A week on from only the fourth Welsh General Election and it’s not The Open University alone that rewound to 1999 and the first ever elections to the Assembly. After 5 weeks of campaigning we have the same result as 1999, a single-party Labour government in Wales, but without a majority of Assembly Members.
But, below the headline news the mood is very different from 1999. Back then, Alun Michael stood on shaky ground as a “silent earthquake” caused Labour’s Valleys citadels, Rhondda and Islwyn, to fall to Plaid Cymru, and the Conservatives returned with only one constituency AM.
Fast forward to this year and Labour gains its largest ever share of the vote in a Welsh General Election, the Conservatives become the second largest party in the National Assembly for the first time, Plaid Cymru lose seats to both Labour and the Conservatives and although the Liberal Democrats are only one seat down on the 1999 total, they too lost constituency seats to both Labour and the Conservatives.
However, at the first post-election meetings of the National Assembly in 1999 and 2011 we hear very similar messages from the Labour First Ministers, despite their different paths to office. In refusing formal coalition Alun Michael claimed that an “open and inclusive assembly….means all parties doing this together”.
Carwyn Jones hasn’t ruled out further talks on partnerships but for now says that Labour will govern “without any triumphalism and with no trace of any political tribalism".
Carwyn Jones, First Minister of Wales
With two parties entering this year’s election as parties of government in Wales (Labour & Plaid) and two as parties in the UK Government (Conservatives & Liberal Democrats) the battle lines on policies and records of delivery were as winding as the A470 from Llandudno to Cardiff, unlike the previous clearer context of Labour in power at both ends of the M4.
Labour’s positioning of ‘Standing Up for Wales’ against the ‘cuts’ of the UK Government was the dominant narrative of this year’s campaign, in sharp contrast to the long shadow cast by the ‘parachuting’ in of Tony Blair’s favoured candidate, Alun Michael, as Welsh Labour leader ahead of Rhodri Morgan in 1999 following Ron Davies’s resignation.
Michael & Morgan weren’t the only big figures on the campaign trail in 1999. Dafydd Wigley, Rod Richards and Cynog Dafis, were also former MPs who’d decided to forge a new career in Cardiff Bay. Two other prominent parliamentarians from 1999, Wayne David and Ron Davies, made a return to Assembly election news in this year’s campaign.
A story that gained momentum during 1999 was the shortening odds on candidates other than Alun Michael to become First Minister should the Labour leader fall foul of the vagaries of the proportional ‘regional list’ system. The eventual losing Rhondda candidate Wayne David was as short as 4/1 the day before the election.
In one of the more bizarre stories this year, Mr David, who has been Caerphilly MP since 2011, was alleged to have taken down and stolen Plaid Cymru placards from gardens in Caerphilly. And who was the Plaid Cymru candidate in Caerphilly? None other than Ron Davies.
What of the other key personalities from the two campaigns?
Kirsty Williams, one of the youngest AMs elected in 1999, was described by the Western Mail as one of the first election’s “liveliest candidates”. Having taken the reins of the Welsh Liberal Democrats in 2008, she helped her party avoid the meltdown suffered in Scotland and the English local elections, gaining much credit for her feisty and energetic performances on the campaign trail.
Her opponent in Brecon & Radnorshire in 1999, Nick Bourne, who had been a regional AM for 12 years, finally lost that seat this year. However, this defeat was the result of the Conservative successes in winning constituency seats across the Mid & West region and then losing out in the proportional ‘top-up’ element.
Mr Bourne, who took over as Welsh Conservative leader not long after the first elections, has been the driving force behind the Conservatives return to popularity in Wales, shaping a party that is more comfortable with modern Wales than at the turn of the century.
Others that made an impact over the last 12 years won’t be there in the Fourth Assembly. Jonathan Morgan, the youngest AM in 1999 who pledged that “it won’t change me” lost his Cardiff North seat to ex-MP Julie Morgan; and Plaid Cymru’s deputy leader Helen Mary Jones who won Llanelli from Labour in 1999 and suggested that “voters were angry with Labour for abandoning Socialism”, lost to Labour this year and a candidate who proclaimed himself to be a “socialist and a patriot”.
With over a third of AMs in the 2011 Senedd new to the National Assembly and following on from the Yes vote in the recent referendum, it certainly feels that after more than a decade of devolution, Welsh politics is entering a new era, but one firmly with its roots in that very first Welsh General Election.