What do Labour’s Facebook ads tell us about which Senedd seats they’re targeting?
Ifan Morgan Jones
Facebook’s dominance as a tool of political campaigning is usually mentioned only in a negative way.
Raise the topic and you will usually be reminded of Brexit and Trump, both political victories blamed to a large extent on Facebook’s ability to micro-target audiences with specific and sometimes contradictory messages.
But Facebook can also offer us a degree of insight into a political campaign’s activity that wasn’t previously available to us.
Most specifically, it allows us to see exactly what ads a political campaign is running, where, how much is being spent on them, and what they say.
This can give us some insight into what those campaigners are up to, what the target seats are and how they’re allocating resources towards them.
So in this spirit let us look at the ads currently being run by the political parties in Wales and what they say about what they see as their prospects at the start of the campaign.
In this first article, we’ll have a look at Welsh Labour, who are currently running a large number of Facebook ads launched yesterday and at the end of March.
One ad is about postal voting – not surprising given the pandemic – and the other about increasing police numbers, which is perhaps a more unusual choice for Labour but may be partly focused on the PCC elections which happen the same day as the Senedd ones.
What is more striking about these ads is not as much what is in them but where they’re being targeted.
There are mainly being run in seats where Labour are the incumbents and are defending them from the Tories, including Newport West, Wrexham, Vale of Glamorgan, Bridgend, Cardiff North, Delyn, Clwyd South, Vale of Clwyd and Gower.
There’s nothing particularly surprising there, although the inclusion of Newport West is interesting. This is a relatively safe seat at Senedd level which Labour held even at the 2019 Westminster election and its inclusion may suggest that Labour are worried that the Conservatives’ M4 bypass campaign may have traction.
The inclusion of Delyn and Clwyd South are also notable. These are at the outer end of what the Conservatives are expected to win on a very good night for them. It suggests that Labour are fearful of a repeat of December 2019 when the much-hyped ‘red wall’ in the north-east of Wales collapsed.
There are also a few Plaid Cymru target seats thrown into the mix. Cardiff West, Blaenau Gwent and Llanelli all have Labour ads running in them. And they are probably right to be on defensive manoeuvres in Llanelli and Caerphilly.
The inclusion of Cardiff West and Blaenau Gwent however suggests that the party perhaps doesn’t quite believe its own message that Plaid Cymru is in disarray there.
Interestingly, they’re only spending £100-200 in ads in Caerphilly compared with £200-300 in Blaenau Gwent and Cardiff West and £300-400 in Llanelli. This is despite, for me, Caerphilly being the more likely seat to fall to Plaid Cymru.
It’s worth noting that out of the 17 seats in which they’re advertising, 14 are defensive efforts. The election of May 6 will see Labour man the barricades and try to protect their existing 29 seats as best they can.
What is perhaps most interesting however is the four seats they do not hold at the moment that they have chosen to target with these ads. They are Monmouth, Rhondda, and Preseli Pembrokeshire.
It’s notable that there is no Aberconwy here. Despite it being on paper their top target seat, Labour are in third place and it looks like they’re going to let Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives slug it out there. There’s no Arfon either.
The inclusion of Preseli Pembrokeshire over Carmarthen West and Pembrokeshire South is also very interesting.
On paper, you would think that with Carmarthen West and Pembrokeshire South’s incumbent Angela Burns stepping down Labour would have better fancied their chances there.
They also need a slightly smaller swing to take Carmarthen West and Pembrokeshire South than Preseli Pembrokeshire.
Perhaps they are betting that Preseli Pembrokeshire MS’ Paul Davies’ recent high-profile resignation as Welsh Conservative leader offers an opportunity to take the seat?
Most interestingly of all, Preseli Pembrokeshire is one of only three seats, alongside Llanelli, Vale of Clwyd and Gower, in which they’re spending over £300 on ads at the moment.
The Rhondda is an obvious target seat for Labour as they only unexpectedly lost it in 2016.
Although former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood’s margin is on paper quite comfortable, Plaid failed to make a dent here at the 2017 and 2019 General elections.
Plaid won Rhondda at the 1999 Assembly election and then lost it with a big 21.7% swing at the next election, and Labour will be hoping for a repeat of that feat.
The most interesting inclusion by far here is Monmouth. Labour need a big 8.20% swing here to win and on paper, it should be beyond them.
However, the incumbent Conservative Senedd Member Nick Ramsay has announced that he is standing here as an independent which could split the Tory votes.
Perhaps Welsh Labour agree, as I argued here, that they now have a chance of winning the seat.
However, they are only spending £100 on ads here, less than every other seat, which suggests that while they may believe it’s possible they’re not ready to divert any major funds yet.
It is still of course early days in the campaign and the seats targeted by Labour could well change as the election goes on as polling, both public and private, and canvassing gives them some indication of where their weak points are.
However these Facebook ads do provide a surprising and revealing glimpse at where the bulk of their efforts will be targeted over the next month until we all vote on 6th May.