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Welsh national identity central to outcome of 2021 Senedd elections, research concludes

9 June 2022

Voters’ views on national identity limited the gains that Labour’s opponents could expect to achieve at last year’s Senedd elections, new research from Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre says.

Writing in the journal Parliamentary Affairs, academics analysed data collected from the 2021 Welsh Election Study, which explores voter attitudes and behaviour through a series of online polls. The results they say, show the Labour vote is particularly strong among voters who feel a relatively strong attachment to both British and Welsh identities, “a group which constitutes a majority of the electorate”.

The study shows Plaid Cymru do best among respondents with a strong Welsh and weak British identity. Conversely, the Conservatives do far better among those with strong British and weak Welsh identities.

Lead author Dr Jac Larner said: “The Welsh election of the 6 May 2021 delivered a vote of confidence in both Welsh Labour and the wider devolution project.

“The Conservatives in Wales cannot currently win the support of voters who consider themselves primarily or exclusively Welsh, while Plaid Cymru equally struggle to find votes from those who consider themselves either fully or partially British.

“What remains, then, is a Welsh Labour party that emphasises its Welsh credentials and distinctiveness from the UK party, while remaining, at least for now, committed to the union. Maintaining this ‘Goldilocks’ positioning on national identity and Wales’ average constitutional preferences across six devolved elections means it is now by some margin the most successful electoral force in the UK.”

Academics say the picture in Wales is similar to research carried out elsewhere in Britain, with the three constituent territories of Britain dominated by three different “national” parties – the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives in England.

Dr Larner said: “The SNP is dominant among those who identify as Scottish. In England, the Conservatives dominate among those who identify as English. In Wales, Labour is the party of choice among those who feel Welsh, with the sole exception of those who reject Britishness outright.

“This political landscape creates a major dilemma for Welsh Labour in terms of how it delivers on its ambitions without a significant Labour rebound in England and Scotland; two eventualities that currently look remote. Within this context, there is every likelihood that the Welsh Government will increasingly come into conflict with the UK Government, which will only serve to highlight its own impotence.

“In structural terms, both the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru face the same fundamental challenge; namely, how to extend their support beyond the very different sections of the electorate that are currently predisposed to supporting them.”

The 2021 Welsh Election Study is an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded survey of approximately 4,000 eligible voters in Wales carried out online by YouGov.

The survey consists of four waves (one pre-election, two post-election, plus an additional rolling campaign wave) and employs a panel design to re-interview as many of the same respondents as possible.

Its large sample size coupled with its panel element provides an unrivalled source to study political behaviour and attitudes in Wales.

Incumbency and Identity: The 2021 Senedd Election, is available to view here.

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