Bumpy ride as we head towards 5 May

John Osmond ponders how the parties will fair in the run-up to the May Assembly election

In the wake of the referendum where do the parties stand as they gear up for the May Assembly election?

Welsh Labour is the most confident, basking in the comfort zone of a Conservative-led London government cutting services in Wales. It reckons the referendum was won as a result of this political dynamic. Now it is anticipating the momentum will propel it towards an overall majority for the first time in the short history of democratic devolution. It’s not impossible that this could happen but it is not probable either. For Labour to win the magic number of 31 seats it needs it not only has to hold on to its own marginals – like the Vale of Glamorgan (majority 83), and Vale of Clwyd (majority 92) – but win all of its target seats.

There is a widespread consensus that Labour will win back Blaenau Gwent, where the People’ Voice Independent candidate Trish Law will not be standing this time. Assuming it holds on to all its present seats that would take its tally to 27. Its most marginal target seat is Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Conservative majority 98) but if it wins this it will lose its Mid and West Wales Regional List seat. So to get to 31 seats it would need to win Clwyd West (Conservative majority 1,596), Cardiff North (Conservative majority 4,844), and Cardiff Central (Liberal Democrat majority 6,565) and Preseli Pembrokeshire (Conservative majority 3,205). It could be in with a chance of winning Aberconwy from Plaid but would have to leapfrog over the Conservatives in second place to do so.

As I say, all this is not impossible but a big ask. First Minister Carwyn Jones has made it clear that he does not want to run with a minority Government, as Rhodri Morgan did after the 2003 election when Labour won 30 seats. If he won 31 seats he would probably try for a while to operate without a coalition partner but it would not be difficult to sustain over a four year and possibly five-year period. The latter may happen if the election is put back so as not to clash with the UK General Election in 2015.

Plaid Cymru’s difficulty going into the election will be to differentiate itself from Labour. The temptation for Plaid candidates will be to follow the Labour line and pursue the anti-cuts agenda. If they do that they will surely be inundated by the anti-Tory tide that will be flowing Labour’s way.

Plaid Cymru’s only chance is to strike out with some bold policy initiatives that can be sold as attainable within the envelope of the Assembly’s shrinking budget. Devising these and then packaging and presenting them in a way that captures the electorate’s imagination will be as difficult a task as the one facing Labour in achieving a majority. As it is, Plaid will do well to hold on to the 15 seats the party won in 2007, including winning back the South-East Wales List seat it lost as a result of Mohammed Asghar’s defection to the Conservatives.

The Welsh Conservative’s major problem is being tied to David Cameron’s London government, even though they’ve done their best, in the Assembly at least, to loosen the link. In the immediate wake of the 2007 election they looked set fair to capture a swathe of newly marginal seats such as the Vale of Glamorgan, Vale of Clwyd, Delyn, Clwyd South, and even possibly Gower and Swansea West. In today’s climate, however, this looks far less likely. Again the Conservatives will do well to hold back Labour and hang on to their existing seats.

As for the Liberal Democrats, they look to be in the trickiest spot of all the parties, since they face meltdown. They are likely to lose two of their six seats and could lose four. Their North Wales and South East Wales Regional List seats look vulnerable. Meanwhile, Labour is targeting Cardiff Central and the Conservatives are eyeing Montgomery which they captured in last year’s general election. Of course, the irony in Montgomery, is that if the Conservatives were to win it they would probably lose their Assembly leader Nick Bourne’s Mid and West Wales List seat.

So, what am I rashly – this far away from 6 May – predicting as the likely outcome of the 2011 Assembly election? Given that some gains by the parties in first-past-the-post seats will be countered by consequent loses in List seats the result could be: Labour 30, Plaid 14, Conservatives 12, and Liberal Democrats 4.

On that result we would be looking at a mark II One Wales coalition agreement between Labour and Plaid, negotiated in the wake of the election.

This, it seems to me, is a conservative prediction, based on a lack of time between now and May for the London Government’s deficit reduction policies to really bite. On the other hand if they do, then expect a much more unstable political climate, and a bumpier ride towards the formation of the fourth term Welsh Government.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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