Government and Politics

Cymraeg

2007 Welsh Assembly elections

Electoral fragmentation and the politics of coalition


The third elections to the National Assembly for Wales on 3 May 2007 gave no party an overall majority and resulted in 2 months of uncertainty over who would form a government. Jonathan Bradbury examines the results and the election's consequences.


For much of the last century Wales was a stronghold for the Labour Party. As expected, elections to the National Assembly for Wales returned Labour as the largest party, but Labour performed worse than in UK elections, and it has been a struggle to form a stable government. In 1999, Labour failed to get a majority and initially formed a minority government but then agreed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats from October 2000 to April 2003. In 2003 Labour won 30 of the 60 seats, which became a technical majority of one after the presiding officer and his deputy were nominated from other parties. However, Labour became a minority government again in 2005, following the decision of its Blaenau Gwent Assembly Member (AM), Peter Law, to stand against Labour in the UK general election, because the party had imposed a female candidate on the constituency.


In 2007, the vote and seat distribution fragmented (see Table 1). Labour was down four, Plaid Cymru up two and the Conservatives up one. The Liberal Democrats remained on six and People's Voice, the party inspired by Peter Law, was on one. Initial efforts by Labour to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats or Plaid Cymru failed, as did efforts by Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives to form a 'rainbow coalition'. Labour was left to form a minority administration. Discussions continued, leading finally to a Labour- Plaid Cymru coalition in July.




The politics of PR


Elections to the Welsh Assembly are contested under a system that goes some way towards creating proportional representation. There are 40 constituency seats, contested by first-past-the-post (FPTP), plus 20 regional list seats. Voters cast one vote for candidates in their constituency, and a second vote for a party in their electoral region. There are five electoral regions, and four list members are elected from each one in a manner designed to compensate parties that have polled well in a region but not won many constituencies.

The principal aim of this 'mixed member proportional' system is to sustain good local representation through constituency members, but still make the overall result between the parties more proportional. The parties recognise that while the system allows for the possibility of one party having an overall majority, the proportional element makes a 'hung assembly' much more likely than at Westminster.


Constituency results


In 2007 Labour continued to win the lion's share of constituency seats. However, compared to 2003 it suffered a 7.8% reduction in its vote share and a net loss of six seats. Its one constituency gain was in Wrexham. The loss of Blaenau Gwent to People's Voice was confirmed, two seats were lost to Plaid Cymru (Llanelli and Conwy) and four to the Conservatives (Preseli Pembrokeshire, Carmarthen West, Clwyd West and Cardiff North).


Overall, Labour had its worst constituency vote share since 1918 - the party now had no Assembly constituency seats in West Wales. Plaid Cymru improved its vote share by only 1.2% but consolidated control there. Equally, the Conservatives improved their vote share across Wales by only 2.4% but won key victories in Labour-Tory marginals that they would need to repeat in a general election to win power at Westminster.


The Liberal Democrats saw no movement in their fortunes. Their vote share rose by just 0.6%, and they won the same three constituencies they held in 1999 and 2003. 'Others' saw their collective vote rise by 3.5%, nearly half of Labour's loss, but this rise did not translate into seats. Even so, this more concerted vote for 'Others', particularly for independents standing in South Wales, was a further jolt to Labour.


List results


Labour was the most popular party on the list vote, but here again suffered a 6.9% reduction in vote share. Labour's relative success in constituency contests meant that in four of the five regions it won no additional list seats. The exception was Mid and West Wales, where Labour's constituency losses were heavy, but its overall vote was still sufficiently high to win two of the four list seats.


Otherwise, this part of the electoral system worked to make the overall representation of the other parties more proportional. The Conservatives and Plaid Cymru achieved small improvements in their list vote and, despite constituency victories, won seven and eight list seats respectively, the lion's share of the PR representation in the Assembly.


The Liberal Democrats had a disappointing election, slipping in their list vote by 1% and winning the same three list seats as in 1999 and 2003. 'Others' took 4.3% more of the list vote than in 2003. A key feature of this rise was growth in support for the British National Party (BNP) in North Wales. But, despite a cumulative vote share of 16.2%, none of these smaller parties could by themselves muster enough votes to win a seat.


Participation and representation


There were some grounds for optimism over participation as turnout rose by 5.2%. Even so, it was still only 43.4% for constituency contests and 43.2% for list voting. This reflected the trend towards political apathy generally observed in the UK, but also some hostility and considerable indifference specifically to Assembly politics.


