The Welsh Senedd has struggled for legitimacy, but the pandemic has demonstrated the depth of powers granted by devolution.
LONDON — The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated the powers handed to the Welsh government by devolution like nothing before — and this week, voters post their verdict.
The last time Wales chose a government was a political lifetime ago: before the Brexit referendum and two dramatic U.K.-wide elections. The election on Thursday — on the same day as ballots in Scotland, London and local authorities across the U.K. — is Labour’s to lose, but that doesn’t mean it’s business as usual. This year’s campaign has been thrown into relief by the pandemic which has more than any previous crisis shown the scope ministers in Cardiff have to do things differently — and own their mistakes.
The powers belonging to the Welsh parliament have, for a long time, been treated by some voters with indifference — “what can they do anyway?” — or open contempt. NHS Wales was regularly the punchline in putdowns at Westminster, where Conservative prime ministers were fond of contrasting its performance unfavorably with that of NHS England.
But the fact that Wales determines its own health policy means it has set its own path for responding to COVID-19, which in turn has centred the Welsh government in the most urgent concern of people’s lives over the past year.
It’s generally seen as a boost to the ruling party and Mark Drakeford, the first minister. The mild-mannered, scruffy former academic has appeared a sensible ballast to some of Boris Johnson’s more jagged seesawing over the past year.
“People have looked much more this time at the quality of the leaders, because they know that the Welsh government has an effect in their life all the time. We’ve had it at door after door, people saying: ‘well, he [Drakeford] is just being calm and serious,’” said Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda in South Wales.
Roger Awan-Scully, professor of politics at Cardiff University, agreed that the pandemic has placed a spotlight on the Welsh government and Drakeford in praticular. “The pandemic has massively raised the profile of devolution and particularly Mark Drakeford, who, when he’d been first minister for a year, our poll said that about half the people in Wales didn’t know who he was — and most who did, weren’t that impressed.”
“The most recent polls show he has a higher public profile than [Labour’s U.K. leader] Keir Starmer in Wales, and he is also the most popular politician in Wales. Since early on, most people in Wales have evaluated the handling of the crisis by the Welsh government much more positively than they do the U.K. government.”
Not Boris Johnson
Whether or not the Welsh government did actually do a better job of dealing with coronavirus is open to debate: Wales did not instigate a lockdown ahead of England; both allowed patients to be discharged into care homes without being tested; and both made errors when it came to determining students’ exam results last summer.
However, Wales took a more cautious approach than England at several junctures, and the manner of Drakeford’s stewardship — plodding and details-focused, in contrast to Johnson’s rambunctiousness — may have contributed to voters’ favorable view of him.
Against this backdrop, Labour should feel confident, but the margins between an overall majority, a coalition-leading performance, and falling further behind than ever are very fine. Polls indicate the vote could be split more evenly than in previous elections, with Labour potentially losing seats to the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru, Wales’ nationalist party.
There are 60 seats up for grabs in Wales’ legislature, the Senedd, which has been governed by Labour since its inception under Tony Blair in 1999, but never with an outright majority. It has always relied on the support of another party – either the Liberal Democrats or Plaid Cymru — or individual members, as in the current ruling line-up which includes a Plaid and a Lib Dem minister.
Forty members of the Senedd will be elected to represent individual constituencies while another 20 represent the five regions of Wales.
Nationalists Plaid Cymru could reap the seeds sown by Labour in highlighting the power of the Welsh parliament. Recent polling has put support for Welsh independence around 28 per cent; relatively low compared with Scotland, but higher than ever before.
Delyth Jewell, Plaid’s candidate in Caerphilly, said: “There have been aspects of the pandemic that have shown that we don’t have to follow Westminster and actually, if we make decisions based on our own needs in Wales, then we benefit.” The media now consistently report on the different approaches followed by Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, she pointed out — something that was much less common previously.
Low turnout at Welsh parliamentary elections has been a drag on its legitimacy since the Senedd’s inception, and some commentators have posited that the increased visibility of its powers could help to boost participation. Professor Awan-Scully was agnostic on this point, saying, “You could also think that because attention paid to devolved elections has been marginal, interest will be lower. The last time the media focus was all on another thing was 2003 with the Iraq war — that’s the one time turnout for the Senedd fell below 40 percent.”
Votes for 16-year olds
Another novelty in this election which both Labour and Plaid will hope to capitalise on is the extension of the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds, although the expectations for turnout among this group are modest. The trend to lower turnout among younger age groups could be compounded by relatively low awareness, as teachers have not had the chance to hammer home the message in person.
If Labour and Plaid are happy to keep all eyes on Wales, the Welsh Conservatives prefer to focus on the national picture: they argue the successful vaccine rollout has only been made possible by a collaborative approach across the U.K. and that Prime Minister Boris Johnson offers an optimistic vision for the country.
“We want to be focused on getting the economy firing, to create the jobs that we know sadly have been lost to the pandemic, dealing with the waiting times within the NHS, and getting education back up and running because we know students have had a deeply scarring experience,” said Andrew RT Davies, Welsh Conservative leader.
He cautioned that the recovery process would suffer if Wales embarks on the “tortuous constitutional process” of negotiating an independence referendum, which in his view is a risk if Plaid and Labour govern together.
If there is one thing which unites candidates from all parties, it’s that they don’t want their future to be seen through the lens of the Scottish independence debate. Even Plaid is keen to emphasize that comparisons are limited. “What’s happened in Scotland is definitely part of it [growing support for independence]. I think it has galvanized people. But it’s actually the homegrown reality that’s been so starkly brought into focus this past year,” said Jewell.
Bryant said the growth in nationalist feeling in Wales has been over-reported to a “ludicrous” extent, while Davies stressed the election is taking place in “a different environment altogether” to that in Scotland.
But there are those — namely unionists in Scotland — who would counsel that it’s never too soon to start taking calls for independence seriously.
A senior figure in Scottish Labour said unionists need to be making their case: “If you want to stop what’s happened in Scotland happening in Wales, you need an argument for the union of both the head and the heart.”
“We’ve relied far too heavily in Scotland on the argument of the head, which is the rational economic case against independence. We’ve been slower at making a case for the heart. What does the union of the United Kingdom mean in the 21st century? Wales needs to find that answer if it wants to stem divisive nationalism.”
For now, the campaign focus of unionist parties in Wales is elsewhere, but now that voters have seen the power that devolution has handed their leaders in Cardiff, the stakes in the independence debate have never been clearer.
Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/wales-election-2021-coronavirus-stakes/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication