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Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 14:06 GMT
The changing political landscape
Patrick Hannan
Easily the most gripping thing about political life in Wales is that it is supposed to be dull and predictable yet time after time turns out to be dramatic and unexpected.

Four years ago, for instance, who would have thought the Conservative Party would be completely wiped from the Welsh parliamentary map?

Who could have predicted that last gasp vote in favour of an assembly in September 1997?

Who could possibly have anticipated the sensational way in which, in the assembly elections of 1999, Plaid Cymru snatched a series of seats that had been overwhelmingly Labour since modern party politics were invented?

Has Plaid Cymru really advanced its share of the popular vote or are we at the beginning of what we might call two-tier politics in Wales?

The truth is that, while we all speak gravely about the essential seriousness of the democratic process, we cannot always help boiling over with excitement at the sporting elements involved in deciding who will represent and govern us the next time round.

In that respect this general election will be at least as compelling as the last one, even if it is for different reasons.

In Wales over the last thirty years and more we have become used to assuming that everything political has settled into a regular pattern, only to discover shortly afterwards that it has done nothing of the kind.

In 1966, for example, it seemed clear that, by winning 33 of the 36 Welsh seats, Labour had established itself in unassailable authority.

That was in March of that year but, just around the corner in July, Gwynfor Evans was to win a by-election in Carmarthen to become the first-ever Plaid Cymru MP.

In the first general election of 1974 two other Plaid Cymru candidates won seats.

National Assembly in Cardiff Bay
The National Assembly has posed new questions
The nature of the political argument in Wales had been changed for good.

In 1983, Conservative leaders liked to boast that you could walk from Chepstow to Holyhead and never have to set foot outside a Tory constituency.

In 1997 you could walk the length and breadth of Wales in any direction and never set foot in one.

In any search for consistency in this period you have to look to the Liberals, now the Liberal Democrats, of course, and even they have bounced between one seat and three.

What these statistics demonstrate in particular is that, long before the creation of the National Assembly concentrated people's minds even more closely on Welsh political issues, there was a volatility among Welsh voters which undermined the idea that traditional party loyalties were what counted above everything else.

But the arrival of the Assembly has raised an entirely new question which will be answered in the next election.

Technical factors

Despite its ability to win seats in rural, Welsh-speaking areas, Plaid Cymru's vote at General Elections has consistently bobbed around the ten per cent mark - 9.9 per cent in 1997, for example.

In the Assembly elections two years later that leapt up to 28 per cent.

In the same period the Labour vote fell from 54 per cent to 37 per cent.

Without going into any of the technical factors that might be involved in changes of this kind, what people will really want to know is this: has Plaid Cymru really advanced its share of the popular vote or are we at the beginning of what we might call two-tier politics in Wales?

That is to say, will the Plaid Cymru and Labour votes resume their traditional levels when it comes to a Westminster election or has the assembly changed the whole character of party political support in Wales?

At the same time, how much will the voters be influenced by the performance of all the parties in their new roles?

Will the fact that the Liberal Democrats have joined in a coalition with Labour be seen as constructive politics or a sell-out?

Will Labour's internal difficulties, notably over the leadership last year, remain influential in the public mind?

How will the public judge the way in which the particular economic problems now confronting Wales are being tackled?

Will these factors influence people's choice of a UK government as they consider whether London has intervened too much or not enough?

Will the Conservatives get credit for their deliberate policy of distancing themselves from the other parties and operating a policy of blunt criticism of the administration?

Only an election can answer these questions and many others that will arise, which is why this one will be anything but dull.


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