Is the Senedd on a path to more devolution or a dissolution?
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The resonance, or otherwise, of constitutional issues will be a key factor in a dramatically unpredictable Senedd election
For those of us living in Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, it feels that Welsh devolved politics only makes it onto the radar of UK politicians when it’s given a kicking as part of the game of political football between the two main parties.
But it’s clear Covid-19 has brought devolution to the fore like never before and, in a few weeks, Wales will be voting for the next Welsh parliament in the first major UK election since the pandemic.
So why, despite fairly consistent opinion polls and a semi-proportional electoral system, is it shaping up to be the most unpredictable Welsh election we’ve ever had?
First, the newfound understanding of devolution and the handling of the coronavirus pandemic means that there is a heightened sense that this election really does matter. People now understand more clearly how decisions made by the Welsh government affect their everyday lives. Who they can meet, where they can go, what they can do.
Infamously, polls in previous years have shown that people in Wales didn’t understand devolution with less than half of the electorate knowing that the Welsh government ran the NHS in Wales.
In fairness, policy differences between Wales and the rest of the UK have rarely hit the headlines, but the response to Covid-19 has marked the most significant and high-profile public shift in approach since the inception of the National Assembly for Wales (as it was then) in 1999.
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The latest evidence shows that 59% of Welsh voters prefer the approach taken to the pandemic in Wales compared to the 13% of people who prefer England's approach.
Despite some high-profile hiccoughs, most notably around forbidding ‘non-essential’ purchases in October’s ‘firebreak’ lockdown, the population have generally supported the Welsh government’s more cautious approach to tackling the virus.
Curiously, this strong preference for the government’s approach to Covid-19 is not leading to a resurgence in the polls for Welsh Labour. If anything, it has been the Welsh Conservatives who have been gaining ground. This potentially reflects the momentum they have built up in so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats post-Brexit, and the natural fatigue facing any party that has been in power consistently for over 20 years.
Another effect of ‘Covid politics’ could well be the restrictions on door-knocking and canvassing that have only recently been lifted.
From 2011 to 2016, Plaid Cymru canvassers in the Rhondda knocked on every single door in the constituency and subsequently unseated the incumbent Labour candidate with a 24-point swing to the then leader of the party, Leanne Wood. But Covid restrictions have meant that any campaigning of this sort has had to be squeezed into just a few weeks.
With the majority of Welsh people receiving their news from outside of Wales, will parties who rely on a strong ground game to make up for their lack of UK media attention see their vote share diminish?
Second, turnout for this upcoming election is another reason why candidates filling county halls might be nervous despite what the latest poll might suggest.
For the first time, 16- and 17-year olds, together with qualifying foreign nationals, can now vote in Wales. This enfranchises over 100,000 new voters and, when trying to predict an outcome, adds another uncertain element to the election.
It’s common wisdom that low turnout is endemic amongst the young, but recent polling in Wales shows that the generation who have lived their whole lives under devolution might buck the trend.
A YouGov poll showed that 69% of 16-24 year olds say that the upcoming devolved elections are important – a higher proportion than in any other age group except the over 65s.
Another factor that could affect the make-up of the Welsh parliament is the salience of constitutional questions. Long considered a niche concern, Welsh independence has exploded onto the political consciousness of Wales with polls regularly showing that over a third of people now support the idea.
Devolution as it is, or with slightly more powers, is still the most popular choice when put in front of people, but Plaid Cymru will certainly hope that their promise of a referendum on Welsh independence will appeal to amenable Welsh Labour voters.
With Plaid Cymru’s top three target seats all requiring a swing of less than 2%, they will be doing their utmost to ensure the constitutional question is high on the minds of voters.
But the rise in support for independence has not been a one-way street. The debate in Wales is polarising, and the same polls also show that the single issue ‘Abolish the Welsh Assembly’ party are also on track to win a handful of seats in this election.
With the Welsh Conservatives refusing to rule out a post-election deal with the party, those looking for a referendum to dissolve the Welsh parliament are looking at their most influential election yet.
A key question for all of the parties is: how salient are constitutional issues to the average Welsh voter?
With independence or abolishing the Welsh parliament being much more emotive issues than ‘the same or slightly more devolved powers’, could this encourage supporters of those causes to turnout in higher numbers and squeeze Welsh Labour in the marginals?
And on top of all the national trends, tight margins in individual seats might also be a significant factor.
The Welsh Conservatives, the most vocal critics of first minister Mark Drakeford’s approach to the pandemic, will be aiming to build on their strong showing in the 2019 general election.
They’re hoping that decimating Labour’s Red Wall in Westminster seats will mean that constituencies in north Wales are ready to vote blue in a devolved election. Evidence shows that once voters have broken a habit of voting for a party, they’re more likely to break it again.
Their top five target seats all need less than a 5% swing for them to become Conservative. Could we see another shock in north Wales?
A bit further south in Brecon and Radnorshire, Kirsty Williams, a popular member of the senedd who has served since its inception, is standing down. The only Lib Dem elected in 2016, she served as education minister for five years in a Welsh Labour cabinet.
She has now passed the baton to former regional assembly member William Powell, who will contest the seat and hope to retain as much as possible of her 52% vote share. However, the recent swings between Lib Dems and Conservatives in Westminster by-elections and general elections suggest this will not be an easy hold for the party.
Taking all this into account, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the writing's on the wall for Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour. But history and the polls show that – barring a catastrophic day – they will continue to be the largest party on May 7. A post-election deal with Plaid Cymru is the most likely outcome, but how much of an upper hand Welsh Labour takes into those negotiations, and what programme for government emerges remains to be seen.
A more devo-aware electorate, motivated voters and the largest franchise Wales has ever seen. Welsh elections might have a reputation for being predictable – this one won’t be.
Auriol Miller is director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, Wales’ leading independent think tank
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