Wales could see a different kind of election
According to my handy 2021 planner, we’re fifteen weeks away from the Welsh Assembly elections. Or maybe not, given possible future lockdown constraints.
First Minister Mark Drakeford wants "some flexibility" and thinks it may be necessary to put the 6th May polling date back a month or two.
Views differ among the parties on that one. Cynics might speculate that these considerations stem more from current polling figures than public safety, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
All that aside, and it may seem like a strange thing to say, this election could end up being less about party politics as a telling verdict on devolution – with an added twist.
Despite being around for a couple of decades, the Assembly (now Senedd) somehow still has problems of legitimacy in the public’s mind. As a result, Welsh elections have been as much influenced by what’s happening in Westminster as Cardiff Bay.
A learned friend and colleague of mine who is versed in political science reckons that there is now a sizeable bunch of polarised people out there who are dissatisfied with how devolution has progressed.
Some of them argue the process has stalled and want a push towards outright independence. Meanwhile, others favour the idea of an expensive twenty-year experiment in self-rule being dumped altogether.
Given enough impetus, he says, these dynamics could overshadow the more bread-and-butter issues of how the Labour-led government has handled the pandemic or whether opposition parties have better options.
There could also be a negative impact on inter-party relationships at a time when basic consensus among the Welsh political establishment is essential.
As things stand, Senedd seats are currently divided up between Labour (29), Conservative (11), Plaid Cymru (10) , Abolish the Welsh Assembly (2), Liberal Democrats (1) UKIP (1) and Welsh Nation Party (1)
All the above will be fielding candidates to a lesser or greater extent than last time.
There are also expected to be some new faces among the fringe groups such as Reform UK (formerly Brexit) and the Welsh Independence Party (Gwlad), each eager to exploit the vagaries of proportional representation.
The latest poll shows Labour under considerable pressure but that’s nothing new.
Technically speaking, although the party has been in power since devolution began, it has never once had an outright majority, surviving instead on coalitions of the formal or patchwork variety.
That thought is likely going through the mind of Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price who will be looking at the figures and mulling over possible scenarios.
A “confidence and supply” arrangement whereby his party backs Labour policies on an issue-by-issue basis might be the safest option. But will it also get him Labour backing for the independence referendum he will be promising Welsh electors?
No doubt Conservative leader Paul Davies will be hoping that negotiations fall on stony ground and that territory gained to date is not lost..
Organisationally speaking, a post-lockdown election in the tail-end of a pandemic doesn’t sound like a great idea to local councils who have to deliver the democratic process. Warnings are already coming from returning officers about the logistical challenges.
Whatever other factors are at work however, something that will make this election very, very different is that the voting age has been dropped to include 14 year olds.
There is quite a range of professional opinion as to how this new aspect might affect outcomes, but it could be that it is the next generation which ends up holding the key to the future - and in ways that politicians haven’t quite anticipated.