PEMBROKESHIRE, Wales — If the polls are right, Britain’s Labour Party is on track to win its first general election since 2005. Helpfully, there’s already a corner of Britain where voters can see what that might mean.
Since 1999 Labour has led the devolved government in Wales, a nation of 3 million people who have offered majority-support for Labour for the past 101 years — the longest winning streak in the democratic world. Labour leader Keir Starmer last year called Cardiff’s administration “a blueprint for what Labour could do across the U.K.”
But with Welsh public services creaking— as they are in other parts of Britain —it’s the Tories who will be shouting loudest about Labour’s record in Wales come election time next year.
On the National Health Service, education and housing, Conservative campaign headquarters (CCHQ) is already accelerating its attacks on the performance of what it relentlessly dubs “Labour-run Wales.” Last week CCHQ issued three separate rebuttals to Labour attacks which all turned the focus on to Cardiff.
Interestingly, the chief target of such messaging is not Wales itself, but voters across the border in England considering ditching the Tories and backing Labour for the first time in a generation.
Castigating the Welsh government is a deliberate Tory “playbook,” confirms Conservative MP Stephen Crabb, who was Secretary of State for Wales under David Cameron’s leadership — when such attacks were a familiar refrain — and now chairs the cross-party House of Commons Welsh affairs committee.
In fact, he notes, the record is much more nuanced. “The truth is, it is good and bad,” he says. “The story is actually one of some quite positive co-operation.”
But “when we get into the proper business end of the campaign, it’s going to be very tough,” Crabb adds. “The nuanced arguments will go out the window, both from Labour in Wales attacking us, and from I’m sure Conservatives in response. We will be fighting out in terms of pretty crude arguments.”
Tory whip Fay Jones, MP for the Welsh rural seat of Brecon and Radnorshire, suggests her party’s tone will echo the recent Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, which the Conservatives narrowly won after attacking London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans to extend a tax on heavily-polluting vehicles known as the ultra-low-emissions zone (ULEZ).
Despite having ruled Westminster for 13 years, the Tories painted themselves as insurgents fighting an unpopular incumbent. They will hope to repeat the trick in Wales next year.
“You’ve seen the profile that Sadiq Khan has got as a result of ULEZ,” Jones says. “We can amplify that, times 100, off the back of [Welsh Labour First Minister] Mark Drakeford’s record.”
The real target
Such campaigning is unlikely to prove effective in Wales itself, suggests Richard Wyn Jones, professor of Welsh politics at Cardiff University. He believes the Tory approach is “not only doomed to failure, but probably counterproductive” in Wales.
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Wyn Jones, who directed the Welsh Election Study, thinks negative campaigning could help provoke a “1997 or 2001 scenario” where “people with a Welsh identity gleefully joined together to get rid of the Conservatives.” Wales was left with zero Tory MPs after those two elections.
At present, the Conservatives hold 13 Welsh seats — more than double their six in Scotland, which enjoys a higher profile among Tories in Westminster due to the endless rows about independence. But it’s the bloc of Welsh Tory seats which could prove pivotal, tipping the balance between a comfortable Labour majority in Westminster and a fragile one — or even a hung parliament.
The signs are not good. Tories are privately “extremely bleak” in Wales, where YouGov polling puts Labour 30 points ahead, Wyn Jones notes. A senior Welsh Labour figure said they believed the Conservatives could lose 12 of their 13 Welsh seats, keeping only Montgomeryshire.
The more interesting question, says Wyn Jones, is whether Tory attacks on Welsh Labour might sway voters in England.
The answer to that, says Wyn Jones, is “less definitive.” The strategy “may well embarrass Labour,” he believes, given Wales offers rare contemporary data on Labour’s actual performance in power. But he suggests the English public’s general lack of interest in Wales could make it a “bubble” story which never cuts through.
‘The storm is created in Westminster and Wales’
Certainly, frustration with the Welsh government is very real when speaking to business owners in south Wales.
