Labour, Plaid Cymru or the Conservatives – who has had the better Senedd campaign?
Ifan Morgan Jones
It may seem a tad early to write an article about which political parties have had good or bad campaigns before the polls even close.
But knowing the results is cheating a bit – and could skew our interpretation one way or another.
Winning parties are always considered to have had good campaigns and losing parties poor ones, when that may not really be the case.
Also, campaigns might feel like marathons but parties don’t always begin from the same starting line. One party can start in a stronger position, have a terrible campaign, but still win (the Tories in the 2017 General Election comes to mind).
The truth I think is that Labour probably had the election won before the campaign even started, and didn’t need to do much in the last month apart from not blow a sizeable lead.
That doesn’t mean that Labour are undeserved winners coasting to victory – they won the election over the last year by being brave enough to diverge significantly from the UK Government and put Mark Drakeford up every week in a press conference to argue his case.
This could have been a disaster. Drakeford isn’t the most charismatic of figures and his decisions could very well have been very unpopular with the people of Wales (and some of them were).
Labour could well have decided back in March of last year just stick with the UK Government’s decisions on Covid and not differentiate at all.
But they didn’t. It was a popular move and going into this election Mark Drakeford was the most well-liked and well-known political party leader in Wales.
Labour will still likely lose seats, as its electoral trajectory across the UK has been downwards since 2016. But it likely won’t be as bad as it would have been.
As a result of having the election largely ‘in the bag’ before it started, Labour have had a relatively quiet, safety first campaign.
Their manifesto promised little, knowing perhaps that they will be in a minority government after the election and unable to deliver on much of it.
But their key line – ‘if you value it, vote for it’ – made sense to voters and, in truth, despite their record on the NHS in Wales, health is the one subject where the voters tend to think they’re a safe pair of hands.
Overall, therefore, it’s been an unshowy campaign by Welsh Labour but they have not had to do much apart from put Drakeford in a red jumper and ferry him from swing seat to swing seat charming the crowds, while the Labour GOTV machine rumbles on under the surface.
If Covid-19 boosted Welsh Labour’s campaign, then I think it will have been more of a headache for Plaid Cymru.
This is a party that can’t rely on endless press coverage as Labour and the Conservatives do and therefore needs a strong ground game to shift seats.
This year of course the window for campaigning was seriously curtailed due firstly to Covid-19 restrictions and then, as soon as the campaign finally got going, the death of Prince Philip.
Another problematic element for Plaid is that they seem to have planned to juxtapose their more passionate orator Adam Price with the more staid Mark Drakeford.
However with the lack of face to face or public campaigning Adam Price’s skills largely went to waste while Mark Drakeford became a household name due to his Covid-19 briefings.
Added to all of this is the fact that Covid-19 itself never felt like a subject on which Plaid Cymru had that much to say that was different to Labour, because Labour behaved almost entirely as Plaid would have done under the same circumstances.
Mark Drakeford decries nationalism but in a practical sense the Labour government behaved throughout the pandemic as a nationalist government would. You don’t get much more nationalist, in practice, than closing off the border of your country for months at a time.
As a result Labour not so much put its tanks on Plaid Cymru’s lawn as rolled over the top of their house.
All of this may well mean that this could be an election to forget for Plaid Cymru. But in other respects, I think Plaid Cymru essentially had quite a good campaign.
Leader Adam Price performed strongly when he needed to at the debates, and Plaid seemed to be the busiest of all the parties in feeding the press with new lines and ideas to report on.
There was also a message discipline to the campaign that I haven’t seen before from them, with key themes repeated over and over.
One concern however will be with the manifesto. It was just too big and too full of ideas, and Adam Price seemed to struggle to remember how to counter criticisms of individual points when they came up in the debates.
Labour’s key pledges may have been less ambitious, but political campaigning is at least 90% about repetition. Sometimes a few big ideas work better than a hundred ones quickly forgotten.
As with Plaid Cymru and Labour I think the dye was cast for the Tories’ campaign before the election began.
I continue to think it was a strategic error for the Conservatives to oppose everything the Welsh Government did on Covid-19 when the opinion polls continued to stubbornly suggested that the public backed Labour.
But as Plaid Cymru showed, not differentiating yourselves on the biggest issue of the day has electoral costs too, so perhaps the Conservatives simply had no good options.
If the Conservatives do have a good election it will, I think, be mainly to do with elements that are out of their hands – most specifically the vaccine bounce that the UK Government is enjoying.
Alternatively, if they do have a poor result it will again be due to matters beyond their control – most specifically the scandals that are currently engulfing Westminster.
The final results might be somewhere in the middle. A few gains in seats such as the Vale of Glamorgan and Vale of Clwyd but not too much to crow too much about.
The Conservatives’ campaign itself I think however was a well-run one. They seemed to hit the campaign trail with more vigour than in the past and had a number of eye-catching policies.
Their manifesto was I think the best put together of all the main parties and tacked left on many issues such as free prescriptions, putting electoral success above ideology.
Andrew RT Davies’ public appearances however were rather less successful. Whatever CCHQ’s media team has done to him, they need to put him back as he was. The jolly farmer of 2016 has been replaced by a robotic auctioneer. Just let him be himself.
Of course, Conservative voters are probably the least interested in Senedd elections of all the main parties, and tend to vote in much lower numbers at Welsh elections than at Westminster ones.
The main challenge of the Conservatives’ campaign therefore will be not in convincing people to back them but in getting those who do back them out to vote in the first place.