Ifan Morgan Jones
This morning Professor Roger Awan-Scully of Cardiff University published his latest Welsh YouGov poll, and it was as expected (given the state of the UK-wide polls) a very good one for the Conservatives.
The Westminster numbers were eye-catching but what really caught my attention was the prediction that the Conservatives would win more of the vote than Labour at the Senedd elections.
Now, it’s important of course to remember that these polls are projections of how the vote would go now, not predictions of how the vote will go in May of next year when Wales does go to the polls.
We should also keep in mind that Boris Johnson’s newly elected government is enjoying something of a honeymoon while Labour is at its lowest electoral ebb in some 80 years or so.
As it becomes apparent over the next few months that Brexit is far from ‘done’ and as Labour elect a new leader (probably Keir Starmer who in my opinion is likely to be far more palatable to the electorate than Corbyn) we will likely see Labour overtake the Conservatives once more.
We should also keep in mind that proportional representation means that the Senedd isn’t ‘winner takes all’ in the same way as Westminster.
Even if they did reach 32% of the vote in Wales the Conservatives would only hold 22 of the 60 seats at the Senedd, with the left-wing and centrist parties projected to take the other 38.
However, it does look as if the coming Senedd campaign leading up to the 2021 election is going to be much more competitive than it has been in the past with three parties who can realistically be said to be ‘in it to win it’.
If the result of this poll was replicated at a Senedd election it would place Labour on 24 seats, the Conservatives on 22 seats, and Plaid Cymru on 13 seats.
If you set aside your own preference for one party or another, this can only be a healthy thing for Welsh devolution. There are four main reasons for this.
Firstly, a truly competitive Senedd will be good for public interest in what will be by 2021 be a real Welsh parliament – something Welsh devolution has struggled to generate so far.
The lack of public knowledge about the Senedd isn’t just because of a lack of Welsh media, but also because 20 years of dominance by one party can be more than a little boring.
We may decry journalists’ focus on the ‘horse race’ rather than policies, but at the end of the day it is the conflict between parties and personalities which attracts the most public interest in politics. But if you can get the public interested in the daily soap opera of politics their interest in and knowledge of the key political issues debated at the Senedd will follow.
Secondly, a more competitive Senedd will encourage the parties themselves to pull their socks up.
The real prospect of overturning Labour at an election will energise not just the politicians in the opposition parties, but their supporters as well. You’re much more likely to engage with politics and invest time and effort in a campaign if there’s a real prospect of victory, or indeed a danger of imminent defeat.
Thirdly, after 10 years of the Labour party governing alone (with one Lib Dem) it would ensure that the sixth Senedd and Welsh Government gets a badly-needed injection of new blood and new ideas.
It would mean that at the very least a Labour government would have to work together with at least one of the other parties to get anything done.
Paradoxically, the biggest winners from a better Conservative performance are likely to be Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats – if they can regain some ground in Wales.
A ‘rainbow coalition’ seems unlikely but Labour would likely have to turn to one or the other in order to maintain a functioning government.
Not only would a closer result therefore mean a significant amount of churn in terms of those elected to the Senedd but also those in key posts within the government itself.
Last but not least, it could also lead to better government. Over the last 20 years Labour have become, understandably, a very cautious administration.
In opposition at Westminster Labour has developed into a truly radical party, brimming with ideas (even if they’ve been bad at selling them to the electorate).
We have however seen little of that radicalism in Cardiff Bay, because there has been very little incentive to be radical when a steady as she goes approach has worked for over two decades.
A more competitive Senedd will be good for everyone – not least the current party of government. A little competition and more scrutiny will keep them on their toes. To stay in power they will have to shift into a higher gear than they have been cruising on so far.
The truth is that over the last 20 Welsh devolution has become politically stagnant. Anything that makes a few waves in Cardiff Bay’s still waters is ultimately likely to be a good thing.