Much like a sporting occasion, everybody forms an opinion after an election result.

For those whose party did well and whose candidate was re-elected, a pat on the back is in order. For those who did not, the inquest begins.

While members have been taking their seats in the Senedd, up the road in Park Place, academics at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre have been working hard to get to grips with what the election results mean.

Yesterday, alongside their colleagues in the Scottish Election Study, they presented the webinar ‘How Scotland and Wales voted’.

Here’s what you need to know.

Labour consolidated its Welsh identity base and played the national card well

Labour have been the dominant party in Wales for 99 years. It is dominant record unmatched anywhere else, and it does not look like discontinuing any time soon.

Professor Richard Wyn Jones, director of the Wales Governance Centre, said: “Not only is Labour a dominant party, it is a dominant national party.

“In constituencies where people feel Welsh, Labour does well. The way they played into Labour doing what is best for Wales, delivered on their historic position as the national party for Wales.

“Labour draped themselves in the flag, it is absolutely soft nationalism. The difference between how they have approached the constitution and identity is remarkably different to Scottish Labour.”

Labour is a catch all party when it comes to identity

At one point, it seemed like the days of the catch-all party were numbered. Parties that straddled the centre ground trying to appeal to a broad congregation were quickly being deserted for those further to the right and the left.

This has been a particular problem for centre left parties across Europe over the last decade. Welsh Labour do not seem to be suffering anywhere near the same fate.

Plaid naturally appeal to those who oppose the union and feel Welsh, while the Tories appeal to those on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Meanwhile, Labour appear to continue to pick ripe fruit across the spectrum.

Richard Wyn Jones said: “The Tories do horribly where people feel Welsh not British, while Plaid are the polar opposite.

“Labour is a national party in Wales in two senses, it does well with those who are Welsh, but it is also a catch all, and it does well across the board.”

Adam Price lost the battle of personalities with Mark Drakeford

The National Wales: Source: Wales Governance CentreSource: Wales Governance Centre

Labour and Plaid both put their leaders front and centre of their election campaigns, presidential style.

Two years ago, that would have felt like a safe bet for Plaid, and they would have backed Adam Price over Mark Drakeford.

With the pandemic emboldening the Labour leader’s profile and public support, it quickly became a high risk strategy for the party, and it was a strategy that did not pay off.  

Professor Wyn Jones said: “[Mark Drakeford’s] popularity has been transformed thanks to the pandemic. We asked people to use their own words to describe what they had taken from Labour’s campaign, and three words stood out sharply: Mark, Drakeford and Welsh.

“Labour staffers will be really happy seeing this, it is definitely what Labour voters took from the campaign.”

Highest switch ever from Tories to Labour

The National Wales: Source: Wales Governance CentreSource: Wales Governance Centre

The Tories were quick to celebrate their successes, after all, they had their largest seat share and their highest vote share in a Senedd election.

Yet, prior to the election, they had targeted an even bigger result. Before the the campaign kicked off, Andrew RT Davies told The National his party was the only one that could beat Labour; that was his goal.

The Tories were pointing to their success in the 2019 general election. Yet, in constituencies, the Tories only gained Vale of Clwyd, while a couple of Tory safe seats have now become Labour marginals.

There is a proportion of the population who switch between different parties in different elections. However, what the Welsh Election Study shows is just how many 2019 Tory voters turned to Labour on May 6.

15 per cent of people who voted Conservative in 2019 switched to Labour, the highest ever switch between a general election and a Senedd election.

Dr Jac Larner said: “The Conservative problem moving from Westminster to devolved elections is they continue to struggle to get their vote out.

“A couple of things contributed to this. Firstly, there were far more Conservative voters in 2019 who switched. In 2019 a lot of people lent their votes to the Conservatives because of Brexit, and generally, across the board, there was a feeling Welsh Labour and Mark Drakeford did a good job.

“Those who don’t turnout for Senedd elections are overwhelmingly Tory voters who live in constituencies that Tories have no chance of winning.

