The four issues on which the 2021 Senedd election will be won and lost

West Clwyd and Aberconwy Count for the National Assembly Election 5 May 2016. Darren Millar (middle) and Janet Finch-Saunders (left); both elected as Conservative AMs. Picture by Llywelyn2000 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Ioan Phillips

In just over six months, Wales will have a new Senedd – and as 2020 draws to a close, the battle lines for next May’s elections are quickly becoming apparent.

The Conservatives will be looking to repeat their success at the 2019 General Election when they took a swathe of seats across the north of Wales, such as Wrexham, and also make inroads across the M4 corridor in places like the Vale of Glamorgan.

Plaid Cymru meanwhile will be looking to chip into Labour’s majority in seats such as Llanelli and Caerphilly and make further gains across the valleys after success in the Rhondda in 2016.

Labour meanwhile look ready to mount a defensive operation – but may also want to show that they’re making real mid-term progress under new leadership.

With tight contests all over Wales, here are four of the issues on which the election will be won and lost:

Covid-19 vaccination. Picture by the Welsh Government.

COVID-19

Debate over the measures taken to combat COVID-19 will predominate. Labour has already set about contrasting the methodical restraint of Mark Drakeford’s approach – which has widespread public support amongst Welsh voters – with the vague inconsistency of Boris Johnson.

In response, Labour’s opponents will try to argue that its restrictions have led to disproportionately adverse impacts on economic and other healthcare outcomes. Articulating this proposition leaves the Conservatives particularly exposed – as was illustrated by their acquiescence to England’s adoption of a Wales-style firebreak lockdown.

Picture by @mark4leader/Twitter.

Labour’s record

The opposition parties would probably also like 2021 to be framed as a wider judgement on Labour’s two decades in power. Expect, then, to see the re-emergence of soundbite and statistics about PISA tests and waiting lists.

Yet – as Nation’s editor has demonstrated – parties’ performance in Senedd election is often mostly determined by their performance at a UK level (Plaid Cymru aside, obviously). On that basis, Labour may well seek to utilise the popularity of Westminister leader, Sir Keir Starmer, alongside that of Mark Drakeford.

Lluniau gan / Pictures by Lluniau Lleucu

Independence

The paradox here is that while UK politics will undoubtedly influence the shape of 2021, these elections will see discourse around Wales’ constitutional future loom larger than ever before.

Whether the increased prominence of Welsh independence benefits Plaid Cymru is an open question. It is true that support for leaving the UK has spiked, reaching 33% in one recent opinion poll. It is also true, however, that Plaid’s support in Senedd polling has not grown in line with this trend (remaining stuck at the mid-20% mark).

Plaid has work to do in the months ahead to persuade individuals in the so-called “soft-indy” and “indy-curious” demographic – a sizeable number of whom support other left-wing parties – to lend it their votes next May.

The Siambr at the Senedd building

Coalitions

The psephology points to the most competitive Senedd elections since 2007’s inconclusive thriller.

Labour’s poll lead endures, but it will likely lose seats. Under this scenario, co-operation between the Conservatives and Plaid could unseat Labour. However, such an outcome – which very nearly happened in 2007 – is highly unlikely, due to the Conservatives’ embrace of Brexit and devoscepticism.

This electoral landscape leaves the minor parties current in the Senedd facing a struggle to retain their seats. If any of these managed to do so, it would certainly add an intriguing dimension to talk around potential coalition combinations.

As we’ve seen in recent Westminster elections, threatening the public with unpopular coalitions can be a key electoral tool when it comes to retaining power.

If there is one lesson to take from 2020 in Welsh politics, then it is to expect the unexpected – a state of affairs that can only be positive for public interest in our young democracy.

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