Another British General Election in Wales?

Daran Hill explores the rise of UK issues impacting on the upcoming Assembly election.

Having asserted previously that the voting patterns in Wales and England are becoming ever closer, there was one feature of last year’s General Election in Wales which demonstrated a specific “Welshness” emerging. That was, as reported to me across the party spectrum, the fact that the performance of the Welsh Government was a feature on the doorstep for many parties last May. This meant that for the first time issues around public service delivery by the Welsh Government were contaminating a UK General Eleciton.

There is of course an element of delayed swings and roundabouts to this, because in every Assembly election we’ve ever had it’s been the performance of the UK Government that has been the biggest determinant of voting intention rather than the performance of the Welsh Government. This Labour’s problems over the second Iraq War and the dying days of the Blair government both impacted disproportionately on the Welsh electorate. Indeed, at the time of the last Assembly election Welsh Labour was playing this game too and actively encouraging voters to support it in “defending Wales” from the Conservative UK government rather than putting its own record centre stage.

For the last ten months I was naïve enough to assume that the days where UK political issues were the determining factor in Welsh elections were behind us. It was a silly and wrong headed assumption to make because for the last few weeks it has been the UK political agenda which has dominated the election campaign as opposed to a specifically Welsh one. The biggest demonstration of this has been the way the two governments have been judged over TATA steel. This week’s opinion poll clearly showed that it’s the UK Government that has been judged most harshly over its performance and response, with a linked drop in Conservative poll ratings. Of course the Welsh Government has been in the spotlight, but it is the narrative relentlessly pressed by Welsh Labour that Sajid Javid et al have not done enough which has been cutting through with the electorate.

That this polling took place between 7th and 11th of April also emphasises another element where the UK political story has resonated, and that’s in relation to the fallout from the Panama papers and the pressure put on David Cameron thereafter. By every measure, including Welsh polling, this was not handled well by the UK Government. Its repercussions have been felt directly in a series of recent tax disclosures from Carwyn Jones and Leanne Wood amongst others, clear proof that Welsh politicians are responding to a story set by the UK media and UK political agenda.

Further – and this is a long term impact – the European referendum campaign is also influencing the nature of the Assembly election. Many people decried the holding of the two ballots so close together, but several key political actors who professed strong unhappiness with the arrangements have also been guilty for focusing on Europe too at the expense of Welsh issues. Thus Carwyn Jones has already chosen to talk to two leading newspapers during this Assembly election campaign about his fears for what Brexit might mean for Wales, hardly the behaviour of a leader who wants to keep the election focused on Wales.

Meanwhile Andrew RT Davies went even further and put the whole issue of Europe in centre stage spotlight just as the election campaign was beginning by backing an out vote. Nothing could be more guaranteed to make sure the spotlight moved away from the Welsh Government and on to splits in the Conservative Party. The damaging consequences were quickly manifest at Welsh Conservative conference in Llangollen, where the Prime Minister wasted a prime opportunity to focus on Welsh issues and instead delivered a tub thumper on Europe which left even pro-Europeans in his party feeling uneasy and a little angry.

Thus European splits directly fuelled by the Welsh Conservatives, coupled with the less than helpful background noise of TATA and tax disclosures, has changed the tone of this election campaign. The first half of the battle has been waged on anything but the performance of the Welsh Government on public service delivery, which delivered so well for the Conservatives last May.

The last four weeks has been far more “For Wales, See England” than I had anticipated. Unless the narrative changes then 2016 will have far more in common with 2011 than it does with 2015.

Daran Hill is MD of Positif.

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