Despite some postponement speculation, it looks like next May’s Senedd election will go ahead. Much is at stake in our sector. Welsh members must make sure their vote’s counted. CLA members with business interests in Wales might look on events with some trepidation. They might feel they’d like to influence the outcome too.
Formal campaigning will probably start straight after Easter. But in the manner of all fixed-term processes, eyes start to focus on a single-day’s outcome many weeks ahead. It’s already started, of course. The presentation of Covid 19 responses by two separate governments in England and Wales of different political hue, for example, have been highly political. Some see this to be more about partisan differences than about devolution. It’s certainly been responsible for a higher state of awareness about a widening gulf between England and Wales – and much frustration for those looking for fewer barriers – not more.
Welsh Labour’s been in government since devolution started, twenty years ago. They might take the most seats again next year. But several reasons make the outcome less predictable than past Senedd elections. Some significant members such as our sole Liberal Democrat and Minister, Kirsty Williams, and Independent and Minister, Dafydd Elis Thomas are not standing again. Their successors may have different part affiliations. More MSs will step aside as deadlines approach. The total number of candidates has doubled in the past couple of polls (to 248 in 2015) – offering more choice. As Brexit reaches its denouement, that small but significant group of staunch Leavers (some UKIP, some Independent) - may not be returned.
Then we must consider the electorate itself: less than half of those eligible to vote exercised that right in 2016. The eligibility of 16-17 year olds brings a swathe of post-Brexit/post-Covid youngsters – many still in education. And, at the other end of the age-scale, there are a higher number of older voters – and, (assisted by party machines, community spirit and postal-voting) their influence may be greater too. Let’s remember that Welsh voters have two votes each: one for their constituency Member, and another - on the List system - for those twenty (often misunderstood) regional seats. A mixture of voting behaviour and the vagaries of the process lends a degree of uncertainty about one-third of the seats in the Senedd. In a siambr of only 60, change in only a couple of seats can make a big difference.
We must think about how we, the CLA, will approach the election. We’ve a strong formula of basic messages in Rural Powerhouse Week: profitable and sustainable farming, a planning system designed for rural communities, a fully-connected countryside, a simpler tax regime and investment in skills and innovation. For the main part all of these policy areas are devolved and we will be developing a clear Welsh message consistent with those in England. To these we’ll add the impact of local and national Covid 19 restrictions and the recovery of the post-Brexit rural economy. We’ll also call for greater attention to reduction of rural crime.
Already this year we’ve engaged with Members of the Senedd from all major parties. Despite lockdown, we’ve even been able to meet them following the guidelines. These include the agriculture and rural affairs leads from Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives. There may (or may not) be more than the existing one Liberal Democrat in the Senedd. All the more reason, here, to maintain contact with the party research team from whom the party is likely to draw its candidates. All four main parties maintain policy development officers. Like us they have been working very effectively from home. Arguably, it’s made them more accessible via phone, online and social media.
We’ll be here to support our members whatever the election outcome. Despite burgeoning election-fever there’s normal business to cover: the White Paper on agriculture, NRW’s Area Statements initiative and fundamental economic recovery all going to be front-of-mind right up to polling-day. It will be the mood of the country that influences Welsh voters most. Mood can be the hardest sentiment to predict.