Tomorrow Wales will go to the polls in our fourth Assembly election. With North Wales not counting until the Friday – and it has its own share of key seats – the overall picture will take a while to emerge. The question is whether or not Labour will win a majority of seats, passing the magic 30 out of 60 winning line. A few weeks ago my view was Maybe. My view now is that Labour will do it – Probably.
Labour looks to be on 45-50% of the vote and in such circumstances they deserve the chance to govern with 50% of the seats. Blaenau Gwent is in the bag and, without naming individual seats, my gut feel is that between the North Wales and Mid & West Wales Regions that Labour will make a further three or four gains. This will leave them on the 30-31 seats that will deliver them the mandate to govern.
And quite frankly after a stonking (if safe) campaign they deserve to be on track. Welsh Labour under Carwyn Jones hasn’t put a foot wrong in the last few weeks. It’s almost as if they haven’t had a government record with its fair share of blemishes to defend. From the start they have made this election a referendum on the performance of and attitude to the UK government. Call that cynical – and plenty in Plaid and the Lib Dems have – but it has been the right tactic at the right time, especially given the UK media obsession with current supposed fragilities in the UK coalition. Everything has come together in a campaign that has been led from the front and used the media effectively. Labour has even, to my acquired taste, produced a better manifesto than in any other Assembly election, even if they don’t seem to want to talk about it very much.
The Conservatives too have also realised that this campaign needed to be fought on the territory of the UK government. In their pledges on protecting health spending and controlling public finance they have taken up the same themes and Welshified them. They are proud to have a distinctive platform – even if that distinction is more from the other parties in Wales than it is from the UK government. They have cleverly bundled up Cameronite priorities in a Welsh flag knowing that is what their core vote wants to see. In doing so they don’t seem to be extending their appeal much further than that achieved in last year’s General Election when they won eight seats in Wales. That, of course, is the key. If they can do that then it will shore up their existing five constituency seats and allow modest gains on regional lists too. It could even deliver Montgomeryshire or another first past the post gain elsewhere. So when people mutter the Conservatives are non-existent in this election, they couldn’t be more wrong. If you can’t hear them, it’s because they’re not trying to talk to you. My guess is that this election campaign will see the Conservatives emerge as the second party in the Assembly for the first time.
For the Conservatives to come second, that means Plaid Cymru will come third. On their record in government they don’t deserve to, but on their performance in the campaign they probably do. Having a clever manifesto is great, but you need to be fighting the right campaign too. The context of this election is the UK Government and that isn’t Labour anymore. Of course most of Plaid’s battles on the ground are with Labour, but they make a mistake to assume that people are angry with Labour these days. If they are, the irony is that they’ll be angry with the Welsh Government, not the UK one – and Plaid has been part of that same Government with Labour for the past four years. It could and should have been better for Plaid. They are trying to repeat their successful campaign of 2007 when the political realities have changed.
Plaid’s campaign slogan has been “Ambition is critical.” The lesson of this election may well be that context is more critical than ambition.
The Liberal Democrats understand that context point all too well and have also spent the campaign trying to focus down on Welsh issues. This has perhaps seen them fall between two stools, the “Welsh ideas” approach of Plaid coupled with a rather half hearted defence of the UK government. Quite frankly, though, it was impossible for them to fight this campaign in any other way. My gut feel now is that they will lose some ground but it won’t be the wipe-out that so many would like to see. The Lib Dems have more resilience in places where they have proven themselves and that, more than anything her Westminster colleagues have done, will probably save Welsh leader Kirsty Williams.
By Friday Carwyn Jones will have truly earned the right to be called the most powerful Labour politician anywhere in the UK.
A previous version of this column appeared on WalesHome.org.