Mike Davies gives his views on the council and Euro-elections in Wales
Ten candidates for the Welsh Euro-election seats left the two left parties squeezed badly. Forward Wales, whose lead candidate Ron Davies surprisingly failed to gather much in the way of media attention, polled 17,000 votes (1.9%) fairly evenly across the country. Respect polled a poor 0.6% – worse than any region in England. This was despite including an imam on their list and launching its Welsh campaign in a mosque – but Galloway has little pulling power in Wales and there is only a small Muslim community. FW stood on a People Before Profits platform and Davies pledged to take the average workers’ wage if elected. This was the first time the vast majority of Welsh voters would have heard of Forward Wales, formed just eight months earlier. In many respects it was putting down a marker for future activity and expansion outside its stronghold in North East Wales.
It’s cold comfort to note that the two extreme-right parties, the BNP (2.9%) and UKIP (7.4%), performed significantly worse than in England.
The other story of the Euro-election in Wales was the ability of Labour to retain its 32% share of the vote while Plaid Cymru slipped back badly to 17%. Its problems mirror those of the SNP in that its appeal to left and right is unsustainable. In recent years it has emphasised its cultural nationalism and support for the Celtic Tiger model of the Irish, although without the explicit right-wing shift of Swinney in Scotland. The nationalists’ high-water mark in 1999 is unlikely to be regained, given that many were voting on the back of a sense of national identity that’s since been tarnished by the poor performance of Assembly politicians of all colours. The council election results were far more volatile, with the Liberal Democrats capitalising on Labour’s unpopularity in the cities while Labour managed to claw back two councils from Plaid in the Valleys. Plaid in power had shown themselves to be supporters of PFI and environmentally damaging schemes and voters decided that Labour was a better bet. The Tories barely feature in Welsh local politics but did win affluent Monmouthshire Council as their lone outpost.
What of the left? Six SP candidates in Cardiff and Swansea performed creditably and long-standing SWPer Huw Pudner stood in Neath and got a creditable 28% vote as the sole Respect council candidate.
A grass-roots group called People before Politics won nine seats in Merthyr Tydfil, a sign of frustration with establishment politics and included some progressive elements opposed to opencast mining in the area.
The main left challenge came from Forward Wales. It stood 29 candidates in north and south Wales, getting an average 23% of the vote. It won one council seat in its Wrexham stronghold – Dave Bithell, a local RMT branch secretary and the party’s union organiser, won Johnstown in a straight fight with Labour. FW missed another seat by just seven votes and failed to unseat the council leader by just 14 votes. Given that most of the candidates were community activists who had never stood before, many of the votes were heartening but there is a general perception within the party of an opportunity missed.
Another FW member in Flintshire, Colin Bithell, won a seat as an independent environmentalist along with two others also involved in a long-running campaign against a toxic waste kiln near Buckley. The aftermath in Wrexham has been massive relief among Labourites that they withstood the strong FW challenge. We have since learned that the Liberal Democrats stretched themselves to the limit to put up candidates to try to capitalise on the split Labour vote and they certainly picked up some radical anti-Labour votes at FW’s expense.
The Labour group on the council reacted quickly to the threat and ditched their ineffectual leader. The new leader has pledged to only take the average manual workers’ wage – surely an attempt to undercut FW’s pledge about only taking the average skilled workers’ wage? Despite the frustrating failure to break through, FW has demonstrated it can shift the political landscape in Wales to the left.
What is needed now is to try to overcome the divisions among the left and build on the small successes gained. It is to be hoped that Respect will show the same respect as they did for the SSP in Scotland by not splitting the left vote again.