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Potential Senedd Election Delay

We’ve all be planning for a Senedd Election on Thursday, 6th May 2021, but it seems more likely that the election will be delayed for public health reasons. We may now see an election in the summer or early Autumn, and the following note explains the decision-making involved.

Until 2017, the UK Government held the powers over determining the Senedd Elections, with regulations that allowed the Llywydd to move the date of the election by one month. Since the introduced of the Wales Act 2017, the power of Senedd Elections has been devolved to the Senedd. The regulations, however, have not yet been changed, so the Llywydd currently only has the power to delay the 2021 elections for 1 month.

For that reason, the Welsh Government will bring forward new legislation for the Senedd to agree that will allow the Llywydd to delay the elections by six months. This new law will only require a majority, but the measures included in the law mean that a two thirds majority in the Senedd will be required for a long delay.

Both Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru have indicated that whilst they would prefer not to delay the election, they would support a delay at this time because of the pandemic. The Welsh Conservatives have signalled that they would currently vote against.

Running an election at this time is feasible of course, but it could increase risk of transmission in a number of ways – in terms of campaigning, voting and counting. The system is not yet ready to move towards all-postal voting (this will need new regulations) so we will be asking people to leave their houses and attend indoor polling stations on the same day in all of our communities. Local authority staff, many currently redeployed on services such as test and trace, shielding support and school provision, will be asked to spend a considerable amount of time indoors together in order to plan, collate and count the result.

What would be the political ramifications? Well, it might be that Labour would prefer an election where door-to-door canvassing is possible. What might an election campaign look like under public health restrictions – no door knocking, no rallies or hustings. Campaigning would be limited to media coverage, and heavily imbalanced spending on newspaper and online advertising. Both Labour and Plaid Cymru would be heavily outspent in such a scenario.

Though it is difficult to predict the exact impact of a strong ground game, the Labour Party can muster numbers of volunteers both during the campaign and on the day of the election to get people to voting booths. It also does better in elections where there are higher turnouts.

The Conservatives can rely more on well-funded online and media advertising campaigns, with expensive, targeted letters designed to turn out their vote, without the reliance on volunteers on the ground. They know that if their voters are less likely to vote in Senedd Elections than in General Elections, but if they can get a decent proportion of the people who supported them in December 2019 to vote in the Senedd Elections, they will take a number of marginal seats from Labour, particularly across North Wales. Their canvassing versus turnout judgement is, therefore, more balanced.

So there is a political quandary here. Labour don’t want to be seen to be putting off an election until the summer, when canvassing may be possible, and look like they are trying to delay the vote for political reasons. But with the pressure on the NHS as it is, ministers will feel strongly that they can’t risk an election in May leading to a further rise in infections.

Ordinarily, the Conservatives would be leading a strong protest against ‘cancelling democracy’, ‘clinging on to power’ and ‘taking away the voice of the people’ to hold the Welsh Government to account.

This challenge would have been somewhat muted if the Conservatives at a UK level decided to announce that, for public health reasons, the need to delay both the English Local Elections (already one year late) and the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections. The latter vote is due across England and Wales and would have taken place on the same day as the Senedd Elections.

It seemed from press reports that this was a real consideration, but this week the Telegraph ran a scoop saying that Boris Johnson was convinced the public health restrictions would be lessened by the time of the planned elections, and that he was keen for them to go ahead. Prescience has not always been a hallmark of No10 decision-making during this pandemic, but this might be one of those decisions that sticks.

History suggests that the UK Government and the Welsh Government will not naturally come to a sensible agreement about delaying both the Senedd Elections and the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections to the same day in the summer or early Autumn, so we may also see an argument about asking the public to come out to vote twice.

In terms of timing, one might think a summer election is more likely. Elections in July and August are usually avoided to avoid holiday periods, but who knows whether we will be travelling again by that time? September may be more likely therefore, even though the public health advice to the Welsh Government seems to suggest another peak in the Autumn could happen.

There are not good or easy answers during this pandemic. As with many decisions during 2021, the Labour Welsh Government is likely to take the most cautious approach, and it is probable that Plaid Cymru will support them in doing so. There will be an inevitable row with the Conservatives about it, especially if the PCC elections have not been delayed.

Labour and Plaid Cymru will then provide the two-thirds majority required to delay the election to what we might suggest will be the first week of September.

For a bird's eye view.
Am olwg oddi uchod.

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