A glut of polls – but what do they tell us? The three long-term trends that matter
Ifan Morgan Jones
“So life in the Shire goes on, very much as it has this past Age… full of its own comings and goings, with change coming slowly, if it comes at all.”
This is Bilbo Baggins’ description of his home county in the Lord of the Rings, but it could also be an apt description for the Welsh political landscape.
Even after all the tumult of the last five years – Brexit and Covid-19 – the latest polls for the Senedd election see us landing back squarely almost exactly where we were before.
One poll this week, by BBC/ICM, had Labour on course for a comfortable 30 seat victory while another, by WalesOnline/YouGov, had them struggling to gain any more than 24.
But despite the eye-catching difference between these polls, they, and every one conducted in the last five years, are clear on one thing – that Welsh Labour are on course to win the Senedd election in May.
The only real question is the one we always have to ask at Senedd elections – will they be able to go it alone or will they have to cobble some kind of coalition/deal together with other parties?
You could argue that there are only three definite trends to be seen in the polls over the 20 year lifetime of devolution that actually matter.
Number one is the decline of the Liberal Democrats. From being just big enough to win regional seats across Wales they became just small enough to lose them all.
For the first time at this Senedd election we face the very real prospect of no Liberal Democrats being elected at all. And once they lose that electoral foothold in rural mid-Wales, it’s hard to see them getting it back, especially with the party changing into something younger, more urban and left-wing.
The number two trend is the decline in support for weakening or abolishing the Senedd. This seems counter-intuitive at the moment with all the noise around the Abolish the Assembly party. But it is just that at the moment – noise.
If you look at the St. David’s Day poll, which gives us a long term, ten year view, the combined vote of those wanting fewer powers or no Senedd at all was 32% ten years ago.
Today it has polarised more on the abolish end but has fallen to almost half that – 18%.
This is no real surprise as polls always show that the youngest, those who grew up under devolution, are keener on it than the older generation who first voted around the time of the ‘79 referendum.
This year’s St. David’s Day poll was a key one for the abolish brigade because Covid-19 has woken people up to the reality of devolution to such an extent that if they were going to reject it, this would have been the moment. Instead support for abolishing the institution has gone up an entire 1% on February 2020.
The irony is that, having set up a single issue party on the subject, Abolish the Assembly might eek out a handful of members at the exact point where any real chance of overturning devolution through democratic means disappears over the horizon. They will claim that this is progress. It is not.
Number three and the only other trend that matters is the one towards independence. As today’s poll showing a record 39% support shows, this isn’t an issue that is going away in a hurry.
This poll might well be an outlier, but that’s how all trends start – with outlier polls that, if the movement continues to gain momentum, quickly turn into the norm.
Despite previously polling at a similar level to abolishing the Senedd, the difference independence has always had is momentum – it’s adherents trend young and the movement has 17,000 members, huge marches and pocketfuls of cash to spend.
However, the St. David’s Day poll does strike a note of caution. It’s noteworthy there that while the pro-independence vote has risen from 3% to 14% in September 2014 to today, this has mainly been achieved by eating into the pro-‘more powers’ vote, which has fallen from 49% to 35% in the same period.
What this suggests is that a lot of people who were keener on more powers for the Senedd anyway are now, thanks to Brexit and Covid, grasping for the ejector button altogether.
Meanwhile, the status quo, stick with things as they are cohort remain largely unmoved, their numbers bolstered by those who longer want to see the institution weakened.
But with don’t knows removed, those who want independence and those who want more powers still make up the majority in Wales. This suggests that the long-term direction of travel – if the democratic will of the people of Wales is respected – remains towards further autonomy for Wales, whether we hit the ejector button or not.
So, three trends – the decline of the Liberal Democrats, a fall in opposition to devolution, and a rise in support for independence but by those who generally wanted more powers anyway.
The thing is however that neither of these trends are likely to make any practical difference to the outcome of the Senedd election in May.
There is no doubt that the party that could take the greatest advantage of this shift is Plaid Cymru.
They could leverage changing attitudes to the constitutional question to win more seats. They could use the decline of the Lib Dems to exert more influence over Wales’ parliament and government.
However as well as Labour’s consistent lead in the polls the only other near certainty in every poll since the early 2000s is that Plaid Cymru will be on 20% or thereabouts.
Unless that changes any time soon, in practice, political life in Wales is likely to go on, very much as it has this past political age…
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