Tonight’s big BBC debate is the last chance for Adam Price to change the race
Ifan Morgan Jones
It’s become something of a cliché to start every opinion piece on election debates by smugly declaring that they don’t actually make any difference.
Analysis of even Presidential Debates in the US which are regularly watched by almost half the electorate have been shown to only shift the polls a percentage point or two.
In the case of Senedd elections, the audience and therefore the impact could be smaller still – though with such tight margins across so many constituencies in this election, perhaps significant.
Analysis by Professor Roger Scully of the 2016 television debates found that they “may have made the difference between Leanne Wood now being the Leader of the Opposition in the chamber or that position still being occupied by Andrew RT Davies”.
Let us, therefore, lean in the direction of hyping the significance of this debate up a little bit (God knows that this plodding, low-key election campaign needs some sense of import), and posit it as something of a make or break opportunity, particularly for Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price.
So far, with the polling inching in their direction, and the Conservatives engulfed by scandal at Westminster, I think Welsh Labour would be perfectly happy to have an event and, from a Welsh perspective, news-free last week of campaigning.
Plaid Cymru meanwhile, who have been pegged at around their usual ~21% in the polls, need something just to get them over the line in those key target seats and be able to declare this election a step in the right direction.
This is really one of the few opportunities they will have to do so as the pandemic has really stopped them from waging the kind of campaign they would have liked, with leader Adam Price front and centre.
Adam Price is first and foremost a passionate orator, with an almost nonconformist preacher quality when he properly gets going.
Plaid Cymru would really have wanted more opportunities to gain momentum and juxtapose him with Mark Drakeford’s steady as she goes, firm hand on the tiller approach, and peel away Labour voters who might fancy giving Plaid a run instead.
The two parties may ideologically be very similar – apart from their approaches to constitutional questions – but what Plaid Cymru are trying to offer is a change of mindset.
They want to disrupt the regular, reliable rhythm of the past 20 years and show voters that they will tackle Wales’ deep-seated problems with a sense of urgency.
In that way, the character of the two party leaders is almost a perfect mirror of their different parties. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it vs it could be made to work an awful lot better if we pulled our socks up.
This debate is really the last chance for Adam Price, before the election next week, to make his mark in the way that those who elected him leader back in 2018 would have expected.
If the 2016 debates are any guide then fewer Conservatives will be tuning in than Labour and Plaid voters and that could mean that the debate is of slightly less significance to them.
But like Labour, this may primarily be a defensive debate for their leader too. And not just because Andrew RT Davies may be called upon to defend the scandals that are dominating Westminster at the moment.
As the one other party that could exploit the debate to their advantage is Abolish the Assembly. They’re a party who probably don’t deserve to be there in the first place having never won an election anywhere, aren’t even standing in every seat like many of the other smaller parties are, and scored 0% in some recent polls – but the BBC have inexplicably handed them the opportunity regardless.
However well leader Richard Suchorzewski performs – and rival party will no doubt want to score a Facebook-friendly put down to put on social media – just being on stage will no doubt be a boost for them.
And the party with the most to lose from their presence are, no doubt, the Conservatives. According to the latest YouGov poll, a whopping 62% of Tory voters would gladly transfer all power back to the UK Parliament – perhaps not surprising since they are in charge there and have little chance of winning here.
So as well as hitting Labour, Andrew RT Davies will also need to watch his devo-skeptic flank as any questions about Wales’ constitutional future may be a tricky balancing act for him.
He would also do well to forget whichever piece of media training advice has made him speak like an auctioneer and go back to the more normal cadence we saw at the 2016 election, even if he can’t fit in the whole answer every time.
Like Abolish the Assembly, the Lib Dems might well just be happy to be there and remind the world that they exist.
To their credit and advantage perhaps will be the fact that Jane Dodds will be the only female leader on stage. In her Ask the Leader interview she also came across as a level-headed, unflappable presence.
If the debate descends into the kind of heated, testosterone-fuelled squabbling we saw during the ITV encounter she may well be able to attract voters who want a sensible, centrist option that is above the fray.
It may not bag them many constituencies but it could give them the boost they need on the regional list to grab a final elusive list seats, and save them from complete political extinction in Wales to fight another day.
But perhaps more important than what this debate tells voters about any individual party however is what it will tell them about the quality of Welsh politics.
Unfortunately, this debate is probably going to be the biggest and perhaps only event of major significance in this race between now and polling day.
It’s the Senedd’s shop window and the only time many of those watching will engage with Welsh politics throughout the five-year cycle.
Let’s hope therefore above all for a good debate, and not an embarrassing quarrel or a snooze fest, if not for the sake of any political party, then for the sake of Welsh politics as a whole.
The BBC Wales Leaders’ Debate will be broadcast on BBC One Wales at 8:30pm tonight, Thursday 29 April and on the BBC iPlayer.