With a steel crisis in Port Talbot, a resurgent nationalist party, eurosceptics in full force on the campaign trail and a party entering its sixteenth continuous year in government, of all the elections in May, Wales could well be the most uncertain in outcome.
Labour has remained the largest party in Wales even through the nadir of Tony Blair’s popularity in 2007 and, with the opposition so divided, their continuing position as comfortably the largest party on Cardiff Bay seems all-but-assured. However the real uncertainty lies in whether Labour can retain sufficient representation to govern alone, as it narrowly did in the last Assembly, given that it is again likely to fall just short of an overall majority.
What is the likelihood of a coalition? It is greater than even the polls suggest. Labour are polling roughly 10 points behind their 2011 results, and the news gets worse for the prospects of another single-party government.
For the last two Assembly elections, pollsters have been consistently overestimating Labour’s support, and, to a lesser extent, underestimating the Conservatives’ support in Wales. Furthermore, in the General Election campaign last year pollsters also drastically underestimated Conservative support, although that came more at the expense of UKIP than Labour. Overall, pollsters predicted Labour to do better than the actual result by 5.5 per cent on average in 2007 and 2011. If this was replicated next Thursday, Labour would be well short of a majority and not far from their worst ever Assembly performance – but still the largest party by quite some distance.
The choice facing Labour, then, will be whether to govern alone or find its first coalition partner since 2011. Its options could be very limited. The Liberal Democrats, although having a reasonably good election campaign with their leader Kirsty Williams proving much more popular than UK leader Tim Farron, are still only polling enough for one seat. Unless they can beat those numbers, Labour will have to look towards Plaid Cymru, and their popular leader Leanne Wood. Having struggled for much of the previous four years in the polls, and a disappointing result in 2015 following a high-profile General Election campaign, Plaid seem to have made a breakthrough, polling a reasonably solid – but not secure – second place. Another disappointing election could spell trouble for Wood, whose national popularity masks a sometimes divided party between the traditionalist north and more left-wing republican south.
What we can be assured of is that there is no prospect of a “grand coalition” between Labour and the Conservatives. Indeed, the Conservatives path to power in Cardiff looks extremely narrow, with UKIP polling a distant fourth and the Lib Dems not in the picture. Furthermore, while their star burned brightly when they gained the historically Labour Gower constituency for the first time in 2015, the Conservatives are now battling twin headwinds of a steel crisis, which the Welsh are blaming on Westminster, and a leader in Andrew RT Davies whose unpopularity, according to the latest poll, is only surpassed by that of Prime Minister David Cameron. If the Conservatives can once again beat polling expectations and finish second, this will go down as a successful election for them.
The question lingering over this election is how anger over the steel crisis will manifest on polling day. Despite the hit to the popularity figures of the Prime Minister, it is unclear that Labour is, in turn, getting much credit for their efforts. Parties from all sides seeking to capitalise on the events in Port Talbot may be wise to remember an old Welsh proverb – Mae chwarae’n troi’n chwerw wrth chwarae hefo tân – Things turn sour when you play with fire.