Wales has been dominated by the Labour party for, quite literally, longer than anyone can remember. But the key message from the final Welsh poll of the campaign is that we could be on the verge of a genuinely historic general election outcome.
The Welsh Political Barometer poll was conducted over the final weekend of the campaign and asked respondents how they would vote in the general election – with the question adjusted to take into account of the fact that not all parties are standing in all seats. The poll produced the following voting intention figures (with changes from the previous Barometer poll, conducted in late November, in brackets):
Labour: 40 per cent (+2)
Conservatives: 37 per cent (+5)
Plaid Cymru: 10 per cent (-1)
Liberal Democrats: 6 per cent (-3)
Brexit Party: 5 per cent (-3)
Greens: 1 per cent (no change)
Others: 1 per cent (no change)
In line with the Britain-wide polls, these results suggest that Labour support remains robust. If reproduced on Thursday, these figures would enable the Labour party to continue their long-run – unbroken since 1922 – of winning the most votes in Wales at every general election.
But the good news for Labour pretty much ends there. Because while Labour is polling quite strongly, rarely if ever has the Conservative challenge to Labour dominance been so strong as it is now. The figures from our new poll point to a potentially historic result for the Welsh Tories. This would be their highest Welsh vote share since 1900 – and thus their highest ever in the era of universal (male) suffrage. Much of the Conservatives’ success reflects the marginalisation of the Brexit Party: having decisively won the European elections in Wales, they are now sliding fast, with pro-Leave voters rallying to the Tory banner.
What might such support levels for the parties mean in terms of parliamentary seats? Using a standard method of projecting the swings since the last general election indicated by this poll uniformly across Wales generates the following outcome in terms of seats (with projected changes from the 2017 result in brackets):
Labour: 20 (-8)
Conservatives: 16 (+8)
Plaid Cymru: 3 (-1)
Liberal Democrats: 1 (+1)
The seats to change hands would be as follows:
Conservative Gains from Labour: Alyn and Deeside, Bridgend, Cardiff North, Clwyd South, Delyn, Gower, Vale of Clwyd, Wrexham
Conservative Gain from Liberal Democrats: Brecon and Radnor (recapturing the seat the party won in 2017 but lost in the August by-election; the projection here is assuming uniform swings since June 2017).
Liberal Democrat Gain from Plaid Cymru: Ceredigion
Thus, our poll suggests that as well as winning the most votes, Labour would still come out ahead in Wales on seats. But twenty seats would equal Labour’s worst performance in Wales since the war: matching their previous low-point under Michael Foot. Meanwhile, sixteen seats would be the best for the Welsh Conservatives in that era – even outdoing their showing in Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 landslide victory, when they returned fourteen MPs. If this is how things turn out on Thursday, the Welsh Conservatives will have made a very substantial contribution to delivering a parliamentary majority for Boris Johnson.
Many of the seats which are currently projected Conservative gains have not been Tory for a very long time – if ever. Wrexham, for instance, which the party are now strong favourites to gain, has not had a single Conservative MP in the last century. Short-term factors, like the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn with much of Labour’s more socially conservative traditional supporters, and the impact of the Brexit issue in communities that voted for Leave in 2016, are a big part of what is going on. But there are longer-term structural factors at play as well. The original social basis for Labour’s Welsh hegemony – in the industrialised heavy industries that once dominated the Welsh economy and Welsh society – is long gone. The white-collar public sector that has formed much of Labour’s support base in more recent times has also been under steady attrition in the last decade. Along with significant in-migration from England, the electoral demography and geography of Wales are being re-shaped before our eyes.
With just days to go now, things remain very much in the balance. It is well within the ‘margin of error’ in polls for Labour to retain many of the seats that our poll currently projects them to lose. But sampling errors cut both ways: the picture could be even bleaker for Labour than is suggested here. It is, for instance, far from inconceivable that the Labour party could be wiped out throughout North Wales in terms of parliamentary representation. And despite a less than flawless Welsh campaign, significant Conservative gains in Wales appear to be ever more likely.
Professor Roger Awan-Scully is head of politics and international relations at Cardiff University.
The Welsh Political Barometer poll, for ITV-Cymru Wales and Cardiff University, had a sample of 1,020 Welsh adults and was carried out by YouGov from 6 to 9 December 2019.