Dr Dan Boucher has previously stood in Westminster and Senedd elections. He lives with his family in Swansea.
One distinctive aspect of Welsh politics since the advent of devolution in 1999 has been the tendency of some Conservative voters not to vote in Assembly or Senedd elections, as they are now called, on principle because they don’t believe in devolution.
This is a very relevant consideration when reflecting on the fact that if everyone who voted Conservative in the 2019 General Election votes Conservative in the 2021 Senedd elections, the Welsh Conservatives will form the next Welsh Government in May 2021, ending 22 years of continual Labour Government.
The same was also true at the last Assembly (as they were then called) elections. If everyone who voted Conservative in the 2015 General Election had voted Conservative in the 2016 Assembly Election then the Welsh Conservatives would have formed the Welsh Government in May 2016, but they didn’t.
Is there any reason to believe that things might be different this year?
Quite apart from the fact that the latest polling shows a significant drop in support for Welsh Labour, and an increase in support for the Welsh Conservatives, such that Labour are now just two per cent ahead, there are some underlying changes that could make 2021 a different experience from 2016. One of these is the increasing talk about Welsh independence.
The Yes Cymru campaign for an independent Wales was initiated shortly before the last Assembly election but was too new to have any impact on its outcome. Since then, however, the movement has grown – with a number of marches in Cardiff, Methyr and Caernarfon – and some polling suggesting support for Welsh independence, while still a minority view, has grown from around 12 to 39 per cent.
Of huge importance, the Yes Cymru movement has even impacted Welsh Labour – at one time an unequivocally unionist party. 2017 saw the formation of its own pro-independence movement – Labour for an Independent Wales – and the selection of three pro-independence Labour candidates in May’s Senedd elections. To allow the implications of this to sink in, one only has to pause and try to imagine an equivalent development within Scottish Labour!
In a context where it seems clear Labour won’t be able to form the next Welsh Government other than in coalition with Plaid Cymru, it’s inconceivable that Plaid won’t make pressing for an independence referendum the price for its support.
Indeed, that scenario is judged to be a sufficient cause for concern to have already come up in UK Cabinet discussions. Of course, Labour First Minister, Mark Drakeford rather suggested to Andrew Marr that he would not agree to a coalition on these terms, but given that where there is no guarantee Drakeford will continue to lead Labour after the election, this development surely has the potential to completely reconstitute the Senedd elections for many Conservative voters?
Anyone who has campaigned in Wales will know the experience of talking to the cohort of Conservative voters who don’t vote in Assembly elections. Invariably they will say something like, “I always vote Conservative in the Westminster elections but never vote in the Assembly elections because I think we should be governed from Westminster. I voted against the creation of the Assembly and think it’s a waste of money.”
In the past when encountering this view on the doorstep, one would respond by pointing out that as there now is a Welsh Assembly and Welsh Government, their decision not to vote was denying them a voice on key issues like health and education. By not voting in Assembly elections they were making themselves less and not more like the voters in England because they were cutting themselves off from the opportunity to vote on what many regard as the single biggest election issues, the NHS, which in Wales is wholly governed from Cardiff.
However, voters who would rather give up their ability to have any impact on one of the biggest election issues, the NHS, than authenticate an institution they regard as an indecent qualification of the union, are only likely to maintain that position for so long as doing so does not help facilitate what they regard as the greater danger. Prioritising expressing disdain for devolution becomes somewhat irrelevant when independence becomes the presenting issue, especially if doing so could inadvertently help the cause for independence.
Moreover, if this cohort of Conservative voters now concludes that in these changed political circumstances, the priority must be a unionist majority Senedd, such that for the first time they vote in the Senedd elections, then this will no doubt come as something of a relief, as it will also enable them to rediscover their voice on the NHS, Education, Agriculture and Tourism which they have not enjoyed for nearly a quarter of a century.
Then of course, in addition to those Conservative voters who don’t vote in Senedd elections on principle, there are those who don’t simply because they don’t see it as a priority. While their decision hitherto not to vote in Senedd elections is not based on the principle of not wanting to authenticate devolved government, it is likely that many could nonetheless be moved to vote for the first time in these elections because of their commitment to preserving the union and recognition that henceforth, it will be imperative to ensure that the Senedd has as strong a unionist majority as possible.
Some might respond to the above analysis by pointing out that just as some Conservatives only vote in Westminster elections, the same is true of some Labour voters. On this basis surely one might equally well say that if all those who voted Labour in 2019 in Wales vote Labour in 2021, Labour will form the next Welsh Government?
In a context, however, where support for independence remains a minority view, there must be the possibility that some Labour voters whose loyalty to the union is greater than having a permanent Labour First Minister (regardless of whether or not they usually vote in Senedd elections), might vote Conservative on this occasion to send a message to Welsh Labour?
In this sense the 2021 elections could have some similarities to 2019 when Labour voters turned to the Conservatives to honour Brexit, with constitutional concerns trumping normal party loyalties. Some Labour voters might find this an easier proposition to entertain this year given that in a democracy being permanently in power progressively erodes one’s authority. Labour has been in government now for 22 years without interruption. That’s already unprecedented in modern British history and yet it is now seeking another five years, which would take its total innings to 27 years.
At the end of the day, whatever way one looks at it, the upcoming election is distinctive because the new Senedd will not merely discuss how to manage the Welsh NHS and education system within the current devolved settlement. It will also inevitably engage with the independence question and in that context, unionists up and down Wales need to vote to ensure that the only serious party of Government that is passionately committed to the union, the Conservative and Unionist Party, (there are no “Conservatives for an Independent Wales”) is represented as strongly as possible.