‘Known and unknown knowns’ of the Assembly election

Roger Scully analyses the prospects for the Welsh parties in next year’s contest

Inside the Senedd

Roger Scully is Director of the Institute of Welsh Politics, and Co-Director of the 2011 Welsh Election Study.

Many of the consequences of the general election of 2010 remain uncertain. It’s far from clear how the new government will work, or whether it will really be sustained for a five-year term. But we can be certain that elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales are less than a year away. Does 2010 give us any strong indication of what to expect in Wales for 2011?

For Labour, long Wales’s dominant party, 2010 managed to be simultaneously historically bad and unexpectedly good. As was widely noted, Labour’s vote share in 2010 was its lowest in Wales at a general election since 1918. This continued the trend across all recent elections in Wales for Labour’s support to decline. Yet Labour remained the dominant party in terms of parliamentary representation, with 26 of the 40 Welsh MPs.

As across much of the UK, Welsh Labour demonstrated a resilience in adversity that confounded both its opponents and the predictions of many pundits (myself included). By May 2011, Labour is likely to have a new and almost inevitably more popular UK leader, and the added electoral advantage of opposing an unpopular Conservative-led government. Welsh Labour won’t have Rhodri Morgan leading them any more – but as has been previously observed, he never won his party many votes anyway. We shouldn’t expect a resurgence of the sort of hegemony Labour enjoyed for many years in Wales: that is almost certainly dead and gone for good. But right now, Labour looks in better shape to enjoy a stronger 2011 than would have seemed possible even on 5 May 2010.

For the Welsh Conservatives, 2010 was undeniably a significant advance. The party won as many MPs in Wales as they did in Mrs Thatcher’s landslide election victory of 1987. There was also a significant increase in the Conservative vote share in Wales. It remains significantly higher in England than in Wales, but in 2010 the gap between the two nations was actually lower than at any post-war general election.

This is a strong vindication for the strategy of the party’s Welsh leadership in recent years. But more difficult times may lie ahead. The party now faces the prospect of implementing an economic austerity programme in London, with the coalition parties in Wales presenting themselves as defenders of the Welsh interest against a regime of cuts. In such a context, 2011 is unlikely to be anything other than a difficult year for the party. And appointing yet another English-based Secretary-of-State will hardly have helped matters.

For the Liberal Democrats, Election Day and its aftermath have been an emotional rollercoaster. The party entered with justifiably high expectations of gains. These hopes were then cruelly dashed on the night. But almost immediately afterwards, the party found itself thrust back into political centre-stage, its favours courted by both Conservatives and Labour. And now, of course, they supply the deputy Prime Minister and four other cabinet members in the Westminster coalition government. But any exhilaration about this must be at least partly countered by the realisation that making a deal with the Conservatives will be used against them ruthlessly by their political opponents.

The electoral lessons of 2010 for the Liberal Democrats in Wales also appear ambiguous. As in England, the party gained votes (though less than expected) while ending up with fewer seats than before. They had a great result in Ceredigion, but lost the next-door Montgomery seat on a huge swing to the Tories. And while the party now appears well positioned to win seats in Swansea, Newport and Wrexham, will they be strong enough in 2011 to take advantage of such opportunities?

The 2010 election result perhaps gave least comfort to Plaid Cymru. Not least problematic was the fact that useful lessons were rather difficult to draw, because there was not a great deal the party actually did wrong. Its campaigning efforts were hard to seriously criticise. But as at all UK elections – and perhaps even more so because of the focus on the UK Leaders’ Debates – Plaid was marginalised by the media in the campaign, and saw its vote share in Wales decline.

Of course, Plaid always tends to do better in devolved elections. Moreover, in 2011 they will go in with the credibility of having been a governing party in Wales for nearly four years. But the latter may be double-edged. It will be much harder than in the past for its opponents to portray them as extremist Welsh-language obsessives, but the party will also have to take responsibility for some unpopular decisions. For instance, Elin Jones in Ceredigion will undoubtedly be vulnerable over badger culling. Furthermore, 2007 seemed to show that there are limits to what Plaid can achieve with disciplined and targeted campaigning. The party also needs to find messages and leaders that will drive up their overall level of support – and it is far from clear that they have yet done so.

And what of the other parties? The 2010 results suggested that the People’s Voice is quietening down in Blaenau Gwent, and tended to confirm that UKIP’s appeal is limited to European elections. Both must be odds against to win seats in the Assembly. The same can probably be said of the BNP, although it did increase its vote in 2010 and actually came quite close to winning a North Wales list seat in 2007.

Finally, in thinking about the 2011 election there are two major ‘known unknowns’ to reflect upon. The first is the potential impact of a referendum on increasing the Assembly’s powers. If it happens, when it happens, what might be the impact of the campaign and the result on an election to the Assembly?

Second, the next Assembly election will be unprecedented in the UK in that all four major parties contesting it will be doing so as parties of government – either in Cardiff or London. To which parties will be accorded credit and blame, and how will this unique dynamic shape voters’ judgements? We don’t yet know, but at least we don’t have very long to wait until we can find out.

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