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Are we really heading for a pandemic election?

March 24th 2021

The 2021 Senedd election is taking place in unprecedented circumstances. Steffan Evans reflects on the latest Bevan Foundation webinar and questions whether we’re really heading for a pandemic election?

Pandemic election

As we head into the final week of the fifth Senedd, the race to be elected to the sixth is well and truly under way. This is an election taking place in unprecedented circumstances however, with the pandemic still having an impact on our lives in a way few of us would have believed a year ago. To reflect on what these unique circumstances might mean for the upcoming election the Bevan Foundation recently held a webinar with an expert panel to explore further.

Joining the Bevan Foundation for the webinar were Dr Jac Larner from Cardiff University, Grug Muse from Urdd Gobaith Cymru’s Prosiect 16/17 and Dr Matt Wall from Swansea University. It was a brilliant discussion that is well worth catching up on if you missed it. The webinar gave a number of reasons to pause and reflect ahead of the election, but perhaps the most significant of these was the suggestion that this may not be a pandemic election at all.

Covid 19 as an election issue

Unsurprisingly the pandemic is by far the most important issue for voters ahead of the Senedd election. In fact, we learned during Jac Larner’s presentation that Ipsos Mori have never found one issue to dominate the agenda as much as Covid 19 for as long as they have been polling people on what issues matter most to them. At first glance it might be reasonable to expect people’s voting behaviour to be swayed by their perceptions of how well the Welsh and UK Governments fared in their response to the pandemic or a party’s vision for a post pandemic recovery. Dig deeper however, and the picture becomes a little murkier.

The response to the pandemic

If the election does become a referendum on how well the Welsh Government is perceived to have handled the pandemic this appears to be good news for Welsh Labour. The polling evidence shared at the webinar shows that not only is the Welsh Government perceived to have been far more successful than the UK Government in combating the pandemic, but that the Welsh Government’s handling of the pandemic has significantly increased both Mark Drakeford’s profile and popularity.

Intriguingly however, Jac shared some new evidence he has been working on with James Griffiths at the University of Manchester which suggests the picture may be slightly more complex. They have found that there is little evidence between how people have been affected by Covid 19 and their perceptions of how effective each government has responded to it.

For example, there are limited differences between people’s perception of how well each government has responded to the pandemic between people who have lost their job or a loved one as a result of Covid 19 compared with those who have not. Their research suggests that a far more important signifier is national identity, with those with a strong sense of Welsh identity believing the Welsh Government has been more effective than the UK Government in responding to the pandemic, and with the reverse being true for those with a strong sense of British identity. This raises the intriguing possibility that whilst the pandemic may be the biggest election issue, policies put forward by parties in their manifestos in response to it may have a very limited impact on how people vote.

Joining the dots between the pandemic and the election

This idea was explored further in Matt Wall and Grug Muse’s presentation and in the subsequent question and answer session. Matt reflected on the BBC’s St David’s Day poll which showed that despite record levels of recognition for the First Minister and a public health crisis, over 30% of Welsh voters still didn’t know which government was responsible for the NHS in Wales. Grug also noted that whilst the young people she’s been engaging with across Wales have been eager to discuss the impact the pandemic has had on their lives, they don’t always make the connection between these experiences and the fact that policy decisions taken by both the Welsh and UK Governments have led to these outcomes.

Looking ahead

Six weeks is a long time in politics and there are likely to be plenty of twists and turns between now and polling day. It should also be noted that most of the data discussed in the webinar was gathered in 2020. More recent polling such as the latest Welsh Barometer poll suggests that the Conservatives could be in line to perform very strongly. But the insights gained at our webinar highlight just how unusual a campaign this is likely to be, with the election set to be dominated by an issue many of the electorate may well have already made up their minds in relation to. With limited opportunities for traditional campaigning techniques shifting the narrative that is already set could well be a challenge for many of the parties.

Steffan Evans is a Policy and Research Officer at the Bevan Foundation 

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