One of the silliest questions in politics, for there are a few, is "who won the debate?". The winner of the debate is the person who encouraged the maximum amount of their plausible supporters to go and vote for them. Thus, it is actually possible that everyone 'won the debate', and likely that there will very rarely only be one clear winner.
The same is true at a local level. In 2015, I engaged very little in direct disagreement with Paul Flynn. Our relative positions on the political spectrum were markedly different and perhaps our styles and approaches to how we engaged in politics even more so. I knew there was a very small number of people who would be hovering over whether to vote Conservative or Labour based on the two local candidates.
The point I am making is that politicians and parties do not seek to win everyone's votes. They make an assessment of where there is a potential to achieve an increase in their share of the vote and they target their message and resources to those people. I raise this now, because it has perhaps never been so pronounced in the Senedd election as it is right now. Let us consider the approach and challenges the parties face.
Plaid Cymru enter this election far more bullish about independence than has previously been the case. For a period it was played down as a long-term ambition rather than an impending possibility. There seemed to be a concern it could scare away potential voters. Now, it is front and centre of their intentions with Adam Price seeking a referendum within a decade. There is momentum behind the independence movement but it is still a minority interest. The proponents are dispersed very unevenly across Wales' forty constituencies. Nonetheless, a conscious decision has been taken by the Party that both support for and visceral reaction against the nationalist narrative are at a level in which Plaid Cymru can make a net gain in Senedd seats.
The Welsh Conservatives' approach is the starkest and in some ways both a reaction to and a useful counternarrative for Plaid Cymru's more vocal nationalism. The Conservatives have clearly had one major focus in the run up to the Senedd election, namely turning out the voters who will back them in UK General Elections but tend not to vote in Senedd elections. It is a staunchly unionist campaign. The raw numbers do work for this approach, typically more people vote Conservative at a UK election than vote Labour at a Welsh one. That said, this has been an area they have sought to exploit previously without making the breakthrough they had hoped for. Personally, I would prefer the lead opposition party to be presenting itself as a government-in-waiting rather than chasing core votes, but it is hard to dismiss the mathematical logic of their approach.
For a period, the rise of a hostility to the very existence of a Welsh Parliament posed a threat to the Conservatives and an opportunity for the Abolish the Assembly Party. Long latent opposition to the Senedd among Tory members has been harnessed by a new generation of party activists. Yet with the plausibility of abolition marginally increased it created a problem for the Conservatives. Would Tory supporters lend their regional vote to the Abolish Party as they had to the Brexit Party in the 2019 European elections? This risk has diminished under the leadership of Andrew RT Davies who is about as plugged into the Tory membership as it is possible for a leader to be.
However, it presented some awkwardness around pro-devolution Conservative candidate selections. No sooner was Michael Enea, a hardworking local party activist, selected in Newport West than devosceptic Twitter Tories were challenging him with screenshots of tweets he had published indicating his support for further devolution. The Party will need to temper this hardline approach if it is to attract candidates with a rounded political interest. Previous Welsh Conservative leader Paul Davies was keen to emphasise the broad church nature of the party. It is hard to conclude this is not under strain at the moment.