Will the Senedd elections in May hand Labour its worst ever result in Wales?

Elliot Chappell

Wales appears to be on course for its closest election since devolution, and there has been a gloomy prediction that the May 6th contest will be Labour’s worst ever result. A YouGov poll earlier this month projected that the ruling party will come ahead of its rivals, but win only 22 seats in the Welsh parliament with 32% of the vote. The research has the Tories coming in second with 30% and Plaid Cymru third on 23%.

It is worth remembering that Labour has never won an outright majority in the 60-seat Senedd. The electoral system gives parties an accurate reflection of their support – unlike the first-past-the-post system used for Westminster, which hands majorities in parliament to parties with a minority of votes. At the last Welsh election, Labour received 48.3% of the vote and 29 seats; in 2011, it got 30 seats with 50% of the vote; 26 in 2007 with 43.3% of the vote; 30 in 2003 with 50% of the vote; and 28 in 1999 with 46.7% of the vote.

While the 22 seats projected by YouGov would be the worst ever result for the party, Labour having no overall control of the Senedd is nothing new – it is, in fact, the norm. According to the research, the Conservatives would secure 19 seats and Plaid Cymru 14. Abolish the Assembly would take four seats and the Lib Dems one.

Welsh Labour sources are optimistic about their party’s prospects in May. Long-serving Labour MS Mick Antoniw describes the analysis from YouGov as a “rogue” poll, a view that others have echoed. “It’s far too early to predict what the outcome is,” Antoniw tells LabourList. “It may well be that there is not a great deal of change in terms of the number of Labour seats.”

The key question, Antoniw believes, is how many votes the Tories and Plaid Cymru can pick up from the smaller parties, such as Abolish the Assembly, and what happens to the Lib Dem support. Looking at the last three to four polls in the round, rather than focusing on only the last YouGov one, may provide a more accurate picture. “Labour has been in a much worse position prior to an election on the polls,” he says. “My guess is Labour will probably have the same number of seats.”

An earlier iteration of the YouGov Welsh political barometer poll in January showed Labour ahead in the contest for the Senedd, with 34% of voters backing the party in the constituency ballot. This was down four points on its previous poll. But, as Cardiff University professor Roger Awan-Scully said, the downward turn simply reversed a four-point Labour rise in the last poll in November in which Labour’s support was almost twice that of Plaid Cymru. Another poll, carried out by ICM between 28th January to February 21st, reported that four in five voters (39%) said that they would back Labour in May – the party’s highest poll rating since February 2018 (40%).

Rhondda is a target for Labour, and Antoniw is hopeful. “We may well regain Rhondda,” he says, describing it as a “real possibility”. This might seem surprising as the then leader of Plaid Cymru Leanne Wood won the seat by 3,459 votes in 2016. But Rhondda had returned healthy majorities for Labour before the last election, and had been held by the party since 2003. Its UK parliamentary counterpart has always had a large Labour majority. The Senedd seat is now a target for Labour in the upcoming vote, with candidate Elizabeth Buffy Williams hoping to defeat Wood.

The Lib Dems are looking to defend their last remaining seat in May. 2007 saw the possibility that Labour might be ousted from power before the Lib Dems rejected the ‘rainbow’ coalition proposed with the Tories and Plaid Cymru. Since then, the party has seen its support in the Welsh parliament whittled down from six to just one. Kirsty Williams, who has represented the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency since 1999, announced last year that she will be stepping down. The Lib Dems should win here; the party secured a majority of 8,170 in 2016. But the Lib Dems are unlikely to win more than one seat – on either the ICM or YouGov poll.

Williams has served as a minister in the Welsh government since 2016. Alongside Williams, Labour formed its administration with the support of independent Dafydd Elis-Thomas, a former leader of Plaid Cymru who left the party in 2016. This arrangement has given the government a narrow majority of 31 in the Senedd. But Elis-Thomas has also announced his intention not to run in the upcoming election. Whatever happens in May, the current political settlement in Wales will end.

With Labour not set to gain overall control, what happens next? “The most likely engagement is between Labour and Plaid,” Antoniw tells LabourList. Labour has governed with the nationalists in the past. After the 2016 election deadlock, the parties struck a deal that ended in October 2017. “It is more difficult now for Plaid to even talk about an arrangement with the Conservatives because of their more hostile approach to devolution,” says Antoniw. Johnson’s opposition to devolution is well-documented, with the Prime Minister recently describing it as a “disaster“.

It is early days in the election campaign. Support for independence is higher than before, but Covid and Labour’s handling of it still loom large in the minds of voters. The chances of Labour returning to power are good – not least because, ultimately, Plaid Cymru is unlikely to climb into bed with the Tories.

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