Did Wales just have its first ‘first order’ election?

Democracy A face mask with the word vote
ViewsMay 19th, 2021

Dr Matthew Wall, Associate Professor in Political and Cultural Studies at the University of Swansea reflects on the 2021 Senedd election

In the run-up to May’s Senedd vote, I had the pleasure of joining  Dr Jac Larner and Elan Grug Muse in a Bevan Foundation webinar chaired by Victoria Winckler that considered the unprecedented nature of the campaign and how it may affect the election’s dynamics.

In my talk, I focused on the idea of ‘first order’ versus ‘second order’ elections and assessed whether 2021 could be the first time a devolved election in Wales could claim ‘first order’ status. The idea of ‘second order’ elections arose as a way of explaining the results of the early European Parliament elections. Scholars noted three major trends in these elections, relative to national elections:

  • Lower turnout
  • Parties in government at the national level lose support
  • Smaller parties tend to do better

The mechanism that lay beneath these trends was a straightforward one – voters perceived that there was less at stake. This left them free to either abstain from voting or to use their vote to send a message. More generally, these tendencies undermine the legitimacy of an elected body.

With the dust settled and the results counted, I would like to reflect on how to categorise the 2021 Senedd election.

In terms of turnout – the election managed to record an all-time high for a devolved election. The official turnout of 46.6% (the previous highest was 46.3% in 1999) represented a small uptick compared to 2016 but fell well short of the 50% barrier. This result was disappointing, given the unique context of the election which pushed the significance of the Welsh government to the forefront as Wales carved out a COVID-19 policy that differed significantly from England’s. It is also important to note that turnout figures only capture the percentage of registered voters who cast their ballot – reporting from the BBC indicated that 54% of newly eligible voters aged 16-17 failed to register at all.

In this aspect, it is very hard to argue that the 2021 election represented a breakthrough to ‘first order’ status for Senedd elections. Indeed, the constituency-level trends in turnout from previous elections largely held up – no constituency recorded a change of 5% or more in turnout compared to 2016. While we will have to wait a little for individual-level data from the Welsh Election Study, the constituency results provide early evidence that it was largely ‘business as usual’ when it comes to turnout.

However, the nature of vote choice tells a more nuanced story – one that indicates that, among those who vote in Senedd elections, there is a distinctive national political dynamic that is quite distinct from the rest of the UK. Labour’s resurgence rightly dominated the headlines, especially in a context where the party lost significant support in by-elections and local elections in England. Indeed, across the UK these elections favoured incumbent governments – coming as they did in a context of a strong vaccination programme and the easing of COVID-19 restrictions. The COVID crisis has certainly strengthened the personal brand of Mark Drakeford and his popularity looks to have driven Labour’s strong performance.

On the other hand, I believe that the crisis context did little to highlight the significance of the Senedd as an institution – with opposition parties largely failing to break through in terms of their ideas or critiques on the Welsh government’s handling of COVID. Plaid Cymru’s uninspiring performance is particularly notable when set against a growing online movement in favour of independence. The discrepancy in the relevance of constitutional politics between Wales and Scotland continues to be striking and is at least part of the story behind Scotland’s far higher turnout figures.

The underperformance of smaller parties in the election is also notable. Indeed, one of the most significant deviations from elections in England is how evenly the UKIP votes from 2016 were split between Labour and the Conservatives. While polling during the campaign indicated a concentration of regional votes for the Abolish the Assembly Party, this didn’t materialise on election day.

Looking at the results in the round, I can say with confidence that 2021 was not what political scientists would call a ‘first order election’. However, the ‘second order’ category, while helpful in explaining continuing low turnout, fails to capture the significance of Welsh dynamics to the vote choice of those who cast their ballots. The Welsh election result was not simply the projection of wider UK trends or feelings about the Westminster government. For those who vote in devolved elections, Welsh politics clearly matters, but the number of such engaged citizens remains stubbornly small.

Dr Matthew Wall is Associate Professor in Political and Cultural Studies at the University of Swansea

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