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The dragon finds its teeth?

The iconic image of the Red Dragon has come to symbolise Wales’ sense of courage and strength. Following the March 2011 decision by Welsh voters to say yes to their Assembly having full law making powers, the dragon superficially appears to have finally gained its teeth. However, for all the anticipation of a stronger Assembly, there remains the sense that the Welsh are to be convinced of the need for devolution.

In 1997, the Welsh embraced devolution on the back of a referendum in which turnout was just 50.1% and the majority in favour a mere 50.3%. In March 2011, whilst the majority in favour of full law making powers was more comprehensive, the turnout of just 35.2% was an indication that enthusiasm for devolution remains nothing like that on show in Scotland. Politicians of all parties have yet to convincingly demonstrate how the Assembly can make a difference to Wales.

Having been First Minister for just over a year, Labour’s leader, Carwyn Jones has been upbeat about his party’s prospects, with recent polling indicating that it is on course for an outright majority, albeit of just one seat. Small though it might be, this would be a significant achievement given a voting system which since the first Assembly elections in 1999 has denied any one party an outright majority.

Having been in coalition with Plaid Cymru since 2007, Labour’s strategy has mirrored that of their Scottish counterparts. It has sought to capitalise on the unpopularity of the Westminster coalition and outlined how it proposes to follow a different course. As Labour’s Counsel General, John Griffiths recently stated:

We are pledged to keep free bus travel for older people and disabled people, free prescriptions and free school breakfasts. Sixth formers and further education students will continue to receive Education Maintenance Allowance and our university students will not pay the higher tuition fees applicable in England. The distinctive approach of co-operation and collaboration rather than competition, public services not privatisation, remains our underpinning philosophical basis.

If this sounds like what Rhodri Morgan once called classic Labour, Carwyn Jones’ pledge to establish a ‘Delivery Unit’ after the election suggests he recognises the need to appear more Blairite than his illustrious predecessor.

Despite being associated with an unpopular Westminster government, recent polling suggests Welsh Conservatives might do relatively well on May 5th. Unlike their colleagues in Scotland, they have seemingly managed to detoxify the Tory brand.

Nick Bourne, leader of the party in Wales actually goes into the elections from a relatively strong base. Whereas Conservatives in Scotland retained just one seat in the 2010 general election, in Wales the party picked up an additional five. The year before they even managed to top the poll in the European elections – the first time since 1918 that any party other than Labour had come first in a cross-Wales election.

Conscious of the unpopularity of the London coalition, Conservatives have sought to focus attention on the need for change in Wales after three successive terms of Labour-led administrations. Speaking in Wales, George Osborne rejected the idea that the May elections were a referendum on the Westminster coalition, declaring:

I don’t think Wales has been well served by the government in Cardiff and we’ve had a change of government in Westminster, I think it’s time we had a chance of administration in Cardiff Bay as well.

Judging by the polls, it’s an argument that seems to be going down well. The party might also benefit from the AV referendum boosting the turn-out of its base support, which is strongly opposed to abandoning First Past The Post.

For Plaid Cymru, May’s elections look set to be difficult. Faced with a Labour party confident of an outright majority, and a Conservative party almost certain to come second, polling indicates Plaid could lose seats.

Following a disappointing general election and the lack of any real enthusiasm for Plaid’s raison d’etre of independence the party has found it hard to find a distinctive voice. Whisper it quietly, but Plaid’s Director of Policy, Nerys Evans’ recent article outlining a vision of improved public services without the creeping privatisation seen in England is barely different to the one articulated by Labour. Polling evidence even suggests Plaid voters would rather see Carwyn Jones as First Minister rather than Ieuan Wyn Jones, the party leader.

Plaid’s strategy therefore is simple. It must chip away at Labour in the hope that they can deny them an outright majority and keep themselves in contention as a potential coalition ally and so remain a relevant force in the next Assembly.

For the Liberal Democrats, the fate of Plaid is of interest as an example of how a smaller party within a coalition fares at elections. Welsh Liberal Democrats however have a bigger problem of their own. As Richard Wyn Jones of the Wales Governance Centre explains: ‘the determining factor in the election will be the Welsh response to the formation of the UK coalition government’. With the Conservatives not faring badly, it is the Lib Dems who are – as in Scotland – now taking the pain for the actions of their London colleagues.

If recent polling is to be believed, the party is on course to lose at least one seat, taking them down to five. In one survey, just 3% of voters indicated that the Welsh Lib Dem leader, Kirsty Williams was their favoured choice for First Minister. The party’s priority is therefore simple – avoid a total wipeout. For the Lib Dems, it’s as bad as that.

Ed Jacobs is Devolution Correspondent for and a graduate of Nottingham University’s MA in Public Policy programme.

Published inBritish PoliticsWales

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