“At a UK general election, the framing is different because even though you may not have a chance of winning say Merthyr, they are voting for a party that has a chance of winning and forming a government.”

Independence supporters are happy to vote Labour

The National Wales: Source: Wales Governance CentreSource: Wales Governance Centre

Of voters who would vote ‘Yes’ in a Welsh independence election, 45.8 per cent voted for Plaid Cymru and 41.7 per cent voted for Labour.

That’s a pretty even split considering Plaid Cymru included the commitment to a referendum on the issue in their manifesto.

Dr Larner said: “Support for Welsh independence is at record levels thanks to Welsh Labour voters, rather than because of Plaid Cymru converting new voters to their cause. Despite favouring a unionist party, a growing share of Labour voters are saying they would vote 'Yes' in a referendum.”

Prior to the election campaign, Adam Price told The National his party had to 'create a bridge' to Labour voters.

That bridge did not appear to have lured enough of those voters across, while Labour are now comfortable on nationalist ground.

Plaid still the party of Welsh speakers

The National Wales: Source: Wales Governance CentreSource: Wales Governance Centre

Of Wales’ major parties, they are the only party that is predominantly referred to by its Welsh name.

Plaid has always been synonymous with the Welsh language, ever since its earliest days, and that should not be a handicap in a nation that has made significant strides in embracing and promoting its native tongue.

However, this time around, the party strengthened its bond with people who speak Welsh, but weakened its relationship with those who do not.

Dr Larner said: “Plaid Cymru support always correlated with Welsh language speakers. Support for Plaid from fluent Welsh speakers grew by about eight points, but Plaid lost votes among a group of people who have no knowledge of Welsh at all.

“Support for Plaid retreated back into its heartlands and they became dependant on language as a source of support.”

Labour won back a significant number of leave voters

Like England, the majority of the Welsh electorate voted to leave the European Union in 2016. While those voters have become a real headache - first for Jeremy Corbyn and now for Keir Starmer - in England, Labour have managed to retain their support in Wales.

A unique feature of the Welsh electorate appears to be that Welsh Labour have the ability to win substantial numbers of 'Leave' voters back from the Conservatives.

Constituencies that voted overwhelming in favour of Brexit, such as Caerphilly and Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, returned whopping majorities for Labour this time around.

The Welsh Labour message clearly resonates with ‘Leave’ voters in Wales in a way the UK Labour Party does not seem to be able to east of Offa’s Dyke.

Making that point, Professor Wyn Jones said: "If Keir Starmer had managed the same in England he'd be garlanded in red roses".

Why is any of this important?

Parties need to learn lessons from election results. All parties claim to have their fingers on the pulse of the electorate, but very few actually do.

Political attitudes can shift quickly, and that can have immediate and longer term impacts on a party, its leadership and its electoral results.

The Tories will take heart from their election result, but they will feel they could have performed even better. There’s a lasting issue with turnout of their voter base, and they appear as far away from power in Wales as ever.

For Plaid, it was the election that simply did not deliver. They tried to park their tanks on Labour’s lawn, only for Labour to do the same to them with more success.

Labour in Wales is as strong as it has ever been, but there is plenty of reason to not let their guard down. The party has become comfortable wrapping itself in the flag, but what happens when they have to show what is underneath.

The party looks like it will set out a radical constitutional agenda around further powers and radical federalism. To do that though, they need the support of a willing government in Westminster, and their UK Labour colleagues are still as far away from power as ever.

Then there’s the Scotland question. If Scotland were to force an independence vote and move to leave the UK, then what next for Wales and Welsh Labour?

Wearing that Welsh flag may be comfortable for now, but winds do change and pick up speed in politics, even if they’ve blown softly in the same direction for decades.

The 2021 Welsh Election Study was carried out by Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Dr Paula Surridge, Dr Jac Larner, Dr Ed Poole and Professor Daniel Wincott. It was conducted across three waves during the election on a sample size of 4,000. The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. 

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