A month out from polling day, I made some predictions on what might happen at last week’s Senedd elections — partly to promote discussion, but also because it’s worth looking back in retrospect at what I got wrong!
If only for the sake of my ego, let me start by something I got right. In the weeks after writing the article, I was surprised by the extent to which the media — especially the London-based media — reduced discussions of the Welsh election to the prism of “independence vs abolish”. In the end, neither extreme had huge traction with the electorate. Instead, it seems likely that Welsh Labour were rewarded for their handling of the pandemic and were beneficiaries of a ‘vaccine bounce’ (just as the SNP were in Scotland and the Conservatives in England). Like many people, I was slightly surprised at Welsh Labour’s strong showing — but as I intimated at the time, the relatively high levels of trust in Welsh Labour’s handling of the pandemic and cautious approach towards easing restrictions had the potential to boost the Labour vote. So it proved.
I wasn’t alone in not anticipating that Welsh Labour would boost their constituency vote by around 5%, securing some incredible majorities on the way. Nor did I think they’d manage an increase on the regional list vote, picking up a new seat in North Wales. Their success highlights two things: firstly the benefits of incumbency in a national crisis (as the SNP found in Scotland and the Conservatives in England), and secondly that UK politics really can no longer be viewed through the same lens. The latter point has been obvious for a while to those of us in the devolved nations — but the 2021 elections underlined that lazy predictions based on who’s up and who’s down in Westminster don’t stand contact with reality for elections to devolved bodies.
Turning to the opposition parties in Wales, the Welsh Conservatives will be disappointed not to have made more gains. They took the Vale of Clwyd and Brecon & Radnorshire (which they hold at Westminster) but failed to take seats like Wrexham and Bridgend where they’d hoped to build on their success at the 2019 General Election. I got this wrong — I expected the latter two constituencies to both change hands, and for it to damage the Conservatives’ prospects on the list (in North Wales, it would have meant Plaid gaining a list seat at the Tories’ expense). Plaid themselves lost the Rhondda (and in doing so their former leader, Leanne Wood) but also lost out in Aberconwy after talking up their chances of a gain. Overall, I had anticipated that Plaid would do well on the top-up lists and the Tories in constituencies — in the event, I was both right and wrong(!) with Plaid’s list vote remaining static but still resulting in gains, and the Tories gaining two seats but broadly under-performing. I said both would gain between two and four seats, whereas Plaid gained just one and the Conservatives five. Close, but no cigar!
The decisive factor in the big changes on the regional lists was the demise of the ‘anti-politics’ parties, who crowded each other out. In some ways, this was no great surprise given that the seven UKIP AMs (as they were at the time) elected in 2016 fought like rats in a sack and ended up splintering between UKIP, Reform and Abolish (and various shades of Independent). By standing against each other on the regional list, the ‘anti-politics’ vote got split far more than in 2016, resulting in the seven UKIP seats from 2016 being gathered up by the mainstream parties (including one for the Lib Dems in Mid & West Wales, clinging on by the skin of their teeth to representation in Wales’ parliament). I predicted the split vote for the anti-politics parties, but even I didn’t expect them to fail to capture any seats. The return to normality, with the traditional four parties represented in the sixth Senedd, may lead to a more consensual and reasonable tone of debate.
The final prediction — of low turnout — was way off the mark, as Wales saw it’s highest ever turnout (46.5%) for a devolved election. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong, even if it did lead to queues at polling stations. The challenge for politicians is to grow this engagement in devolved politics over the next five years. And the challenge for me is to make my predictions a bit better.
Ed Bridges lives in Cardiff and is a Council Member of the Peace Pledge Union.