The Blog

Analysis: General Election Results in Wales and Northern Ireland are a Boon for the Tories

In the weeks before the general election I echoed a number of other commentators (and some of the more realistic senior Labour figures) who predicted that despite an effective local party machine and some enthusiastic campaigning Labour would not do well enough in Wales to offset some of the losses it would likely make in Scotland. On this point I was right (although I didn't foresee just how massive those losses north of the border would end up being!) Labour remains the biggest party in Wales, with 25 Westminster seats, but rather than celebrating sweeping up a bunch of Lib Dem and Tory held constituencies it in fact ended May 7th running one fewer than it had on May 6th. It's vote share rose by a paltry 0.6%. Labour took a couple of scalps from the Lib Dems, the night's big losers in Wales (they were defeated in two of their three seats), but it failed to win a number of its target seats, including the still-Tory Cardiff North, which it will have expected to take. In terms of seats won the Conservatives were the big winners. In their best result in Wales since the early 1980s they upped their Commons representation from eight to 11 MPs (including by winning by just 27 votes in the previously staunch Labour seat of Gower). Tory candidates, who were perhaps far better at hoovering up former Lib Dem votes than were their Labour rivals, did particularly well in rural Welsh constituencies, in former industrial areas whose middle-classes have benefited from recent regeneration programmes, and in areas where economic confidence is jittery but voters trusted continued Tory stewardship of public finances over Labour's economic plans.

The other big winner, at least in terms of vote share, was UKIP, which saw its share of the vote rise to 13.6% (from just 2.4% in 2010). By this measure they are now the third largest party in Wales. Analysis would appear to show that they took votes away from both Conservative and Labour candidates. Welsh Ukippers will be frustrated, as their colleagues were elsewhere in mainland Britain, that vote share did not translate into seats in Parliament, but their performance will give them much confidence going into next year's Cardiff assembly elections where they have ambitions of nicking a couple of regional list seats.

Plaid Cymru will also be disappointed by results. Despite party leader Leanne Wood's inclusion in the national TV debates turning her into a mini-star of the campaign, Plaid failed to win either of its main targets at Ynys Mon and Ceredigion and Ms Woods only saw a minute increase in her party's vote share, which is now below that of UKIP. Ms Wood, who once suggested that UKIP was an anti-Welsh party, must now face up to the fact that her own party is seemingly less popular than them. Rumours abound that her failure to emulate the success of nationalism in Scotland has put her continued leadership of the party in serious question.

In Northern Ireland the election saw the bolstering of unionism at the expense of the republican party Sinn Féin. This was epitomised by the return to Parliament of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Once the dominant unionist force in Northern Ireland it has in recent decades been squeezed by its Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) rivals so effectively that in 2010 it failed to win any Westminster seats at all. The Party's resurgence this May delivered it two seats, including the UK's most westerly constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, held since 2001 by Sinn Fein. Won in the early 1980s by hunger striker Bobby Sands, it is an iconic seat for republicans, and its reversion to the UUP halts what could be described as a sectarian-electoral partition of Northern Ireland on an east-west basis. The UUP's success in Fermanagh was the result of a risky electoral pact with the DUP. The UUP returned the favour in East Belfast where they stood aside to allow the DUP to defeat Alliance Party incumbent Naomi Long.

The DUP again returns to Westminster with eight seats, the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party keeps its three, and independent unionist MP Lady Sylvia Hermon retains her seat in North Down. Sinn Fein's loss of one seat brings its total down to four, although of course its MPs refuse to take their seats in Parliament. The loss of a cross-community Alliance party voice from the Commons will likely be lamented by many in Northern Ireland as well as Westminster (especially in the much reduced Lib Dem group which considers Alliance to be a sister party).

The pre-May 7th touting of Northern Ireland's unionist MPs as kingmakers to a potential Conservative minority administration has proved to be premature. But the Tory's slim majority of 12 is far less than that won by John Major in 1992 and he often found himself coming to rely on UUP members after a series of scandals and rebellions in his own backbenches (a number of times, David Cameron may note, over Europe!) put his government at risk. If Mr Cameron finds himself on shaky ground during the next five years Ulster's 11 unionist MPs could still play an intriguing role in what is a finely balanced House of Commons.