Lee Nicholls, 56, a letting agent in former coal-mining villages in the valleys, says rent on a three-bed house has risen £200 in two years, due to factors including — he claims — higher official housing standards which are “impossible” to meet, pushing landlords out.
Labour MP Chris Bryant, who issued a damning report on rising rents in his Rhondda seat, fears the Welsh government’s “quality standard” for social homes will mean housing associations are unable to buy up the century-old terraces that go on the market. He says: “The storm that we’ve got locally is partly created in Westminster and partly created in Wales.”
On a hillside near the English border, farmer Emma Robinson, 55, is fed up with the Welsh government’s agriculture funding system. The Sustainable Farming Scheme, incoming in 2025, has a goal to ensure 10 percent of land is taken by trees, but Robinson says: “I’m not going to take out good land.” Farmers are tussling over whether hedgerows will count as trees, and the Welsh government is exploring changes to the scheme.
Seventeen miles away, Nigel Bowyer, 66, is frustrated that England has a badger cull to tackle bovine TB, but Wales — where the devolved administration insists a cull would not have a significant impact — does not.
But both farmers have just as much distaste for the Conservative-run government in Westminster. Bowyer is furious at the post-Brexit trade deal with New Zealand, which opened access for lamb and beef. “They completely disregarded us for what I think was purely ideological grounds,” he fumes. “They’ve chucked us under a bus.” Both are former Tory voters, but neither have decided whether to vote Conservative next year.
Adam McDonnell, a research director at pollster YouGov, says “a lot of voting” in Wales at the last election in 2019 focused on U.K.-wide issues, as the Tories had hoped. But with Labour far ahead in the national polls this time round, Conservatives will try to convince voters of the importance of local matters instead.
There are likely to be tensions between Starmer and the more left-leaning Drakeford. Wales is introducing a 20mph default speed limit on restricted urban roads from September 17, down from 30mph, and Starmer is nervous about being painted as anti-motorist. Welsh Conservatives leader Andrew RT Davies has claimed the policy “will cost the Welsh economy £4.5 billion” and “put lives at risk.”
Health of a nation
But the argument with most “resonance” on the doorstep, says Crabb, is Labour’s running of the NHS in Wales. Downing Street kicked off a week of health-focused campaigning earlier this month with figures suggesting more than 73,000 people in Wales were waiting more than 77 weeks for treatment, compared to just over 7,000 waiting more than 78 weeks in England.
Tim Gardner, assistant director of policy at the nonpartisan Health Foundation think tank, agrees Welsh patients “are more likely to be experiencing a very long wait for a routine procedure” than those in England. But “all four health services of the U.K. are in a pretty difficult position,” he adds.
And the picture changes, says Gardner, depending on which numbers you use. The very longest waits for treatment are “only one narrow measure,” given England’s NHS has a record 7.6 million people on waiting lists. Wales’ population is also older, has higher deprivation and was harder-hit by COVID-19, he says, factors which are “not always necessarily reflected in funding.”
“There is more that the government in Cardiff could do” notes Gardner, but equally its actions are “heavily shaped” by the U.K. government’s broader spending decisions.
‘It’s burning intergovernmental relations’
In the short term, a lot could still change. Wales is about to undergo radical changes to seat boundaries, shrinking from 40 Westminster constituencies to 32. And Drakeford — Wales’ first minister since 2018, and a household name since the COVID-19 pandemic — is stepping down, probably in 2024. The political ramifications remain unclear.
In the long term, hostility between London and Cardiff could stall real work on the ground. Milford Haven, in west Wales, was recently declared a freeport — but the mantle was hard-won. Left-wing Welsh politicians were initially concerned the Tory-driven policy was little more than a “tax dodge” before striking a deal with Westminster, says Tom Sawyer, chief executive of the port.
Hostility has another, more fundamental consequence. “It’s absolutely burning intergovernmental relations,” warns Wyn Jones — “at a time when the latest polls show support for Welsh independence is up to 38 percent.”
And that, for both Labour and the Tories, would be the real nightmare.