WHEN Keir Starmer appeared on breakfast television this week and played down his party’s chances in the upcoming elections, he was accused of getting his excuses in early.

Friday morning’s loss in the Hartlepool by-election, despite the seat having never before elected a Conservative MP, therefore hadn’t come as such a shock but it still set the scene for a day of Labour misery.

But in Wales, despite nerves over some small majorities, Labour will remain the largest party in the Senedd after the twin threats of Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives failed to materialise.

Mark Drakeford has led Welsh Labour to a stronger than expected performance which makes it stand out across the UK with the party seemingly in freefall in much of England and still lagging behind in Scotland.

Some polling had said Labour was on course for its worst ever Senedd results, though still likely to be the largest party, and relatively strong recent showings from the Conservatives in Wales at Westminster elections and a seemingly strident Plaid Cymru had suggested a shift in Welsh politics could be likely.

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But as results started coming through from tea-time Friday it was clear that Labour was performing strongly and it had retained all but one of its seats in north east Wales that formed part of the ‘red wall’ stretching into the north of England that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives smashed through in the December 2016 general election.

The real challenge for Labour, which won 29 of the 60 seats in 2016, has been to keep as close to the figure of 31, need for a majority, as possible. By the end of Friday it had reached 30, equalling its best performance and making speculation of a coalition with Plaid Cymru irrelevant. 

The north east Wales seats, where only the Vale of Clwyd switched from Conservative to Labour, did have a small 1.5% swing from Labour to Conservative but that wasn’t enough to change their colours.

In contrast in south west Wales, even in seats held by the Conservatives, there was a swing from the Conservatives to Labour.

The Conservatives have performed, in relative terms, strongly in Wales at the UK general elections in 2015, 2017 and 2019 and the post-Brexit realignment of British politics has boosted the party.

But the Brexit story also includes UKIP, which won seven seats at the 2016 elections, and the Brexit Party which has now rebranded as Reform and for a while most of the UKIP block in the Senedd had switched allegiance to the Nigel Farage backed project.

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Ahead of polling day there had been much speculation as to what would happen to the tens of thousands of votes cast for UKIP five years ago which helped it to the seven regional list seats and a strong showing in some constituencies.

Research by Cardiff University had found most 2016 UKIP voters have supported the Conservatives in subsequent elections. UKIP had also likely drawn support away from the Tories in 2016 when their share of the vote fell in a devolved election for the first time since 1999.

In England leave supporters are thought to have turned their backs on Labour but the party in Wales still seems capable of holding those voters and regaining their support.

Dr Jack Larner, from Cardiff University’s Welsh Governance Centre, told BBC Wales it appeared the UKIP vote was “coming home to Labour” rather than going towards the Conservatives as the party had hoped they would.

Dr Larner also told the BBC the results appeared to show Labour benefiting from the collapse of UKIP’s vote - marking a distinct difference between voters in Wales and England.

“We can’t be certain but the early (results) suggest Labour are taking advantage. Since Brexit we did see a redrawing of political boundaries. We saw a lot of people who voted leave, who in the past would vote Labour, switch to the Conservatives, that happened in England it also happened in Wales in unprecedented numbers.

“But where there a more leave voters, where a constituency had a higher share of people who voted leave, Labour are actually doing better there, getting a higher vote share than what they were before. This is a stark contrast to what we’re seeing in England, reinforcing this point ‘for Wales do not see England’.”

Results from England on Friday showed a shift from Labour to Conservative in Leave voting areas suggesting the Brexit divide has had a significant and still lasting impact on British politics. Though it should be remembered the English polls were local ones and many other factors could be in play.

The Scottish Parliament elections, where the SNP is predicted to fall just short of an overall majority for the SNP, have been somewhat overlooked – indicating another shift in British politics with Scotland now dominated by a party that only contests seats within its borders.

In England, the Conservatives benefit from the growth of nationalism and a sense of English or British identity, something UK Labour continues to struggle with. In Wales, as the party has carved a distinct identity, pride in being Welsh is no barrier to voting Labour. Indeed, yesterday's results suggest the opposite.

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