The election produced fairer representation. In receiving 43.3% of the seats, Labour received over 10% seats more than its vote share suggested. However, this was still one of the most proportional results for years. The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru all received seat shares that were either just below or just above their vote shares. The main sufferers were the 'Others', whose votes were not turned into seats, except in Blaenau Gwent.


Female representation was slightly down from 2003, but still 28 of the 60 AMs were women. Mohammad Asghar, standing for Plaid Cymru, was elected as the first black and minority ethnic AM on the South Wales East list. There might have been more as Labour ran a positive discrimination procedure on its regional lists, but its paucity of list Assembly members (AMs) ultimately militated against further success.


Explaining the result


In seeking to explain the election results, both Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives clearly developed some momentum. Other than its core ambition of a Welsh Parliament, Plaid Cymru made most impact with promises of a free laptop for all schoolchildren, and help to first-time buyers in the housing market. The Conservative manifesto was most notable for being markedly 'Welsh' in its rhetoric and for committing itself to a policy agenda that was much closer to that of the other three main parties than in previous elections.


Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives were effective in exploiting the weaknesses of Labour's record in government. In particular, the plans for hospital reconfiguration, announced by Labour in the run-up to the election, were exploited in a number of constituencies for the concerns they raised about local hospital closures.


Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats avoided any fallout from the fact that they had worked together against Labour between 2005 and 2007. Labour suggested that a vote for any of these parties would lead to a three-party coalition, which would let the Conservatives back into government.


It was widely thought that voters considered Labour's claim to be implausible scaremongering. The suggestion was further undermined by sources in both Plaid Cymru and Labour that suggested the possibility of a Labour-Plaid Cymru alliance after the election.


Labour's 'loss'


There were a number of ways in which it could be argued that Labour 'lost' the election. First, one could argue that Labour had the right broad message, emphasising Labour's Welshness and 'clear red water' commitment to a distinctive socialist-progressive politics. The party simply suffered from inept promotion. The expected focus on policies to combat child poverty was never implemented. The policy of free medical prescriptions received a lot of attention but was widely seen as an unwise 'freebie'.


It could be argued that Labour had the wrong broad message, that its strong Welsh branding and rhetorical commitment to socialism had been good strategic responses to the disastrous election of 1999. Labour under Alun Michael had suffered from looking too much under the control of Tony Blair. Political debate moved on, and, by 2007, Labour's message showed that it had left the centre ground of politics wide open to other parties.


Contributory factors


Whichever of these main theses was right, the turn against Labour was undoubtedly affected by a range of other factors, four of which deserve particular emphasis. Continuing dismay over British entanglement in Iraq and disappointment at 'Labour's broken promises' at UK level played a background role in the election. Equally, the election could be seen as not really a national election at all, but a series of local elections in which Labour was battered from all sides.


The party lacked both the financial and the political resources to fight so many opponents on so many fronts. At the same time, it was evident that Labour's virtually non-existent media management allowed the campaign news agenda to be dominated by the complaints of other parties.


Finally, the result confirmed the trend that, since the 1960s, the electorate has dealigned from strong group loyalties with political parties. Labour's core vote has been gradually breaking up, a fact which opposition to the Conservatives in 1997 obscured in Wales, as elsewhere in the UK, but has been exposed since. The 2007 election demonstrated the fragmentation of the Welsh electorate. The fragmentation might have been greater if Labour's weaknesses had been better exploited by the other parties.


Deal or no deal


Because no party emerged with an overall majority, the question was: who would form a government? The initial onus was on Labour, which began talks with both the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. Labour leader Rhodri Morgan was a poor wooer of partners and described his dilemma in finding a coalition deal as a choice 'between the unpalatable and the inedible'. Equally, Labour's attempts to suggest informal agreements as an alternative, based on procedures used by the New Zealand parliament, appeared arrogantly presumptive of Labour power.


At the same time, internal politics in the Liberal Democrats was strongly influenced by a number of local government leaders, who had wrested control of major councils from Labour in 2004 and wished to retain them in 2008. They did not want a close association with Labour in the Assembly. The Plaid Cymru group was unimpressed at the lack of a clear offer to hold a referendum on a Welsh parliament.

The first phase of talks closed with the momentum shifting to Plaid Cymru as the second largest party and whether they could form a coalition. On 17 May, the Liberal Democrats decided to respond positively to Plaid Cymru's intentions and duly suspended talks with Labour.


All Wales Accord


What then followed was a period in which Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives negotiated a joint programme, known as the All Wales Accord. This successfully exploited the high degree of convergence between their manifestos on specific policy commitments. Despite the philosophical differences between the parties, politically it also met the three parties' strategic interests to be in office but not associated with Labour. The 'rainbow coalition' now looked the most likely basis for a government.


