Where now for Wales? Senedd Elections 2021 and beyond

By Sian Jones

By any measure, this was a remarkable result for Welsh Labour. After 22 years in power in Cardiff Bay, they equalled their best-ever Senedd performance, winning half of the Senedd’s 60 seats. The incumbency effect that benefited governments across the UK in last Thursday’s elections was much in evidence as voters decided that, in these uncertain Covid times, it was a case of ‘better the devil you know’. Welsh Labour now have sufficient support to govern without a formal coalition, but have indicated that they will seek to work constructively with other party groups to deliver its programme where necessary. 

The result was also vindication for Mark Drakeford. In the early stages of his leadership he had been derided as a hard-left socialist and a political ally of Jeremy Corbyn. Yet the pandemic has transformed the unassuming former university professor into Welsh Labour’s – and, arguably, the national Labour party’s – biggest electoral asset. 

For the Conservatives, it was a mixed but encouraging picture. It was their best Senedd election performance to date, with five seats gained, including constituency gains in the Vale of Clwyd and Brecon and Radnorshire. However, they fell short in the ‘Red Wall’ seats in the north-east, and in key South Wales marginals such as the Vale of Glamorgan. Although incumbency and personal votes played a part in Labour’s success, questions will no doubt be asked regarding the Conservatives’ electoral strategy and its ability to connect with Welsh voters.

But it is Plaid Cymru, who made a net gain of just one seat, who will be facing the most soul-searching questions. Adam Price’s rhetorical fireworks, big spending promises, and the pledge of a referendum on independence in the next Senedd term, ultimately failed to convince an electorate inclined towards caution, safety and continuity. The ousting of former leader, Leanne Wood, in the Rhondda at the hands of Labour’s Buffy Williams provided one of this election’s most dramatic moments.

Most of all, this election result bears testimony to the distinctive strength of the Welsh Labour brand and the strength and breadth of its reach in Wales. Mark Drakeford’s team have shown themselves able to appeal to young and old, poor and middle-class, nationalist and unionist, but above all, to those who, in whatever shape or form it may come, ‘feel Welsh’. The ‘clear red water’ strategy first forged by Rhodri Morgan – with Mark Drakeford at his side as his special adviser – has once again proved a winning formula.

So what’s next for Wales? SEC Newgate hosted a webinar this week to look at some of the challenges facing the incoming Welsh Labour Government. I was joined on the panel by Huw Irranca-Davies, newly re-elected MS for Ogmore, Valerie Livingston of Newsdirect Wales, and Professor Roger Awan-Scully of the Wales Governance Centre, with the session being chaired by my colleague Dafydd Rees.

From the discussion, it was clear that measures to safeguard the economic recovery would be top priority. The Welsh Government will be focussed on creating sustainable jobs that stick, with the circular economy and green jobs  – investing in things like energy efficiency and retrofit as well as renewable energy – of particular importance. However, this will be set against a tough fiscal backdrop with growing upward pressure on local authority, NHS and social care budgets. Wales is not going to be a ‘land of plenty’. Post pandemic, regulatory and policy levers will play as important a role as financial handouts, and in the new world of remote and hybrid working, rebuilding local communities, and ensuring a world-class digital infrastructure, will be of paramount importance.

And where does this leave the Union? With voter preferences in the four UK nations becoming increasingly divergent, the constitutional battles that loom over the next few years will be fascinating. Whether Mark Drakeford succeeds or not in his demands for ‘Home Rule’ in Wales, the panel nonetheless agreed that there would need to be a fundamental overhaul of the inter-governmental structures that co-ordinate policy between the devolved nations. And, with Nicola Sturgeon pressing for a second independence referendum, it may fall to the highly unlikely pairing of Mark Drakeford and Boris Johnson – two men who have little in common other than a liking for cheese – to hammer out a new devolution settlement that preserves the United Kingdom.