Robert Sutton: The data suggests the Conservatives should be quietly optimistic about the Welsh election

28 Apr

Dr Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer.

The 2019 general election saw a major shift in voter behaviour. The Red Wall of traditionally Labour constituencies was broken, and several seats elected their first-ever Conservative MP. Working class voters switched to the Tories while Labour seemed to increasingly be the preserve of the middle classes.

The elections in May this year offer the opportunity to test whether these shifts mark a long-term transition in the UK’s political alignments. In Wales, voters will head to the polls on May 6 to elect their representative in the Senedd. Many Welsh seats, particularly in the South, have demographics and voting records which are notably similar to those of the formerly-Red Wall.

The Senedd election provides a predictive challenge for armchair psephologists. National polling is a highly imperfect barometer for estimating election outcomes. The twin problems of missing information (we only have national or regional, rather than constituency-level, data) and systematic bias (the phenomenon of the “shy Tory,” for instance) make predicting outcomes difficult.

Its mixed electoral system compounds the challenge. Of the 60 Senedd seats, 40 correspond to the Westminster constituencies and elect members through a first-past-the-post vote. The remaining 20 seats are elected through a form of proportional representation, with each of the five regions electing four members by the D’Hondt method, with voters casting separate votes for the constituency and regional candidate lists.

How can we try to predict the 2021 Senedd election without constituency level polling? YouGov provides a wealth of data through its Welsh Political Barometer. This data is disaggregated by various demographic, political and geographic features (age, gender, electoral region, social grade, vote in the 2016 EU referendum), which have the potential to be extrapolated to estimate swings in individual constituencies. Each survey contains data for over 1000 citizens, and 29 such surveys have been carried out since 2016.

We can apply these disaggregated changes to the known demographic and political characteristics of each individual constituency. To give an example: if we know how voting intention among leave voters in the 2016 EU referendum has changed, and we know approximately what percentage voted leave in each constituency, we can estimate the relative impact of that change in each constituency. In a seat where 60 per cent voted leave compared to one in which 30 per cent voted leave, we would expect the effect of the polling shift to be approximately double.

We can apply this principle to different disaggregated categories of polling data from YouGov’s Welsh Political Barometer. By collecting constituency data on age, EU referendum vote and social grade from the House of Commons Library, Dr Chris Hanretty, and Electoral Calculus respectively, we can estimate the impact of changes in support at the constituency level. The equation looks something like:

Overall change in voting intention = age-related change + EU vote-related change + social grade-related change

To give a worked example, age groups are disaggregated by YouGov into four categories. By best-fitting YouGov data for the 29 individual surveys, we find the following change in Conservative support among each age group:

  • 16-24:  -1.7 per cent
  • 25-49:  +5.8 per cent
  • 50-64:  +9.0 per cent
  • 65+:     +8.1 per cent

While Conservative support has fallen slightly among the youngest category, among the three older groups it has strengthened, driven in party by the decline of UKIP and the Brexit Party. Applying the same logic to data for the 2016 EU referendum vote and social grade data, we can build profiles of individual constituencies to estimate them, weighting each of the three components by one-third to avoid overcounting. Regional swings are calculated using trendlines for regional voter intention.

Amongst Remainers, Conservative support has fallen by 5.6 per cent, offset by support among Leavers growing by 15.5 per cent. Overall support across social grades for the Conservatives has grown, but has been stronger amongst C2DE voters, increasing by 8.2 per cent compared to 2.6 per cent amongst ABC1 voters. Regional support has increased across all regions, ranging from a low of +0.4 per cent in North Wales to a high of +9.4 per cent in South Wales West. These trends are very positive for Conservative prospects.

How does this translate into electoral outcomes in our model? In the 2016 Senedd elections, Labour won 29 seats, Plaid Cymru 12, the Conservatives 11, UKIP seven and the Lib Dems one. This model suggests a significant erosion of the size of the Labour party in the Senedd down to just 21 seats, with a corresponding growth of the Conservatives to 16 seats (+5) and Plaid Cymru to 18 seats (+6). UKIP will lose all 7 seats and both Reform and Abolish the Welsh Assembly are expected to take 2 seats. The Greens are not expected to gain any. There are a further four seats in which the Conservatives are expected to come within five per cent of the winning vote.

The model used here has several limitations. Most notably, it does not contain any constituency level data: instead, it relies on nationwide demographic and political trends to be extrapolated to a local level by using local demographic and political data. The model also assumes the effect from age, EU vote and social grade contributes equally to party polling swings at a constituency level, which is an oversimplification. There is also a chance that Labour will enjoy a significant boost late in the campaign if their post-Covid reopening goes ahead smoothly.

