Brendan Toomey easily held his local council seat for the Labour party in this former mining town in southern Wales for nearly two decades – winning four elections in a row.
But when he went canvassing this spring ahead of the local elections in early May, he says he noticed fewer people answering their doors, even those of his past supporters. “You could see them watching the telly,” he says. “You do get a little concerned at that point in time.”
Ultimately he lost his seat as leader of the Merthyr Tydfil council – a blow not just for the bespectacled former official and firefighter, but for a party whose identity is wrapped up in this town. Labour’s founder Keir Hardie held his seat as MP here until he died in 1915. Labour, in fact, has counted on these valleys as a stronghold “for as long as anyone can remember – and further back than that,” as Mr. Toomey puts it.
Old assumptions have been turned on their heads, especially when it comes to social-democratic politics in Europe. One shock poll in early May showed that the Conservatives could win Wales in snap elections June 8 – for the first time in over 150 years. Now Labour has regained the lead here.
But Labour’s unsteady footing points to the pressures that the center left is under Europe-wide, from Wales to North Rhine-Westphalia. Many see a strong demand for a leftist ideology – one of the reasons that a race predicted to be a Labour collapse when Theresa May called it in April is no longer a foregone conclusion. But the party is still searching for a path forward to prove its ability to respond to changing economies, globalization, and, now, security.
“Almost every [center left] party in continental Europe is struggling both electorally and politically,” says Patrick Diamond, a former policy adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and co-chair of the Policy Network. “So it appears there is something structural going on, which is not just to do with short-term factors, but that seems to be making the center left weaker.”
‘We carn do it, see’
British Labour is uniquely divided under its left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, but it is certainly not alone. The Socialist party in France eked out just 6 percent of votes in May’s presidential elections, leading one-time Socialist presidential hopeful Manuel Valls to declare his party “dead.” In southern Europe, social democratic parties have bled support to upstart parties on the far left. Even where they are competitive, center-left parties are scoring their worst in decades, sometimes in history, from Germany to the Netherlands.
The pressure has been mounting under structural change – de-industrialization, globalization, and technological advancement – that has hurt the left’s traditional bases. Many former blue-collar workers are struggling with temporary contracts, focusing on making ends meet, not organizing. The left, either in power or as junior partners in coalitions, has been punished electorally for austerity policies they’ve had to implement after the financial crisis. And “third way” politics under Tony Blair, so successful in the 1990s, have failed to convince voters in an era of low growth.
In Britain, Brexit has further frayed party loyalties. Wales, which despite its dependence on European Union funding and understanding of itself as a Labour bastion, voted with parties on the right that led the charge to leave the EU a year ago.
Traditionally Conservatives had been so reviled in Wales that the party label was used as an insult, says Alex Williams, who won a local council seat in Bridgend for the Conservative party in May. But he says stigmas, deeply held since the union-busting era of Margaret Thatcher, are breaking down. Men like pub worker Pete Lusted, who has voted Labour his whole life, a legacy handed down from his father, are unsure who they'll vote for in this election. Emboldened, Ms. May even stopped on the campaign trail in Bridgend last month. “The new generation, my generation, are not affected necessarily by [Thatcher's legacy],” Mr. Williams says.
Still, it doesn’t feel like politics as usual for many locals. In Merthyr Tydfil, Jonathan Richards, a retired general practitioner and community leader, is at a health center named after Labour founder Mr. Hardie on a recent day. He says he was shocked by Councilor Toomey’s loss, and was doubly so by polls showing Conservative headway here. It’s part of an upheaval in identities following the Brexit vote. “Whilst people may vote Labour, they may [also] read the Daily Mail,” he says, referring to the British tabloid, “so they are not globalist in their outlook.”
Lesley Hodgson, who heads Focal Point, a community organization in Merthyr Tydfil that welcomes newly arrived citizens, says she has watched painfully as resentments in the town, which was built with immigration in the Victorian era, have grown over fears that newer immigrants, mostly from Portugal and Poland, will generate more unemployment. She says she sees people looking for mooring as political certainties have eroded. “I think people are confused at the moment, they really don’t know where to turn.”
Electoral choices have been driven by resentments in an area that’s lived through the demise of coal mining and steel making and the subsequent factory closures. As a poet, Mike Jenkins explores the mood through the voices of local characters. In his latest book of poems “Sofa Surfin,” written in the vernacular of the South Wales Valleys, he says the piece “Too Bloody Weak” sums up the frustration that has punished mainstream politics. “We carn do it, see,” it starts, “there’s no way we’d survive on ower own.” [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the inspiration for Mr. Jenkin's poem.]
An opportunity to regroup?
Mr. Jenkins, a Welsh speaker whose daughter is a politician for the Welsh independence party Plaid Cymru, says he’s been emboldened by the winds of change. While it has strengthened politics he finds repugnant, like the anti-immigration sentiment behind Brexit, it could also open space for new politics.
“I know a lot of people find it scary but I’m quite excited by it all to be honest,” he says. “Labour has had their time, it’s not the future.”
While new polling points to Labour resilience in Wales, Roger Scully, a political analyst at Cardiff University, says that the initial scare served to jolt Labour, a party that has effectively enjoyed one-party dominance for nearly a century, out of complacency. “We are certainly immediately seeing the Labour party working a lot harder,” he says.
And it’s also led to some self-reflection. In some ways, Toomey sees Labour, and social democracy generally, as a victim of its own success. Much of what they’ve historically championed, like minimum wage or workers' rights, is simply written into law today. Yet he has asked the Welsh Labour party for a statistical analysis to understand his own loss. “Because otherwise we’ll just be navel-gazing forever and not know where we’ve gone wrong and maybe not being able to put right what’s gone wrong,” he says.
He feels buoyed by results showing a boost for Labour ahead of June 8. On the campaign trail, Corbyn has exceeded expectations while May has seemed aloof. Conservatives were forced into a U-turn on social policy that dragged on their lead. It is unclear how the string of terrorist attacks in Britain will sway the race. The right is generally stronger on security, and May gave a forceful speech after Saturday’s attack in London saying “enough is enough.” Yet Corbyn hit back, questioning cuts in policing under her watch as home secretary and saying the country can’t be protected “on the cheap.”
A hard situation
No matter how well Labour fares, it will be difficult to reconcile the two wings of the party moving forward. On the one hand, centrists like Mr. Diamond argue that a hard left turn under Corbyn is not the way to realistically win a national election. “I’m not saying that I think you can just go back to the ‘third way,’ ” he says. “But I think you have to start from that position, which is basically how do you reconcile economic efficiency with social justice.”
For others, Corbyn’s pledges for higher taxes and increased social spending takes the party back to its origins. His supporters feel vindicated by the turn in polls and the growth in party membership to about half a million today, many of them young Brits. “I think it is fair to say that the Labour party is in a kind of crisis but it is actually a very creative crisis,” says Martin Wright, a professor of British and Welsh history at the University of Cardiff. “We are seeing for the first time in a generation a genuine ideological choice within British politics.”
Ms. Hodgson is one Welsh resident who has been reinvigorated by the new Labour leadership. A party lifer, she left it in disgust over Blair’s invasion of Iraq. It was only a decade and a half later when Corbyn took over that she rejoined because she simply believes in his “sense of right and wrong.”
She says Merthyr Tydfil needs to stop “harping on its post-industrial past,” same as the Labour party needs to adapt to the era. That might seem ironic, she agrees, since Corbyn is charged with taking Britain “back to the ’70s.” But for Hodgson, it makes sense as a path forward.
“I think we can take the best of the past,” she says, “and use it to inform the future.”