Peter Rowlands gets behind the success of Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour
The May results in Wales were the best for Labour across the UK. They mainly concerned the elections to the Welsh Senedd, until recently called the Assembly, the body established in 1999 to manage devolved government in Wales. It is elected by an additional member system of PR, with 40 constituency seats and 20 ‘top up’ list seats. A novel feature was that 16- and 17-year-olds were given the vote for the first time, although it is not yet clear what impact this had. There were also elections for four Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). These were the sixth set of elections for the Assembly/Senedd, and by winning 30 seats (one up on 2016), and 40% of the vote (a five-point increase), Labour matched their best results – in 2003 and 2011 for seats, and for votes in 2003. Labour also won an extra PCC post, giving it three out of four in Wales, in contrast to the loss of seven PCC posts in England.
There is general agreement that the management of Covid and the accompanying media exposure was an important factor in Labour’s success, and First Minister Mark Drakeford came over as serious, competent and sincere (unlike Boris Johnson). Labour’s programme was relatively cautious, but they did stress the need for increased devolution along federal lines. A document, ‘We, the People: the Case for Radical Federalism‘, was produced to promote this.
The Tories also did well, boosted no doubt by the ‘vaccine bounce’ as they were elsewhere. They increased their support by five points to 26%, gaining 16 seats – their best ever result, and an increase of five, including the only seat they took from Labour.
For Plaid Cymru the election was a disappointment. Having changed their leader in 2018 they had sought to broaden their appeal, and there was polling evidence from early 2020 of growing support for independence, up from around 15% a few years previously to around 25% in mid-2020. One poll showed 50% of Labour voters supporting independence, and the support for pro-independence organisations like Labour for an Independent Wales and Yes Cymru has been growing. It was therefore reasonable to assume that all of this would have significantly boosted Plaid Cymru’s vote.
However, opinion polls did not register this, and they were right. Their vote remained almost the same as before, at 20%. Two small nationalist parties also stood candidates, but their combined vote was only about 1%. Why Plaid Cymru did not do better is unclear. It could be that the appeals of Labour in managing Covid and the Tories in delivering the vaccine were stronger than that of independence; or that Labour voters looking to independence were either satisfied with Labour’s stance on more devolution, or wanted an independent Wales but governed by Labour. There was anyway little movement by Labour voters to Plaid Cymru. That does not mean, however, that nationalism will not continue to be an important factor in Welsh politics for the foreseeable future, or that Plaid Cymru’s appeal will remain limited. Clearly developments in Scotland and Northern Ireland are likely to be of major influence here.
The Lib Dems continued their decline in Wales with their vote down by a third to 5% and losing their remaining constituency seat – although they did gain a regional seat. The Greens did well, increasing their vote by a third to 5%, but not enough to win a regional seat.
In 2016, UKIP were strong and managed to gain seven seats, and although most of them moved to other small parties or became independents, they have all gone. Senedd politics are likely to be more orderly as a result.
Mark Drakeford, the senior Labour office holder in the UK, has said that he will step down as leader before the next Senedd election. He is a left winger, but there is no certainty that another left winger will replace him. However, the succession will now become an important issue in Welsh politics until it is resolved.