Yet taken together, the findings presented here suggest a very positive result for the Welsh Conservatives. There are also significant implications for what the Welsh Government could look like after May 6, and the Welsh Conservative party leadership should be preparing for these possibilities. Labour would be a long way from a majority on just 21 seats and would naturally seek to build a coalition to stay in power.

Numerically, a majority could be held by either a Labour-Plaid or Conservative-Plaid coalition, but both the Conservatives and Plaid have previously stated they would never enter into a coalition with each other, secessionism being fundamentally incompatible with the Conservative and Unionist Party’s values. There is also precedent for a Labour-Plaid coalition, so if this model proves accurate, that will be the most likely outcome.

If Labour and Plaid are unable or unwilling to form a coalition, then the resulting hung Welsh parliament may necessitate a second Senedd election soon afterwards. The Welsh Conservatives’ leadership should be quietly optimistic for the possibility of significant electoral gains, while quietly wargaming the possibility that we have a hung Welsh parliament after the May election.

Robert Sutton: The protection of civil liberties must be placed at the heart of a reformed Public Health Act

1 Jan

Dr Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer.

Since the passage of the Coronavirus Act 2020, we have seen an unprecedented restriction of civil liberties in this country. The powers assumed by the government have allowed ministerial decree to circumvent parliamentary scrutiny and to regulate the minutiae of our everyday lives to a degree unimaginable just one year ago.

Yet the basis of these powers drawn from the Act is dubious. Notable legal scholars, particularly Jonathan Sumption, the former Supreme Court Justice, have argued that the legislation is unsuitable for the executive powers which have been carried out in its name. Parliamentarians are similarly frustrated by the way the Act has been used to evade parliamentary scrutiny while some of the most consequential restrictions are rolled out on ministerial whim. Steve Baker, in his duties as Deputy Chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, has repeatedly called for reform in this area.

Certainly, any legislation which is being used for such a constitutional distortion must be entirely unambiguous in its scope. The Act draws its authority in part from the Public Health Act 1984 (PHA). The PHA provides powers to restrict the movement of individuals known to have a communicable disease and to control spaces which are known to be contributing to contagion. Yet the current Covid-19 restrictions are far broader in their application that just to those individuals who are known to be infected, and this is where the Act treads into murky waters.

While the PHA is clear in putting forward what restrictions might be applied to individuals and premises known to be contagious (and these restrictions are entirely sensible), it is far less clear what the scope of its powers are with regards to individuals who are not infected with a communicable disease – the vast majority of citizens. The legal precedent on such issues is that, where there is ambiguous or general wording, such vagueness must not be used to curtail constitutional freedoms. Else, we would be able to take justify drastic actions using whatever legislation is unclear in its scope. But the Government seems uninterested in such precedent.

The primary piece of legislation which gives government powers to curtail civil liberties is the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (CCA). The CCA is a remarkable piece of legislation which allows a government to wield extraordinary powers in an emergency. As such, its use is strictly bound by ongoing Parliamentary scrutiny of those powers. It is clear that these powers are lent to the government by Parliament, and for a limited period at a time. They can also be withdrawn by Parliament as it sees fit. The fear that an emergency might be exploited to evade the House of Commons by a power-hungry executive was precisely what the drafters had in mind when including such safeguards.

The necessity for Parliamentary scrutiny intrinsic to the CCA is why MPs have argued that the executive should be using it as the basis for coronavirus restrictions instead of the PHA, or that the PHA itself should be reformed to make clear the limits of its powers. Yet Boris Johnson has made clear that he has no intention of using the CCA as the legal basis of lockdown powers, so we return to the PHA to define that scope.

The current PHA certainly was not developed with the current situation in mind. So, as it stands, we find ourselves trapped in a middle ground, in which the legislation being used as the basis for lockdown is unsuitable for that purpose and incapable of giving such provisions as to ensure ongoing Parliamentary scrutiny. This gives the rather uncomfortable impression that the Government intentionally chose a legal basis which it could use knowing that it would be subject to a lower standard of Parliamentary scrutiny than that which would be required under the CCA.

Yet to try to circumvent Parliament in the exercise of executive power is extremely myopic. Whether the Government currently realises it or not, it is within their best interests to ensure that further restrictions are brought before Parliament. Parliament is not some constitutional inconvenience. It is the basis for our liberal democracy, the means by which legislation is given its moral authority and an exceptionally useful political tool to measure public perceptions of government plans.

By directly reforming the PHA to explicitly limit its scope, and to allow legislation carried in its name to face full scrutiny by Parliament, the Government would certainly face a short-term inconvenience of restricting the executive powers it has used lavishly thus far. But there would be an overwhelming long-term gain in ensuring that those measures passed have the direct consent of MPs and the indirect consent of their constituents. This would without doubt make for better and more resilient legislation and ensure that any further restrictions are more surely footed in both law and public opinion.