Although efforts were made as early as 1911 to establish a Welsh version of the Independent Labour Party, it was not until May 1947, with the merger of the South Wales Regional Council of Labour and the constituency parties of north and mid Wales, that the Wales Labour Party was formed (as the Welsh Regional Council of Labour).
The formation of the new organisation reflected the consolidation of industrial and trade union power under Clement Attlee's 1945-1951 Government. The experience of the depression of the 1930s - when Welsh industry was particularly hard hit - had led Labour to develop an alaysis in which the Welsh economy was to be planned and structured on a national basis. An all-Wales party structure was created to reflect this re-alignment. Ironically, the commensurate changes in the machinery of government were not implemented until much later, reflecting a persistent ambivalence within Labour about "the National question".
Welsh Labour's predecessor bodies bequeathed it a formidable electoral inheritance, upon which it was to build still further. In the 1945 General Election the party won 25 of the 36 Welsh constituencies, gaining some 58% of the popular vote. Despite a swing away from Labour in the 1950 and 1951 General Elections in Britain as a whole, Welsh Labour gained both seats and vote share, pursuing a strategy of extending its appeal from its industrial base in the south and north east of Wales into the rural and Welsh speaking areas where the Liberal Party remained strong.
Despite remaining in opposition at Westminster throughout the 1950s, Welsh Labour polled in excess of 50% of the popular vote at each General Election, stacking up apparently impregnable majorities in its south Wales valleys heartlands. Aneurin Bevan, for example, was routinely returned to Parliament with 80% of the vote of his Ebbw Vale constituency, a pattern repeated in to a greater or lesser extent in some 15 seats throughout the area. Welsh Labour showed itself, both by its actions in local government and by its proposals for central government to be a practical, modernising party committed to investment in infrastructure, serious about providing jobs and improving public services.
At the 1964 General Election Welsh Labour polled some 58% of the vote and won 28 seats in Wales. The Wilson government gave Welsh Labour the opportunity to enact its long standing promise (galvanised by the Conservative Party government's appointment of a Minister of Welsh Affairs in the mid 1950s) to create the post of Secretary of State for Wales and a Welsh Office. The pattern of electoral hegemony seemed set to continue into the 1960s. At the 1966 General Election Welsh Labour's share topped 60%, gaining it all but 4 of Wales's 36 Parliamentary constituencies. Within three months, however, Gwynfor Evans sensationally captured Carmarthen for Plaid Cymru at a by-election, and the Nationalists came within a whisker of victory at the 1967 Rhondda West and 1968 Caerphilly by-elections, achieving huge swings against Labour of 30% and 40% respectively.
The emergence of Plaid Cymru (and the Scottish National Party) prompted the Wilson Government to establish the Kilbrandon Commission, leading in turn to Welsh Labour to once more consider the case for devolution - this time coming out in favour. Victory in the 1974 General Election pushed devolution onto the political agenda, culminating in the decisive vote against a Welsh Assembly in the 1979 referendum.
The Nationalist threat to the party's industrial heartland fell away in the 1970s. However, both Plaid Cymru and (to a greater extent) the Conservatives gained ground in Welsh-speaking and coastal Wales respectively, where Labour's roots were far more shallow. By the 1979 General Election Welsh Labour held 22 of the 36 Parliamentary seats, albeit with a 48% share.
This relative decline was, however, eclipsed by the dramatic collapse in Labour support at the 1983 General Election. In contrast to the 1950s, where a swing against Labour in Britain was not matched in Wales, Welsh voters showed themselves just as unwilling to endorse Michael Foot's markedly more left-wing manifesto. Welsh Labour polled a mere 37.5% of the popular vote, yielding 20 seats. A rampant Conservative Party, by contrast, captured 14 seats (including three of the four Cardiff constituencies) and exceeded 30% of the vote for the second election in succession. Welsh Labour's problems were further compounded by a strong SDP-Liberal Alliance performance, gaining 23% of the vote (albeit to little benefit in terms of seats) at what was to be the height of their success.
The miners' strike of 1984-5, appeared to present Welsh Labour with an electoral opportunity, despite the invidious position the nature of the action placed new leader Neil Kinnock in. At the 1987 General Election the party polled 45%, winning 24 seats, with a further two from the Conservatives at by elections in 1989 and 1991.
Equally, however, Conservative policy in Wales could also be deemed to have helped break the traditional compact between Welsh Labour and the Welsh electorate. On the one hand, the party was shown to be ineffective in the face of the psychologically traumatic restructuring (and de-industrialisation) of the Welsh economy. On the other, seemingly perpetual Conservative rule, on the basis of their electoral power outside of Wales, re-ignited the debate within Welsh Labour about devolution.
Under John Smith Labour committed itself to devolution for both Wales and Scotland, a commitment that survived his early death. By 1997, when Welsh Labour captured 34 of Wales's 40 seats, wiping out the Conservatives' Welsh representation and polling 55%, the stage was set for another devolution referendum, this time won by the narrowest of margins.
Less than two years later, at the first elections to the new Welsh Assembly Labour was again humbled in its heartlands by Plaid Cymru, losing such totemic seats as Islwyn, Llanelli and Rhondda (but nevertheless winning the largest number of seats). In the run-up to the elections, the party's nominee for First Secretary, Ron Davies had been forced to resign amid an alleged sex scandal. His replacement, Alun Michael, the new Secretary of State for Wales, was seen as a reluctant participant despite also having a long-standing commitment to Welsh devolution, and was widely regarded as being the choice of the UK leadership of the Labour Party. Labour won 28 of the 60 seats (20 being allocated via the Additional Member System) on 37% of the vote and a month later came within two and a half points of being pushed into second place for popular share by Plaid Cymru in elections to the European Parliament.
As in the 1970s, the Nationalist challenge then fell away, due in part to the replacement in 2000 of Alun Michael with Rhodri Morgan. Under Morgan's leadership, a coalition was formed with the Liberal Democrats that arguably brought a degree of stability to the administration. By 2003 Labour's share increased to 40% (on a marginally increased turnout) and the party gained 30 seats overall, allowing it to govern alone once more. By the 2005 General Election, the party's share fell back to 43% or 29 seats, with the Conservatives regaining a Parliamentary foothold in Wales.
Rhodri Morgan's administration has emphasised the difference in approach to public service provision between itself and that of Tony Blair's government. Specifically, Morgan has contrasted his administration's collaborative approach with that of the Blair government's focus on the introduction of competition in public services, an approach which Morgan argued placed insufficient emphasis on equality of outcome.. However, the party faced strong criticism for appearing to resile from its manifesto commitment to scrap home care charges for people with disabilities.
In the 2007 elections Welsh Labour's share of the vote fell to 32.2%, the second lowest share for the party in any Wales-wide polls since the UK General Election of 1923, and its number of seats fell by four (on 2003) to 26, 11 more than the second largest party, Plaid Cymru. On 25 May Rhodri Morgan was nominated as First Minister once again. On 27 June, Morgan concluded the historic One Wales agreement with Plaid Cymru, and it was later approved by the Labour party rank and file on 6 July.
Welsh Labour in the Assembly era
UK General Elections