Senedd shake-up: what if Welsh Labor loses its majority?

No permutation looks natural

Elections: do you remember them? For most of the country, they have become a distant memory. Apart from a handful of by-elections in Scotland in the autumn, there has been nothing in ten months. However, they are expected to return in May with elections for some or all of 149 English councils, as well as 13 mayors (including London and all major combined agencies), 40 Police & Crime Commissioners, the London Assembly, Scottish, Parliament and Welsh Senedd.

This last institution on the list was something of a Cinderella body under the decentralized legislature. While Northern Ireland has a high international profile due to its size and its assembly has a unique and bespoke format, the future of Scotland has been a central constitutional issue for the past decade, with the Scottish First Minister being a central player in British politics in Wales for a lot calmer.

The Welsh government may not be too unhappy with such a lack of notoriety. Wales consistently has the worst PISA educational scores of the four UK nations and its health record is patchy at best: Covid scores in both cases and deaths are the worst in the UK (if Wales were an independent state then it would be Covid deaths per million Population would be the second worst in the world among countries with more than 1 million inhabitants, just behind Belgium; for comparison: England would be fifth, Scotland ninth and Northern Ireland nineteenth – out of 159).

Unsurprisingly, Labor, which has led Wales either as a minority government or a leading party in the coalition since Deconcentration was founded 22 years ago, does not vote particularly well. ITV Wales / Cardiff Uni / YouGov’s quarterly poll last week found regional / list shares of:

Laboratory 30%
With 25%
Plaid 23%
AtWA 7%
Green 5%
RefUK 4%
LD 4%

In any normal public relations system this would skip labor miles, but Wales does not use a normal system – that is, it doesn’t actually use PR.

Usually the Senedd is elected with AMS, but since there are twice as many constituency seats as there are list seats, a party sweeping the constituencies will get two-thirds of the total seats in that region – very likely – a much smaller proportion of the vote. In 2016 Labor won 21 of the 23 seats in the three South Wales regions, despite not breaking 40% of their list shares.

And since the list section is operated by region rather than country, it means that overperformance in strong regions cannot be mitigated elsewhere. As a result, Labor has taken two places on the list in rural Mid / West Wales. As a result, they won 48.3% of the seats out of 31.5% of the list vote (and 34.7% of the constituency votes). Not very proportional.

Even so, there are limits to how far voting systems can take you with Jiggery Pokery. In his analysis of the survey quoted above, Prof. Roger Awan-Scully calculates that this would lead to the following result:

Laboratory 26
With 16
Plaid 15
AtWA 2
LD 1

Awan-Scully receives this result through the US at both levels, which may be less reliable than usual given the reorientation of voting habits in recent years, away from class and towards Brexit identity and age (associated with it). There is likely to be much more emigration than normal – although doing so could put Labor at even greater risk. Remember, the 2019 Tories won 14 of the 40 Welsh Westminster constituencies, compared to just six in the 2016 Welsh election. While this is not a head-to-head comparison and the Conservatives are not voting as well as they did in December 2019, the 5% is similar Deficit against Labor in the above survey, Labor’s lead in the 2019GE. Those lab seats in the northwest around Wrexham and Delyn, for example, must be vulnerable.

The important points to note here are that Labor is well below the magic 30 seats and that the 30% percentage quoted above is in very good agreement with all polls since 2019GE; Labor stocks all fall in a range of 29% to 33% with the exception of a single exception of 36% last May.

With the numbers above, the math actually gets pretty simple: two of the three largest parties could produce a majority, and only two of those parties could produce a majority (the small ones could of course influence the size of a majority, but not whether one exists or not) . But which two?

The easiest party to exclude are the Tories. Given such a wide gap in ideology and instinct, it is extremely unlikely that Labor or Plaid would put them into office.

What about work? In some ways – with the most seats and votes – they would have some mandate, but to express that the loss of seats could easily be perceived as a feeling of entitlement, especially after ruling Wales for almost a quarter of a century. Plaid already played second fiddle to Labor during Parliament in 2007/11, but would you be so willing to do it again now with so much more water under the bridge and a slightly different First Minister? This carries a much greater risk than it did then and, not least, would give both Labor and Wales the impression that they will always be there to get a bad Labor result.

What plaid leaves itself. Given what is happening in Scotland, Labor should be extremely cautious about the nationalists playing the lead, especially given that Plaid has already won victories in the valleys. On the other hand, an inverted coalition, led by the smaller party but with the larger one supplying more ministers, is not without precedent in Britain.

But I wonder if there could be an even more fascinating alternative: a Con-Backed Plaid-backed minority government? There are of course problems with such a proposal, from numbers (could you create a ministry with only 15 member states?) To political and cultural tensions between the parties, but an unguided minority government with implicit support from the Tories has been the path of the SNP to power, which must be an attractive precedent for Plaid, and both parties should be keen to show that Labor in Wales has no divine right to govern – what it would be if the Tories couldn’t be dealt with and Plaid couldn’t win immediately.

On the other hand, while unionists should be wary of repeating the Scottish experience, there is no automatism. Indeed, what was happening in Scotland was in no way automatic – we should remember that in early 2011 Scottish Labor was well positioned to oust the SNP from office. Only Alex Salmond’s vastly superior campaigning skills over Iain Gray turned the tables. It is doubtful that Plaid has anyone with this ability.

None of this means that Adam Price will be the next Wales First Minister. There is a great deal of uncertainty. Even if the results turn out to be as above – and a lot can happen in three months, especially right now – Plaid Labor could still start again. Alternatively, the numbers for plaid might not be there. Or they could be there for another Lab-LD deal, especially if AtWA draws a loophole instead of taking over the two specified places. But neither should we rule it out.

As far as I can see there is no market for Next Welsh FM. If so, I’d say the 3/1 price is worth supporting.

David Herdson

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