After a long night of results, the composition of Welsh Assembly has been revealed and it was thoroughly unsurprising. The polls were largely correct as Labour lost overall control of the Senedd, but the one thing that people didn’t predict was to losses of the Tories. The narrative of recent months had been that UKIP in Wales was attracting disaffected Labour voters, and whilst this is true, it appears that it was the Tories who lost ground to UKIP. The headline from the night will be that Labour lost, and whilst this is true, Carwyn Jones will probably remain as First Minister.
For any lover of democracy the Assembly elections had a depressingly low turnout as only 45.3% of eligible voters cast their ballots. There are many reasons for this including the perception of political parties as detached from ordinary people’s lives and a perception of elections being irrelevant, but there is another key reason. The Welsh Assembly does not have enough power to motivate people to go out and vote. This idea actually feeds into the second of the perceptions because devolving more powers to the Assembly would give people in Wales a reason to go out and vote. If turnout is going to be raised then this fundamental lack of people needs to be addressed.
Getting onto the actual specifics of the election, the Assembly’s composition has been decided: Labour 29 AMs; Plaid Cymru 12; Conservatives 11; UKIP 7; Lib Dems 1. There are many things I want to address and I’ll go through thematically by party.
Labour were the governing party in Wales and it is often the case that in the next election after being victorious the party will take a hit of some kind. If the party is seen in a positive light then they’ll lose a few, and in a negative light they’ll lose a lot. It is very rare that a party of government gains seats unless there is a fundamental problem with the opposition. In 2011 Labour won 30 seats and this time out they won 29. The problem that arises is that the Senedd only has 60 AMs and therefore Labour will continue to not have a majority in Cardiff Bay. Labour has always been in power since the start of devolution in 1999, and much of this time has been in partnership with other parties. These results show that such an agreement is most likely once again.
Plaid Cymru had a good night as they moved narrowly ahead of the Conservative Party to become the official opposition, and Plaid’s leader Leanne Wood won the constituency vote in the Rhondda. Plaid Cymru only won one additional seat in the Senedd but because there are 60 AMs in Cardiff Bay, every gain is more important. The comparisons between Plaid Cyrmu and the SNP will inevitably follow this result but these largely be ignored as Wales doesn’t have the same political climate as Scotland. What needs to be talked about is the fact that Plaid’s success was not based on people necessarily voting for them, but was based on the losses of the Conservative Party. If they want to eventually become the government of Wales, Plaid need to establish a network of activists in the Rhondda to convince disaffected Labour voters to support them because if the Tories recover they will be right back to where they were in 2011.
The Conservative Party were definitely the biggest loser of the night, losing three AMs. The rhetoric coming out of the Tory leadership was that the Conservatives were the only party that could stop Labour from leading the next government. Not only were they unsuccessful in their goal, but the Tories lost ground due to the rise of UKIP. The Tories have still not made a breakthrough in Wales and this looks like it shall continue because the Tory brand is so toxic in Wales that disaffected Labour voters are instead flocking to UKIP or experimenting with Plaid Cymru rather than supporting the Conservatives. If they want to win in Senedd elections then they will have to combat their toxic brand, their divisions over Europe, their lack of a compelling message, and their inability to appeal to ex-Labour voters. Thankfully, this won’t happen any time soon.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats didn’t have a particularly good night either as they lost 3 of their 4 AMs, which leaves Welsh Lib Dem Leader Kirsty Williams as the party’s sole representative in Cardiff Bay. The Lib Dems in Wales have always been a minority party and have never had more than 6 AMs, however this most recent result is the worst for the party since the start of devolution. The problem for the Lib Dems is that Wales is a multi-party system, and therefore there is less scope for receiving protest votes. If you are disaffected with the two main parties in England, the Lib Dems were historically a party than many people could turn to, however in Wales the existence of Plaid Cymru and now UKIP gives people that aren’t ideologically centrist other options. The route back for the Lib Dems is difficult and will have to rely on grassroots activism and local councillors because there are very few MPs that voters can look to as promoting Lib Dem causes in Parliament.
The biggest winner of the night was UKIP who had their first breakthrough in the Senedd with seven AMs elected from the regional list system. UKIP’s success was due to a number of factors including Labour taking Welsh voters for granted, the toxicity of the Scottish Conservatives, and the discourse being dominated by the EU referendum. It’s worth pointing out that the success of UKIP is also partially down to the electoral system at play in Wales. In 2015 UKIP received 4 million voted but received 1 MP because of the first-past-the-post system used in general elections; Wales’ use of a more proportional system gives UKIP more influence in the Senedd. It is unclear as to whether or not this UKIP influence will be permanent, as the next Senedd election is in 2011 when the question of the Europe, hopefully, would have been settled. Personally I can’t help thinking that voting for UKIP in these elections is largely an exercise in spreading the party’s brand because the main policy goals of UKIP (leaving the EU, cutting foreign aid, opposing socially liberal attitudes) won’t be achieved unless they have influence in Westminster.
The Welsh Assembly elections illustrated a few things that I will conclude with. The Labour vote held steady, which shows that the media smears against the Corbyn leadership are not taking root in Wales because of the devolved settlement. Secondly, UKIP made a breakthrough due to the the loss of support for Labour among some groups of people but this resulted in the Conservatives losing list seats. Finally Plaid Cymru, although they did make a modest gain, they would be foolish to think that this could be built upon without a grassroots movement to wrap up left-wingers that may consider voting Labour.