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Devolved Elections 2016: Welsh Assembly steels itself to save Port Talbot

1 April 2016

Elections are inherently unpredictable, with sudden and unforeseen events often throwing carefully laid plans and strategies to the wind.

Already thrown somewhat off course by the announcement of the EU Referendum in June, the Welsh elections were thoroughly disrupted this week by the accelerating demise of the British steel industry and the announcement that Tata intends to sell its British steel business, including its high-profile plant in Port Talbot.

With 15,000 jobs on the line, and many more at stake in the supply chain, the closure of the UK business would be seriously damaging for both the steel industry in the UK and for Wales.

Both main parties could stand to lose electorally from the closure, with the Labour Government in Cardiff and the Conservative Government in Westminster arguably sharing responsibility for intervention.

However, thus far Labour appears to have seized the agenda and effectively presented a portrait of inactivity on the part of the UK Government.

First Minister Carwyn Jones has called on the UK Government to nationalise the plant, arguing that the devolved administration lacked the funds required to take ownership of the largest steel plant in the UK.

His party is arguably still vulnerable to accusations of inactivity in the run up to the crisis, and Plaid Cymru’s call for the two Governments to work together in tackling the crisis hints at a strategy to try and prevent Labour from absolving itself for the issues at Port Talbot.

However, Mr Jones’ actions and comments have effectively passed responsibility for responding to the crisis to London. Further, the united response from both the Welsh and UK Labour leadership will help to dampen talk of divisions within the party and help create the impression of a common front.

By contrast, the Government’s decision not to recall Parliament in spite of calls from Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn (and the growing number of signatories on a public petition) has opened it up to accusations of lethargy, or perpaps apathy, in the face of disaster.

The recall of the Assembly is likely to create an impression of a more active response to the crisis from Cardiff than from London, and will provide an opportunity for Labour and Plaid Cymru to attack the actions of the Conservative Government.

Coupled with the decision to rule out nationalisation of the plant and the shambolic cancellation of the Business Secretary’s trade visit to Australia, the Government’s response to the crisis has been marked with a lack of clarity and is unlikely to do any favours for its Welsh colleagues at the ballot box come May.

The party had already been facing difficulties after the Conservative Conference in Wales earlier this month, which was dominated by controversy over Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to focus his speech to delegates on defending continued membership of the European Union.

The spectre of Europe continues to hang over the campaign, with UKIP, already hoping to take a record number of seats at the election, having attributed the issues facing the Tata plant to EU inaction over Chinese dumping and rules forcing energy prices higher. The escalation of the crisis could provide the eurosceptics with an opportunity to reap further electoral rewards.

However, the problems of the steel industry have not appeared to pay dividends for UKIP, with polling conducted before Tata’s announcement that it intended to sell the plant indicating a small decrease in the party’s support since February.

Though this change lay within the margin of error for such polling and could be a trick of statistics, the more concerning figure will be the nine point decline in support for the Leave campaign in polling conducted concurrently.

Subsequent events may have created swings in public opinion, but given the long running nature of the issues in the steel industry the results appear to suggest that attempts to attribute the steel industry’s issues to the actions of Eurocrats in Brussels have not been as successful as Brexiteers may have been wished.

The polling also gave Labour an eleven-point lead over the Conservatives, which is likely to have widened in the aftermath of the Government response.

Thus far, the primary beneficiary of the crisis in political terms has been Labour. However, should the plant collapse then the nature of the support provided to the workers could turn the tide against the Government in Cardiff if the response is deemed to be insufficient.

Debates on other issues currently appear to be on hold, but are likely to come to the fore once again when the first leaders’ debate takes place on 11 April. This could also allow the Welsh Conservative Party a chance to hit back against the Labour Government and criticise its record, thereby somewhat neutralising the negative impact of the Westminster response to the steel industry’s malaise.

With a number of weeks remaining before the election, it is also possible that a satisfactory resolution to the issues at Port Talbot will neutralise the impact of recent events by the time Welsh voters arrive at the ballot box.

However, with no end to the crisis in sight, the disruption to the electoral campaign may prove irreversible. While it is unclear whether Labour's efforts will be enough to preserve its dominance in the Assembly, the events of the past week will go some way in shoring up the party’s previously lacklustre support, and may allow it to stay in Government without forming a reluctant coalition.

Madhav Bakshi, Political Analyst
Madhav Bakshi
Political Analyst

Madhav Bakshi is a Political Analyst within DeHavilland’s Editorial Team and leads on Energy policy. He is a graduate of King’s College London, where he studied International Politics.