Understanding devolution in Wales
Understanding devolution in Wales

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Understanding devolution in Wales

1 Political parties

Welsh Labour

  • In a sentence: A left-of-centre socialist party which has been the dominant force in Welsh politics for a century.
  • Electoral success: Labour have won almost every election in Wales for 100 years and have led every Welsh government in the post-devolution era, winning between 26 and 30 out of 60 Senedd seats.
  • Political heartlands: The post-industrial constituencies in the south Wales Valleys and north Wales.
  • Context: It was a Labour government which pushed devolution in Wales forward in the late 1990s. Unlike Scottish Labour, the Welsh arm of the party has sought to differentiate itself from its counterpart in Westminster. Rhodri Morgan referred to this as ‘clear red water’ in a speech in 2002.

Plaid Cymru

  • In a sentence: A left-of-centre nationalist party whose ultimate aim is Welsh independence.
  • Electoral success: Their electoral high point came in 1999 when they won 17 seats, falling to 11 in 2011. They formed the One Wales Government with Labour in 2007.
  • Political heartlands: Welsh speaking areas, rural areas in mid and north west Wales.
  • Context: In contrast to the other parties, Plaid Cymru view the Senedd election as their priority with elections to the UK Parliament as second order. Plaid Cymru only stand for election in Wales. It is the sister party of the Scottish National Party (SNP) although this amounts to little more than informal cooperation in practice.

Welsh Conservatives

  • In a sentence: A right-of-centre unionist party.
  • Electoral success: They have never formed the Welsh Government although the number of seats they win at Senedd elections has increased from 9 in 1999 to 14 in 2016.
  • Political heartlands: They tend to do well in affluent, semi-rural constituencies.
  • Context: Despite initial scepticism towards devolution, the Welsh Conservatives have enjoyed considerable success in the Senedd, coming second in 2011 and replacing Plaid as the second largest party in 2016, following defections. One of the biggest challenges they face operating in Cardiff Bay is engaging constructively whilst retaining the support of the high percentage of their supporters who are devo-sceptic.

Welsh Liberal Democrats

  • In a sentence: A liberal, pro-devolution and pro-federalism party.
  • Electoral success: The party enjoyed a stable presence of around 6 seats for the first 4 Assembly elections but this fell to just 1 in 2016. The 2016 election saw lone Liberal Democrat Kirsty Williams join the Welsh Government where she served as Education Minister. The party also served as a junior coalition partner to Labour between 2001 and 2003.
  • Political heartlands: The party has benefited from the list system, gaining enough votes in most constituencies to win a regional seat.
  • Context: The party describe themselves as having the deepest roots of any Welsh political party with liberalism in Wales stretching back to the 19th century. However, the Lib Dems appeared to be a diminishing force in Welsh politics, struggling with the fallout from the 2010 coalition with the Conservatives at Westminster and the rise of UKIP, which took the list seats they had previously occupied.

UKIP

  • In a sentence: Right of centre, pro-Brexit, anti-devolution party.
  • Electoral success: The party was not represented in the Senedd until it won 7 regional seats in the 2016 election. It lost all of these seats in the 2021 election.
  • Political heartlands: The party won seats on every regional list in 2016 but enjoyed particular support in South Wales East.
  • Context: The 2016 UKIP group proved chaotic with multiple defections. By the end of the term only its former leader, Neil Hamilton, sat as a UKIP member with others having splintered off to join the Brexit Party or the Abolish the Assembly Party. Despite promising polling in advance of the 2021 election for Abolish, none of these subsequent groupings won seats in the sixth Senedd.

Independents

There have been a number of independents in the Welsh Parliament, most notably in the fifth session. By the 2021 election, six of the sixty AMs elected in the 2016 elections sat as independents. Two – Neil McEvoy and Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas – were formerly members of Plaid Cymru. The other four had originally been part of a very unstable UKIP / Brexit Party grouping. In previous sessions, AMs including Trish Law and John Marek had been returned as constituency members after disagreements with Labour.

In summary:

Broadly socialist Welsh Labour have dominated the political landscape in Wales for a century. Nationalists Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives come a distant second. The Liberal Democrats are a diminishing force. UKIP saw 7 AMs elected in 2016 but this grouping did not last. The Senedd has seen many members sit as independents, often as a result of defections.

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