On Friday, almost a week to the day after the final results of the Welsh Assembly elections 2011, the newly re-elected First Minister Carwyn Jones revealed a slimmed down but solely Labour cabinet on the steps of Cathays Park, the home of the executive now known as the Welsh Government.* This followed on from Carwyn’s earlier announcement that having gained the most seats, Welsh Labour would look to govern alone. So how will Welsh Labour fare as what many are labelling a minority government (albeit with a clear margin of seats in the Assembly)?
Although the maths of the Assembly has the potential to make it challenging at times, it is right that Welsh Labour should opt to form a government on their own – by winning half of a possible sixty seats, Welsh Labour has been given a clear mandate by the people of Wales. It is worth noting that Welsh Labour’s tally of thirty seats sees them up four on the last election and their share of the vote is the highest they have ever polled since the formation of the Welsh Assembly in 1999.
Reading the results and in between the lines of the other party’s responses to Welsh Labour’s decision could give us the best insight we have at present to the how the politics of the Assembly will pan out.
The Conservatives may have taken a blow by losing their leader Nick Bourne but their overall gain of two seats means that they have now become the second largest party in the Assembly and, as such, we expect the sands of debate and opposition to shift accordingly. At this point, would it be churlish of me to point out that the Tories in Wales have reaped the benefits of the electoral system with more than half of their fourteen seats made up of the additional regional list places? However, in response to Welsh Labour choosing to govern alone, the Conservative interim leader in the Assembly, Paul Davies, clearly set out the Tory stall as the main opposition, attacking Labour’s record and stressing their role to hold Labour to account.
In terms of the other parties in Wales, it is safe to say that on the whole May 5th wasn’t a great day/night for the junior parties in coalition. Plaid Cymru, who had been the junior partner in coalition in Cardiff Bay with Labour from 2007-2011, lost four seats, including that of its deputy leader Helen Mary Jones. Much of the critique following the election has focused on the failure of Plaid Cyrmu to capitalise on being in government, which has been largely attributed to the negative tone of the campaign they ran, turning on their former coalition partners. It is also worth noting that many of the votes Plaid picked up in 2007 may have been protest votes from people unhappy with the Labour government in Westminster but who could not bring themselves to vote Conservative. Are there lessons here for the Liberal Democrats in Westminster?
The Liberal Democrats in Wales lost one seat – less than the bookies predicted – but only one of their remaining five seats is a constituency seat, that of their Welsh leader, Kirsty Williams. In addition, Labour gained the Lib Dem student stronghold of Cardiff Central with a 14.7% swing and the Lib Dems lost Montgomeryshire to the Conservatives. In the past week, the approach of the Lib Dems to the Labour government has shown clear hints that the party is open and willing to work with Labour in Wales where appropriate, with leader Kirsty Williams saying, “The stability in government that Carwyn Jones seeks will only be possible if parties work together, put aside their differences and seek to find consensus, and that means give and take from all parties…Where Labour proposes serious answers to these problems, they will have our support.”
The Welsh Lib Dem leader has conceded that her party faced a backlash in Wales because of the decisions of the Westminster coalition. The smart money now will be on the Welsh Liberal Democrats seeking to remedy their stark situation by rebuilding their reputation with the Welsh electorate through supporting policy that clearly defines them as more left wing than their Westminster counterparts.
In the midst of all this speculation, let us not forget that Welsh Labour has governed as a minority in the past and while it is demanding, there is considerable fresh energy in the new Labour group – a third of whom are new to the Assembly this time. In addition, loyalty will be strong as many of the new and younger members will want to stay close to the leadership of the party.
It looks as if it is all to play for when the next session of the Senedd kicks off on June 7th. Welsh Labour were elected on the back of a campaign that promised both to defend the most vulnerable, offer a vision for the future but above all stand up for the people of Wales. Let’s hope, as Carwyn Jones indicated Labour would do, the smaller parties in the Assembly are prepared to step beyond tribalism and stand up for Wales with Welsh Labour.
* The Welsh Assembly government has changed its name to simply that of Welsh government in order to try and clear mark the difference between the Assembly and the executive to the electorate.