Seats balanced on a knife edge: a view from the campaign trail in Wales

Elliot Chappell
© Twitter/@Amanwy

Many constituencies across Wales are balanced on a knife edge as Labour fights for control of the Senedd. Nowhere is this close battle more evident than in Llanelli, where Labour won in 2016 by just 1.3% of the vote. The seat has changed hands between Plaid Cymru and Labour since devolution and no MS has held the constituency for more than one term.

“This is a turnout election, really. It’s going to be all about who can get their vote out,” says Labour candidate Lee Waters. He is being challenged by Plaid candidate Helen Mary Jones, who first held Llanelli from 1999 and took the seat again in 2007. As we look ahead to the vote on Thursday, support for independence is higher than ever, and polling suggests it is cross-party. A survey last year showed that 39% of Labour voters backed independence.

Waters tells me it is “entirely plausible” that Labour could back independence in the future. “But that would be a failure. That is not where we want to be. That would be a defensive measure in response to a series of wrong turns.” He believes in a “sharing, redistributive” union and offers the example of providing personal protective equipment during Covid, for which he was responsible.

Wales would have run out of PPE in the first wave without supplies from the rest of the UK, Waters explains, but later the devolved nation bailed out England, Scotland and Northern Ireland repeatedly. “That’s how it should be. Helping each other through difficult times,” he says. His thinking on this extends across policy areas. “I care as much about children in poverty in Liverpool as I do about children in Llanelli. We are, to use the phrase, better together, where it’s working well.”

Despite the prevalence of the nationalists here, independence is not top of the agenda on the doorstep, according to the Labour candidate. Local issues dominate. That certainly was the impression given on this wet and windy campaign session. Of the issues raised on the doorstep, bottle bins, the state of the town and a lack of activities for children locally come up. “People are increasingly disengaged from party politics and they focus on local issues,” Waters explains. He also notes that the toxicity of the past two elections general elections just isn’t here.

I ask whether he is worried about ex-UKIP voters turning away from Labour. Polling last week suggested that the ex-Brexit vote is more likely to go to the Conservatives or Abolish the Assembly on Thursday. UKIP came third in 2016, ahead of the Tories in this seat. Will these residents break for Labour?

People were against Labour because of Brexit, Waters says, and they went to the Tories or UKIP. “We’re not going to get them all back by any measure, there has been a schism in our traditional base, there’s no doubt about it.” But he believes “a number are going to come home”.

It is close but he seems confident as we walk door to door in a very wet Burry Port. “The polls always show Llanelli going to Plaid because the polls apply uniform national swing,” he tells me. “Uniform national swing never works here.” But as we canvass, he explains to several residents that this is a close fight between Labour and Plaid. His wafer-thin majority of 382 votes hangs in the balance and support leaked from Labour to any of the opposition parties could produce a Plaid victory.

Support for the nationalists does not matter only in Plaid-Labour marginals. Many of the 60 seats up for grabs in the election on Thursday are held by small majorities, which probably explains why the polls have been so variable in the Senedd race. Last week, a Savanta Comres survey suggested Labour would fall just short of a majority in the Welsh parliament. Analysis by YouGov in March projected the worst ever result for Labour, with the party securing only 22 seats. ICM earlier this year recorded the party’s highest rating since 2018.

Leakage from Labour to Plaid could tip the balance away from Labour in marginal seats. One example is Cardiff Central, which Jenny Rathbone is hoping to retain. The Labour candidate held the constituency at the last election with just 817 votes more than her Lib Dem rival. Plaid is not going to take this seat, Rathbone says, and it would certainly be a stretch as the rival came fourth in 2016 with 1,951 votes.

But, while Rathbone tells me the data is “OK” for Labour, the party has “seen some leakage to Plaid”. This is particularly the case with younger voters “who think independence is a good idea, without thinking about the impact it will have on their job prospects”. She is optimistic about her own chances. “The Labour vote is holding up in the main, apart from the sort of leak to Plaid that’s going on,” she says. But this is nevertheless worrying, particularly in an election where for the first time 16- and 17-year olds will be able to vote.

A drain towards Plaid in Cardiff Central could be down to what she describes a “slightly over-cautious approach” from Labour. Highlighting the 2019 general election manifesto, which she argues lacked a “financial management strategy that was credible”, she suggests that Mark Drakeford has “overcompensated” for that in this election. “I’m a big fan of his,” she explains. “But I think the manifesto is slightly over-cautious, which I think is why Plaid has been able to nibble away at people who want something more radical.” Rathbone points to the party’s recent ads, which tell voters ‘if you value it, vote for it’. “It’s a cautious approach. I would have preferred us to have a slightly more radical approach.”

Drakeford is radical, however, Rathbone insists, and his cautious approach is better than the opposite. “Mark is as radical as Jeremy [Corbyn] is, really, but he’s a much more cautious guy and he doesn’t promise anything he feels he can’t deliver, which I think is the right way to go about it. Underpromise and overdeliver, excellent. Overpromise and underdeliver, not politically very sharp.” But she also tells me: “I think Mark’s objective was to ensure that Plaid didn’t appear to be more radical than us, and I don’t think that he’s managed to do it.”

Will Plaid nibble away enough of Labour’s vote to tip the scales towards the Lib Dems? We’ll find out on Thursday. An electoral system that sees people cast two ballots, one for their constituency representative and one for a regional list candidate, makes these marginals even harder to predict. Rathbone tells me that Plaid is going for the second vote in her seat, for example. “In fact, if you look at their literature, it actually says please vote Plaid with your second vote.”

In both the straight fight in Llanelli and the marginals such as Cardiff Central, the fortunes of Plaid will be crucial for Labour. Whether people cast their vote tactically in the first-past-the-post constituency ballot or back their genuinely preferred choice could make all the difference in marginals across Wales.

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