Opinion

Why this is the most unpredictable – and exciting – Senedd election so far

12 Apr 2021 6 minutes Read
Mark Drakeford. Picture by Christopher Jones / Alamy Stock Photo. Adam Price. Credit: Euan Cherry/WENN. Senedd Cymru. Andrew RT Davies picture by Senedd Cymru (CC BY 2.0).

Ifan Morgan Jones

Today the Senedd election campaign will (finally) enter full swing as the coronavirus restrictions on canvassing are lifted and parties un-suspend their campaigns following the death of Prince Philip on Friday.

Under such onerous circumstances, the Senedd elections may struggle to get into gear and capture the public’s interest. What may help this time however is that the contest is, perhaps for the first time since ‘99, a little more unpredictable.

In all previous elections, Labour have gone in so certain of victory that the only real question was how big a victory would it be – as few a 25 seats or as many as 30?

If polls are to believed Labour are set to be the largest party again this year but there are three factors that, I think, make this election much harder to call.

What will the turnout be?

The elections to Wales’ Parliament struggle to garner much media attention at the best of times and this has been reflected in some quite poor turnout of the years of between 38 and 46%.

The different levels of turnout at Senedd and Westminster elections have had a big influence on the results. Plaid Cymru voters do tend to turn out for Senedd elections in similar numbers to Westminster elections, while Conservative voters are much more enthused by Westminster elections than Senedd ones.

However this year it’s hard to know in which direction the turnout is going to go. Will the Covid-19 restrictions and disruptions to the campaign lead to a lower overall turnout?

Or could the higher salience of devolved issues due to the measures the Welsh Government have taken during the pandemic lead to many more voters turning out than expected?

The pandemic could also influence who turns out. Could more libertarian and conservatives voters, angered by what some see as a more heavy-handed approach to lockdowns in Wales, be motivated to come out?

Or could an army of appreciative Labour voters turn out to give Mark Drakeford their seal of approval? Could the independence of mind from Westminster that the Welsh Government has demonstrated over the past year motivate indy-supporting Plaid Cymru voters?

With majorities in the low thousands in even some of the safest Senedd seats, any big change in who turns out could have a huge domino effect across a number of close seats.

A lower or higher turnout than usual could shift the dial in quite a significant way.

Will Wales begin to act like its own political sphere?

I wrote a year ago that what ultimately decides Senedd elections isn’t what happens in Wales, but rather what happens in London.

The popularity of Labour and the Conservatives in Cardiff Bay will tend to rise and fall depending on their popularity at Westminster.

If that pattern continues on May 6 then Welsh Labour could be in for a bad night and there may be very little that they can do about it.

UK-wide polls since the end of January have shown the UK Government enjoying a ‘vaccine bounce’ and stretching to a 5-10 point lead over a Labour party that had previously drawn level.

The question at this Senedd election however will be whether people will be willing to judge the Welsh Government on its own successes and failings, separately from UK Labour.

For the first time ever Welsh politics has not lacked for attention and publicity in the media, in Wales or across the UK. Everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that Welsh Government have been in charge here and many will be familiar with what measures they’ve taken.

So who gets the ‘end of lockdown bounce’ in Wales – the Welsh Government or the UK Government?

Since the beginning of the year, two different polls have suggested both different eventualities – ICM giving Labour a clear lead and YouGov showing them almost neck and neck with the Conservatives.

There are a lot of marginal seats out there

The 2016 elections promised big things in terms of seat changes but at the end of the day only one seat did change hands – which was the Rhondda.

However Labour only held on by the skin of their teeth in many constituencies and if either of the two opposition parties – or both – do see a rise in support a lot of seats could change at once.

Nine seats – Llanelli, Vale of Glamorgan, Blaenau Gwent, Vale of Clwyd, Caerphilly, Gower, Wrexham, Cardiff West and Cardiff North – only need a 5% swing to change hands.

With UKIP no longer splitting the Conservative vote Labour probably need to increase their support on 2016 to keep all of these seats, a tough ask after 20 years in government.

Backlash

The most likely result of the election at the moment – and we haven’t had the final polls – is a Labour victory in the 25-seat range.

It may well be that a few of these factors will cancel each other out – i.e. both Labour and the Conservatives will enjoy a ‘vaccine bounce’ from their own voters.

But it’s not hard to imagine that some of these factors could on the night lean heavily in favour of one party or another.

The real danger for the ruling Labour party is that Covid-19 causes an equal and opposite reaction from both ends.

That is, that their handling of the pandemic leads to a big turnout among those who think Wales would be better off handling its own affairs, giving Plaid Cymru a boost.

At the same time,a big backlash by those who have woken up to the reality of devolution and don’t like it, and go for the Conservatives as a protest vote.

Who knows how it will play out? At the moment, no one does, which is what makes this Senedd election a much more unpredictable and exciting one than usual.

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