You are here
Elections 2021: What happens in Cardiff stays in Cardiff?
No one is expecting the Labour party to have very much to celebrate when the votes are finally counted and reported after the May 6th elections. The Hartlepool by-election looks too close to call but even a close win is not a strong result in a seat they have held since it was formed in 1974, and in which they had a comfortable majority in 2019. In Scotland, they may be able to talk up a good 2nd place (good in that it is not 3rd rather than good as is almost 1st), and there will likely be some ‘wins’ in Mayoralties where they are already in power, rather than ‘gains’ that can be shown as evidence of electoral progress. In this context, what happens in Wales may be critical for the wider story the Labour party and others can tell about their electoral fortunes.
Labour has been dominant in Welsh politics as the largest party at every devolved election and every Westminster election since 1922. While there have been some suggestions this dominance may be slipping - the first polling for the 2021 Senedd elections predicted the party would be reduced to 22 seats and had the lead over the Conservatives at just 2% - any serious threat to their position has yet to materialise. Current polling has its lead over the Conservatives at a healthy 10 points. Yet it remains a difficult election to navigate. Plaid Cymru remains a substantial presence in Welsh politics, challenging the Conservatives for second place and a likely coalition partner for Labour should they fall short of the desired number of seats. Similarly, there is a question of how the 12% of voters who voted UKIP in 2016 will vote this time.
There are two ways we can evaluate the performance of Labour in Wales. As the party in government, they are likely to be judged on their record, particularly in handling the Covid pandemic. Survey evidence has consistently shown that the Welsh public thinks the Welsh Government have done a good job of handling the pandemic, especially when compared to how Johnson’s government has performed in England. As for Drakeford, polling has consistently shown the First Minister to be more popular than other Welsh and UK party leaders (and also more widely recognised than Keir Starmer). Polling, by Yougov for the Welsh Barometer (see above) has shown how Drakeford’s personal ratings have risen during the last 12 months, and how his profile has grown during the handling of the Covid crisis in Wales.
It is possible that the performance of Welsh Labour will become a yardstick by which to measure the party more widely. Disappointing results in Wales would be a blow for Labour who have been able to point to decisions taken by the Welsh government as an alternative to the Conservative handling of the pandemic, it would also add to pressure on a party that has been in decline elsewhere in their heartlands.
Meanwhile a positive result, perhaps even a seat gain allowing them to govern without the assistance of the lone Liberal Democrat member could be interpreted as a success for Labour in government, and a platform from which to rebuild the bricks of the ‘red wall’ in North Wales. Parts of South Wales also share many characteristics with the Labour seats now thought of as the ‘red wall’, having had a strong industrial heritage, a strong Labour movement but also voting Leave in the referendum and support UKIP in 2016 and the Brexit Party at the 2019 European elections. However, the presence of a strong Welsh identity in these areas has been a buffer through which the Conservatives has been unable to penetrate. A strong Welsh Labour result in these heartlands will likely be talked up as a sign the party are able to stem the flow of these voters to the Conservatives.
With so many elections taking place outside of Wales the Welsh Senedd elections haven’t had the attention they deserve. In 1992 a question was whether Scotland would ‘save’ Labour in the of the UK, in the event Labour saved itself even if in the long-run it lost Scotland. Labour may find that with few other things to cheer on May 7th a strong result in Wales will allow them to salvage the narrative of where the party is heading, but losses in Wales would cement the image of a party unable to retain its traditional voter base and with little idea how to advance from the 2019 election defeat.
Paula Surridge is a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol's School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies. Jac Larner is a Lecturer in Politics at Cardiff University. Image credit: UK Parliament/Flickr.