‘Mark Drakeford is really, really popular with Plaid Cymru voters’ – the surprising things the Senedd election 2021 taught us

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It’s a month since the results of the Welsh Senedd elections became clear.

When the votes were counted, it was a great night for Welsh Labour. Fears they would see as few as 22 MSs taking their places in the Senedd for the party were misplaced and instead they took 29 seats.

The Conservatives finished in second, Plaid Cymru were third and the Lib Dems took just one seat.

None of the seven Ukip MSs elected in the 2016 election were re-elected.

A research team including academics from Wales Governance Centre and other universities have carried out a study which tracked 4,000 people during the Senedd election campaign to understand the reasons behind how Wales voted.

The first results of the Welsh Election Study 2021 have now been unveiled, with further results to come.

So what do we know so far?

Plaid Cymru voters really liked Mark Drakeford




Dr Larner said they didn’t just like him, they “really, really, really liked him”.

“That’s something we haven’t seen with previous First Ministers or Labour leaders.

“I would think that a lot of that is the way Labour talked about the way Wales doing things differently,” Dr Larner explained.

Mark Drakeford really was Labour’s secret weapon




As suspected, the data confirmed that Mark Drakeford, as First Minister and leader, was the main theme that people associated with Welsh Labour’s election campaign.

The Covid-19 pandemic thrust the First Minister into the limelight and voters endorsed his record. It was already known before the election study that Drakeford’s profile and popularity had been transformed.

The word cloud above was formed when people were asked to pick the words they most associated with the election campaign.

As well as the First Minister’s name, Welsh features heavily, another key part of the party’s strategy.

Dr Larner said: “Mark Drakeford’s central role in the Labour victory is already a well-known fact. His popularity has grown over the course of the pandemic and ultimately the election took place during a hugely successful vaccination roll-out. Parties running on platforms based on removing him from government were facing an uphill struggle.

“But underpinning their success is the fact that Labour was seen to have emphasised the Welsh part of its name. It’s about appearing to be standing up to the UK Government, specifically when the Conservatives are in power there, and handling Covid-19 in a way that is at least perceived to be different to the UK administration.

“This didn’t happen overnight but has been years in the making. The contrast with Scottish Labour is remarkable.”

Labour has a lot of pro-independence voters



Graph showing support for independence in 2021 election

An eye-catching finding from the research is that a significant proportion of pro-independence supporters voted for Welsh Labour.

In line with recent opinion polls, 28% of the survey sample said they would vote Yes in a hypothetical independence referendum. This represents more or less record levels of support for an independent Wales. But while 45% of those people backed Plaid Cymru, 41% of that pro-independence cohort voted for Labour.

Dr Larner said: “It seems weird to observers that such a large share of independence supporters then voted for a ‘unionist party’. And this feature is unique to Wales, there is nothing like it in Scotland or elsewhere.

“The answer is that for those Labour voters, constitutional issues are not a decisive factor in how they choose to vote. For most people in Wales, the constitution is not an issue that they spend time thinking about. Still these voters are an important part of the story. The growth in support for independence in Wales seen in the last few years has largely happened among Labour supporters

“You’ve got to understand that Welsh Labour has deliberately avoided alienating its own pro-independence supporters. We’ve seen Labour government ministers saying that while they opposed independence, they understood why some people wanted it.

“Instead of rubbishing independence – very much the Welsh Labour approach in the past – they disagree with it more constructively. This approach is smart but of course it is helping to normalise the idea of an independent Wales, albeit a version of it where Labour stays in charge. There will be questions about whether this is sustainable in the longer term.”

National identity matters – and Labour has the broadest appeal



Graph showing votes linked to how “British” or “Welsh” someone felt

National identity, and whether a person feels more Welsh or more British, has always influenced whether a person votes for Labour, Plaid or the Conservatives, but the way this played out this time around gave Labour the broadest possible support.

In the graph, Labour’s gradient is the flattest showing it has by far the highest appeal of the parties amongst those people who identify as both Welsh and British; the largest identity group in Wales.

The Conservatives and Plaid Cymru are far more dependent on smaller identity groups – the British-only’s and Welsh-not-British groups. Labour’s support further correlates with Wales as a place of birth, effectively establishing it as the national party.

‘Pretty remarkable’ change in who voted for Plaid Cymru



Changes to the Plaid Cymru vote in the last five years

Plaid Cymru benefits from strong support from Welsh speakers. In this election it grew the vote significantly amongst those voters, but fell back amongst those people who do not speak Welsh, who dominate in several of their target seats.

Dr Larner explained: “Plaid increased its vote pretty dramatically amongst fluent Welsh speakers which we might think of as their ‘base’. But if you look at the graph, Labour also increased its vote amongst those people.

“In terms of Welsh speakers who are not fluent, Plaid Cymru stagnated, and then they fell back significantly amongst people who do not speak Welsh. It’s a pretty remarkable change in the composition of the Plaid vote, suggesting that language was a more important predictor of their support this election compared to 2016.”

Conservative voters didn’t turn out – again



Comparing how Conservative supporters voted in the General Election 2019 and Senedd election 2021

The Welsh Conservatives enjoyed a record result and knocked Plaid Cymru into third place but there are questions as to whether they missed an opportunity.

The research showed the Tories failed to hold on to the Leave voters they took off Labour in the 2019 UK General Election. These are the so-called ‘Red Wall’ voters who in England are vital to Boris Johnson’s political project. Dr Larner said the Welsh Conservatives only held on to 48% of their voters from the General Election, saying: “The Welsh Conservatives had their best ever devolved election result increasing their vote and seat share. These gains were made possible by the large number of former UKIP voters switching to the Conservatives.

“However, they failed to fully capitalise on the big gains made in Wales in the 2019 general election. This was hampered by two factors. First, 22% of voters who supported them in 2019 didn’t turn out to vote. Second, 15% of 2019 Conservative voters voted Labour at the Senedd election. This is a far greater level of switching than previous years, and driven largely by Leave voting former Labour voters. This is important because in England, those are the people the party is really targeting.”



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