How Port Talbot could give us a pointer to the EURef

How Port Talbot could give us a pointer to the EURef


Will UKIP fare well in Wales?

In the hot-house of political reporting and comment, individual stories invariably seem more important at the time than they subsequently turn out to be. The future of the Port Talbot steel works is likely to be one such case. Although the closure or even mothballing of the plant would be disastrous for the town and the people who live and work there, for most of Wales – never mind the country beyond – the impact will fade as the reporters move on.

Had the plant been in Scotland, the media political analysts would no doubt have paid a good deal of attention to the announcement’s impact on the Holyrood campaign but Welsh politics has never commanded the same degree of attention from London. Beyond Offa’s Dyke lies a land of dragons; fearful to behold and dangerous to enter. Consequently, the prism through which it’s analysed is the comfortably familiar one of Westminster. As an aside, Tata is looking to get out of Scotland too but the plants there are smaller and the announcement came at a less politically charged moment.

But if the London government has been behind the game in anticipating and responding to Tata’s decision, doesn’t the same go for its counterpart in Cardiff? Electorally, there’s a lot to be won from coming out of the right side of both the blame game and the aspirant workers’ champion.

That’s not least because the outcome of the Welsh Assembly elections is very much in the balance. Labour won exactly half the seats in the Assembly in 2012 off 37% of the list vote; this year they’re polling in the low-thirties. That’s about 10% clear of the Conservatives with Plaid a few points back and UKIP running a strong fourth in the mid-teens.

If winning half the seats from only 37% of the vote doesn’t sound like a very PR kind of outcome, that’s because it’s not. Only one-third of the seats are top-ups so a party that can dominate the constituency results off a relatively small vote share – as Labour does: they won 28 of the 40 seats in 2011 – will outperform their notional PR entitlement.

According to an analysis by Roger Scully of Cardiff University, the latest (and very large) YouGov poll would translate under UNS to an outcome in seats of:

Lab 27, Plaid 13, Con 11, UKIP 7, LD 2

Which would presumably leave Labour reliant on Plaid’s support, one way or another. It would also perhaps give UKIP their most visible representation in the UK (though note how UKIP, with slightly under half Labour’s share, wins only a quarter the number of Labour’s seats).

However, it’s UKIP where the situation gets interesting. For one thing, UNS won’t be applicable to them; it never is when a party rises from nearly nothing (4.6% in 2011) to a meaningful presence. For another, Wales offers more historic examples of Labour under-performing their polling. Have the pollsters sorted that problem out or might that lead be whittled yet further?

But there’s also the European angle. Europe is likely to dominate the political narrative in the media throughout April and beyond: that ought to offer far more opportunities than dangers to UKIP.

Which is where we come full circle because any attempt to ‘save’ Port Talbot would have to be compliant with EU rules and tariffs at the moment. Whether or not it would be a good idea to nationalise the plant, the fact is that state aid is tightly regulated and anti-Chinese protectionist measures can only be worked through the EU. At the moment, neither option is likely to be meaningfully available, something the Leave campaign have been making much of that today. They would be fools to let the issue drop any time soon.

Of course, ‘Leave’ and UKIP are far from synonymous and the idea that Leave will deliberately try to coordinate its efforts to boost the performance of the party whose purpose is to secure EU exit is probably fanciful; it doesn’t seem inclined to coordinate its efforts with either of the other Leaves in the referendum.

Still, both UKIP and Leave have been handed a very useful campaigning weapon, if one that’s probably time-limited. Come May 6, we could do far worse in looking for pointers towards the referendum result than to check out how far the Port Talbot effect has spread through South West Wales.

David Herdson

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