For a long time, Lord Mandelson’s famous quip that the people of south Wales ‘will always vote Labour because they have nowhere else to go’ rang true. The party dethroned the Liberals in 1922 to become Wales’s voice at Westminster and have won every general election since. In more recent times the onset of devolution presented a new opportunity for Labour to dominate in a new seat of power in Cardiff Bay. They have done just that: the party has been in government in Wales without serious challenge for over two decades.
The coronavirus crisis has been a relatively successful period for Welsh Labour too. First Minister Mark Drakeford has developed a substantial media profile over the last 12 months by putting Cardiff at odds with London on pandemic policy, taking a leading role in debates on the future of the Union, and establishing a cult status as a professorial-cheese-loving-allotment-tending grandfather to the nation.
Opinion polls have shown the public broadly supported the First Minister’s approach to the regulations and, despite an initially slow vaccine rollout, Wales now leads the way on delivering jabs across the UK as the wider public health situation looks far prettier than it did in December. With an election just six weeks away, you could forgive Labour for being complacent.
Yet all it usually takes to change the mood music is a devastating poll. And that’s exactly what we have in the latest Welsh Political Barometer.
If these results play out on May 6, it will be disastrous for Welsh Labour. YouGov put the party on course to win 22 out of 60 Welsh seats, its worst performance ever in a Senedd election, and even Mark Drakeford is forecasted to lose his Cardiff West constituency. The Welsh Conservatives, only two percentage points behind Labour, are set to make impressive gains and win 19 seats while Plaid Cymru are predicted to return 14 members to the Welsh Parliament.
These are remarkable results. Labour will likely be in first place after May 6, but that should not be taken for granted either. After all, while we can never know what the biggest factor is in swinging the polls, the ‘Boris boosterism’ behind the vaccine rollout has grown Conservative support across the UK – and evidently also in Wales.
This should concern Welsh Labour. Although the party has had a new platform for devolution throughout the pandemic, a depleted Welsh media landscape and a hardline campaign to save the union from Downing Street may just drown out Labour’s defensive approach in the weeks ahead. The Welsh Conservatives – embracing a more aggressive and devo-sceptic stance that has no doubt contributed to the surge for the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party (who are themselves on course to win four regional seats in the election) – are looking to bulldoze the long-standing Red Wall in Wales.
Of course, the Tories have knocked out bricks before – most recently at the 2019 general election – but galvanising Conservative voters to turn out for the Senedd elections has been a challenge. But now they could have Labour on the ropes: not only do Welsh government ministers have to deal with the day-to-day response to their handling of a pandemic, they are now facing the prospect of defending a lacklustre 20-year record in government while fighting a political campaign from the Conservative party aiming to take further powers away from them.
As such, attention has now turned to the fundamental element of governance in Wales: dealmaking. This poll suggests compromise and cross-party collaboration will be even more central to the formation of the next administration in Cardiff. Speculation has been swirling for months that a coalition between Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour is possible, since both parties refuse to work with the Welsh Conservatives (and vice-versa). A progressive left-of-centre alliance would command a convincing majority in the Senedd and would not be unpopular or unprecedented, as the One Wales government formed in 2007 demonstrated.
Crucially, however, the Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price has already ruled out being a ‘junior partner’ in any deal. This means a 50-50 split in the Cabinet and even power-sharing will have to be on the table, as will concessions on the constitution. Plaid Cymru have pledged to hold an independence referendum if elected, and the First Minister has to contend with a Labour membership that is increasingly in favour of Welsh independence too. So with the return of the SNP in Holyrood and a coalition in Cardiff, the Prime Minister may find himself dealing with two nationalist governments at the same time.
Six weeks is a long time in politics, of course. Right now the polling shows one thing: that Labour’s dominance of Wales is by no means guaranteed. The party has cruised along term by term since 1999 – as the Welsh economy, education standards and health provision staggered behind the rest of the UK. Whatever the end result, there is no doubt that Welsh Labour must make deals, compromises, and promises if it is to keep its Red Wall standing. Fortunately for Welsh Labour, that’s probably the only thing that it excels at: surviving.