One of the most important dates in Welsh politics is 1868, the year of the first General Election since the 1867 Reform Act and the year in which the alliance of Nonconformity, rural radicals and elements of the bourgeois that called itself the Liberal Party ended centuries of domination by an overbearing Tory squirearchy.
While it’s common to think of the Liberals as being the Party of Wales between this date and the end of the First World War, Liberal domination didn’t extend to the whole country; rural Anglicans never felt at all comfortable with the new Liberal order (nor did most feel especially Welsh) and continued to vote Tory by massive margins, while those elements of the South Wales bourgeois that strongly supported the Liberals in 1868 drifted to the right as the Liberals drifted, somewhat, to the left. A consequence of this was the fact that the Tories had a strong machine of their own in parts of Wales, based around alcohol, Anglicanism and (in Monmouthshire at least) Englishness, something that helped to effectively institutionalise a pattern of opposing, but not really competing as the Liberals couldn’t win in Tory areas and vice versa, political machines. This pattern survived the dramatic rise of Labour after the First World War and the rather less dramatic rise of seperatist Nationalism during the 1960’s and continues to be one of the most crucial, and most interesting, features of politics in Wales.
The pattern is, perhaps obviously, easiest to see in municipal elections. The map below shows the percentage of the vote polled by each party in the 2004 municipal elections:
The map doesn’t give much of an indication of machines within parties (the parochial divisions within Labour in parts of South Wales are especially important) and don’t reflect voting patterns in other elections that well (much of the rural independent vote is Tory in other elections, Labour has a significant vote in Anglesey, unopposed returns are common in agricultural areas and not really rare in ex-mining wards and so on and so forth), but it is, nonetheless, a useful illustration of the links between local machines and local class and interest groups.
Labour is, of course, strongest in traditional working class areas (especially in former mining districts), Independents dominate local politics in agricultural areas (note that independents, admittedly often of various different hues, polled over 60% in the three most rural authorities) while also doing well in some working class areas (often based around exploiting parochial sentiment), Plaid has its strongholds in areas with a high proportion of Welsh speakers (but also in some working class areas where they have formed a curious opposition to entrenched Labour machines since the 1960’s; I say curious as in opposition Plaid machines have tended to attack Labour machines with left-wing rhetoric but, on those rare occasions when Plaid take control of a working class local authority, have tended to govern in a highly conservative manner), the Tories poll best in the belt of Cardiff commuterland that stretches from the English border to Bridgend (but do well in other suburban areas), while the LibDems function as a party of the urban middle class in cities like Cardiff or Swansea, while being dependent on a very different section of the electorate in Mid Wales. The Greens are not of any significance in Welsh politics yet, but may be at some point and have been included as well. In addition to all that, various local parties are strong in some authorities.
Coming soon… the relationship between this sort of thing and census figures.