On 23 May, divisions between pro-Labour and pro-rainbow coalitionists in the Liberal Democrats resulted in a split on the party's Welsh executive. They concluded that they could not recommend the All Wales Accord to their party. The rainbow coalition appeared to be off the agenda. Consequently, with the deadline for government formation fast approaching, on 25 May Rhodri Morgan, as the leader of the largest party and the only nominee, was re-installed as first minister.


Disgruntled members of the Liberal Democrats used party rules to call a party conference on 26 May. Amid considerable rancour, the party members voted to support the All Wales Accord. With Conservative support, the rainbow coalition was now restored as an option, although it came too late to prevent a minority Labour administration.


Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition


Most AMs did not expect a minority Labour administration to last. Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones began soundings on whether to go into a three-party coalition. A scenario began to be mapped out in which Plaid Cymru support for the All Wales Accord would be declared at a meeting of its national council, followed by a vote of no confidence in Rhodri Morgan in mid-July. Jones would then be installed as first minister, and the three-party coalition would have the summer to sort itself out before the Assembly met again in September.


Labour faced a choice of either trying to take a stand as a minority government, or of having another go at forming a coalition. Morgan decided upon the latter. Given the position of the Liberal Democrats, Labour had no option but to turn again to Plaid Cymru. Labour exploited the fact that, because of the internal difficulties of the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru had serious concerns about whether a rainbow coalition would hold together. Labour knew, too, that five socialist-minded Plaid Cymru AMs strongly opposed coalition with the Conservatives.


Morgan then made the strategic decision to offer a referendum on a Welsh parliament as part of the deal, although whether or when it might be held would still depend on public opinion. This offered the possibility of delivering Plaid Cymru's central constitutional ambition. In a rainbow coalition Plaid Cymru might have had the position of the first minister, but without Labour support it was unlikely to achieve its major goal of constitutional change. On 12 June, Labour-Plaid Cymru talks were re-opened, and by 27 June both the Labour and Plaid Cymru Assembly groups approved a joint programme entitled One Wales.


The achievement of wider party endorsement was, however, far from easy, because the two parties had a history of bitter enmity. In the Labour Party, Morgan argued that members should consider the need to stay in power above emotional responses to working with Plaid Cymru. Even so, there was significant opposition, voiced publicly by Welsh Labour MPs and four Welsh Labour AMs. Despite this, Morgan's view prevailed, winning the vote on 6 July with a 78% overall yes vote, achieved through 96% trade union support and a lower 61% yes vote from the constituency/county party/women's forum section.


Plaid Cymru found the process somewhat easier. There remained dissenters who preferred the rainbow coalition, not least because they felt that the electorate had voted against Labour in the election and wanted a fresh start. There were, too, concerns about whether they would be double-crossed by Labour over the mooted referendum on a Welsh Parliament. Even so, at a meeting of the Plaid Cymru National Council on 7 July, a 92% majority of its members voted yes. The red-green coalition had finally come to pass.


Conclusion


The 2007 elections and coalition discussions represented an unprecedented chain of events. Of the competing narratives of its historic significance, the most prominent one was that a tipping point had been reached, beyond which Wales should expect both a fully legislative parliament and elections under a semi-PR system that will always deliver coalitions. Indeed, the most optimistic nationalists imagined that with a full legislative parliament would come Plaid Cymru's rise at Labour's expense.


A second narrative saw the significance of such events in more sceptical terms. In practice, all the main parties, even the Conservatives, entered the 2007 elections committed to more powers for the Assembly. The Labour-Plaid Cymru axis provided a different dynamic, but there would have been considerable cross-party Assembly support anyway. Even so, Welsh public opinion remained divided over support for extending Assembly powers, and there was no guarantee that the surge in support for more powers that was needed before a referendum could be held would transpire.


Equally, the implications of the 2007 election for the Welsh party system were open to question. Of course, the nationalist dream of hollowing out Labour was a possibility, but it remained just as plausible to judge 2007 as a further stage in the adaptation of Labour to being a party of government rather than opposition. In this narrative, Labour could be seen as a party striving for majority power and, at least, remaining the largest party. The 2007 election aftermath was evidence of Labour’s capacity to consider pragmatically its coalition partners while keeping a focus on utilising government to pursue its policy objectives.


History may yet judge the 2007 elections a trigger for a fundamental transformation of Welsh politics, but there have been false dawns before and this might be yet another, albeit one that presaged considerable political change.


Reproduced by permission of Philip Allan Updates.