps, is why the YouGov poll, and potentially the eventual result, has caught, or will catch, a lot of people off guard.
But will the “earthquake” actually happen? The Conservatives have a couple of extremely marginal seats to hold, such as Gower and the Vale of Clwyd, which are not guaranteed at the outset. Voting patterns, and even tactics in these places could mean that they lose currently held seats before gaining any others. Polls like YouGov’s rely on the assumption of a “uniform swing”, which will never happen. There is no doubt that certain seats in Wales will behave in their own unpredictable ways depending on all manner of local, personal, or even Brexit-orientated circumstances.
Who knows what will happen? Historians like me should perhaps stick to the past and resist peering so eagerly into our crystal balls. All I know is that if the remarkable does happen, we shouldn’t be too surprised by it.