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The Fourth National Assembly Election

11 October 2011

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Was the result of the 2011 National Assembly election a vote in favour of the Labour party, or one against the UK government?

Latest polling data from the University’s Wales Governance Centre and Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Welsh Politics has raised some interesting questions about this year’s National Assembly election campaign.

Taken from the 2011 Welsh Election Study conducted in collaboration with YouGov, Professor Richard Wyn Jones and Professor Roger Scully have drawn on the evidence to provide a detailed analysis of the voting choices of more than 2,000 individuals.

Findings from the study uncovered that the performance of both Labour and Plaid Cymru Ministers in the One Wales coalition government was generally viewed much more positively than that of either the current UK government or its predecessor under Gordon Brown.

It found that fewer than a quarter of Welsh Election Study respondents rated the performance of either Labour or Plaid Ministers in Cardiff as either ‘Very Bad’ or ‘Fairly Bad’, with 42 percent rating Labour Ministers’ performance as either ‘Very’ or ‘Fairly Good’, and 31 percent giving such ratings to Plaid Ministers. By contrast, 26 percent thought that the previous Labour government had been ‘Very bad’ and another 18 percent ‘Fairly Bad’. Ratings of the current London coalition were more unfavourable still – particularly for the Liberal Democrats. Some 38 percent of WES respondents rated the Lib Dem performance in government as ‘Very Bad’, with another 23 percent classifying it as ‘Fairly Bad’. However, far more voters in Wales claimed to be voting mainly based on ‘what was going on in Wales’ (52 percent) than ‘what was going on in Britain as a whole’ (20 percent; with 29 percent voting based on what was occurring at both levels, or for other reasons).

The study has also revealed how the election campaign met with substantial public indifference: just over half of all voters (51 per cent) remained undecided even after the election as to which party had run the best campaign. Of those with a view, almost three times as many voters thought that Labour ran the best Assembly election campaign (28 percent) as the Conservatives (11 percent), with Plaid and the Liberal Democrats further behind.

Despite having their best ever Assembly election result, the Study found that the Conservatives remain unpopular with many Welsh voters. When asked to rate the parties on a 0-10 scale for popularity, 29 per cent of respondents scored the party at zero. Assembly leader Nick Bourne also scored poorly with the voters, while David Cameron remains less popular with Welsh voters than Ed Miliband and only slightly less unpopular than Nick Clegg. The study authors say that the Conservatives’ strong election result suggests that they were effective at converting their limited support base in Wales into votes. But they also suggest that continued Conservative unpopularity with many Welsh voters may restrict their potential for further advances.

The Welsh Election Study data suggest that despite a disappointing election result, there remains considerable goodwill towards Plaid Cymru among much of the Welsh electorate. However, Plaid’s election campaign, and outgoing party leader Ieuan Wyn Jones, scored poorly with the voters, making the party less effective at converting favourable public attitudes into votes.

The Liberal Democrats’ worst-ever performance at a National Assembly election reflects a steep rise in hostility to the party over the previous twelve months. The study concludes that the Lib Dems were saved from disaster by two factors: luck and leadership. The luck came in just winning two regional list AMs by an aggregate of fewer than 250 votes. And despite the unpopularity of her party, leader Kirsty Williams emerged from the campaign as the second most popular party leader in Wales, with voters rating her more highly than Nick Bourne and Ieuan Wyn Jones

The authors also found that support for Welsh independence remains below 10 percent of voters (8 percent), with those favouring the abolition of devolution only numbering 16 percent of the Study sample. A clear majority of voters favour devolution, with almost seven out of 10 (69 per cent) supporting the idea that the Welsh Government should have ‘most influence over the way Wales is run’ compared to only 18 percent thinking that most influence over Wales should lie with the UK government. At the same time, the perceived importance of devolved government is growing: in May 2007 only one-third of voters in a similar study saw Welsh Government as ‘having the most influence over how Wales is run’; by May this year that proportion had risen to 61 percent.

Commenting on the findings, Prof Roger Scully, Director of the Institute of Welsh Politics, observed that "This was the election in which Labour had absolutely everything going for it. Our evidence shows that they were the most popular party in Wales, with by far the most popular Welsh leader. The data also shows that Labour ran the most visible and effective campaign of all the parties. And they were able to campaign against a pretty unpopular UK government. So it’s no surprise that they had their best ever result in an Assembly election. What might worry Labour’s more thoughtful supporters is this: if they can’t win an outright Assembly majority even in these circumstances, when will they ever be able to do so?"

Prof Richard Wyn Jones, Director of the Wales Governance Centre, said: "While the party itself will doubtless wish to stress the ‘glass half full’ – and there is certainly evidence of positive attitudes towards it among the Welsh electorate – I would suggest that for Plaid Cymru these data should make deeply depressing reading. Its election campaign must be deemed a failure. In particular, party leader Ieuan Wyn Jones failed to connect with the public at large. With the party now not only out of government but demoted from the position of official opposition, Ieuan Wyn Jones successor is going to have her or his work cut out in rebuilding Plaid’s position in Welsh politics."

A representative sample of the Welsh electorate, comprising over 2000 respondents, were interviewed via the internet over the course of the four-week election campaign. These respondents were then re-interviewed immediately after the vote.

Financial support for the study was provided by the Economic and Social Research Council of the United Kingdom.

Related links:

Wales Governance Centre