The election held in Wales on May 6th 2021 was the first election of Members to a body called the Welsh Parliament or, in Welsh, Senedd Cymru (it is normally just called the Senedd by both Welsh and English speakers, rather as in Ireland everyone calls their lower House the Dáil). Wales has had a legislative body of its own since 1999, but it was formerly called the National Assembly for Wales. Originally with limited powers – a sort of super county council – the Assembly saw a gradual accretion of responsibilities as a result of pressure from successive independent reviews. Today’s Senedd has the primary law-making and taxation powers that warrant proper parliamentary status. The new name, adopted through the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020, was intended to reflect this coming of age. However, its powers are still considerably less than those of the Scottish Parliament. And there is still confusion in Wales about the responsibilities of the Senedd and of the Welsh Government – a Government formed from the majority in the Senedd.
The election came in the middle of the Covid-19 emergency. There have been very few good things that have come out of that emergency, but one has been increased awareness, certainly outside Wales but inside Wales as well, of the powers of the Welsh Government and the Senedd. The greatest restriction of liberties in modern times outside wartime have been imposed by the Welsh Government and endorsed by the Senedd, not imposed by the UK Government and Parliament. Policies have been designed for Welsh needs and have often been different from policies applying in England (or Scotland). Generally this has been met with approval – in a poll in Wales before the election, 60% said they preferred the way Wales had dealt with Covid, as opposed to 15% who thought the English approach had been better. Some, though, criticised the Welsh Government for doing things differently from England for no good reason. Whatever one’s view, what has happened is a very far cry from the timidity that has characterised Welsh policy decisions in the past.
This growth in awareness did not, however, translate into higher participation in the election (there has never been a turnout of over 50% in elections to the Assembly/Senedd). Turnout only ticked up marginally from 45.4% in 2016 to 46.6% in 2021. There was another disappointment: the Senedd and Elections Act had also extended voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds, but a BBC survey just before the election suggested that 54% of them had failed to register to vote. The national education campaign to encourage these young people to participate in the election was blown off track by Covid-19 restrictions and interrupted education.
But if awareness of Welsh Government powers did not translate into any significant increase in turnout, the approval ratings for the Welsh Government’s handling of the Covid emergency did seem to boost approval for the left-of-centre Labour Party. Labour has been in power in Wales continually since 1999, but has had to rely on formal or informal coalition partners (before the election it had relied on support from the sole Liberal Democrat and from an independent originally elected for Plaid Cymru). That need to rely on support from others ended in May 2021, when Labour won 30 of the Senedd’s 60 seats.
The right-of-centre Conservative Party also did well, winning 16 seats and taking over from Plaid Cymru (the party that supports independence for Wales) as the official opposition. Plaid Cymru actually gained a seat – they now hold 13 – but lost the totemic Rhondda seat formerly held by the party leader, Leanne Wood. The centrist Liberal Democrats lost their only constituency seat, but scraped in with a single regional seat elected under the semi-proportional electoral system.
However, the biggest surprise of the results was the failure to elect any representative of the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party – a party committed to end the separate Welsh legislature (somewhat bizarrely they use the Senedd’s former name). Most pundits had expected Abolish to pick up two or possibly three seats. Demographics are changing in parts of Wales, particularly along the north Wales coast and in rural areas with in-migration of those who do not identify with Welsh institutions. There are also those in Wales who are frustrated by devolution. These two factors led to an expectation that Abolish would break through. In the end, it received just 3.73% of the regional vote – behind the Greens (4.39%), who also won no seats despite having marginally more votes nationally than the Liberal Democrats (4.34%). The parties of the right such as UKIP (1,56%) and Reform UK (1.06%) were also unsuccessful – UKIP had won seven seats in the 2016 election.
The 2021 election was conducted on the same basis as all previous elections – there are 40 first-past-the-post constituency seats while 20 additional Members are elected from the five regions in a way that makes the overall result more proportional, though not as proportional as the same system in Scotland where the additional Members form a higher proportion of the total. This may be the last time this system is used – an Expert Panel set up by the Senedd has proposed adopting STV, as well as increasing the size of the Senedd to 90. These changes will require a two-thirds majority, but the May results suggest that this super-majority is there.
The Welsh Labour Government, led by the former academic Mark Drakeford, has big tasks ahead in health, where Covid is both a threat itself and a reason why other health provision has fallen behind, in education where performance needs improvement, and in economic development – Wales has a 17.9% fiscal deficit compared to the UK as a whole. The Welsh Government also wants to see more powers transferred from London to Cardiff – for example, despite the recommendations of several commissions, most notably that chaired by a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the Senedd has no justice or policing responsibilities.
In all this, the Welsh Government is facing the assertive unionism of the Conservative Government in London, something graphically and physically illustrated by the decision to decorate a UK Government building in the Welsh capital with a UK flag draped over eight storeys. There will be battles ahead, among them the Welsh Government’s legal challenge to the restrictions on their powers contained in the UK Government’s Internal Market Act – the legislation to provide for an internal market in the UK following Brexit. More generally, the Welsh Government has called for the constitution to be reset to recognise that sovereignty in the UK is now shared between four nations and territories.
The constitutional issue will certainly continue to bubble along over the five-year term of the Senedd (there is a possibility that the term will be reduced to four years now that the fixed term of the Westminster Parliament is being abolished). Support for independence in Wales is nothing like that in Scotland, but figures appear to be moving up – up to a record 39% in one poll in March – and support is greater among young voters. On the other side, figures of up to 25% have been recorded as supporting abolition of the Senedd altogether. It is not too fanciful to see the Welsh Labour Party edging closer to those who support independence, and the Welsh Conservative Party edging closer to those who are hostile to the existence of separate Welsh political institutions. Over the next twenty years, especially if Ireland is re-united and Scotland becomes independent, there is going to be a mighty tussle for Wales’s future.