Wales politics

Battle for control of Cardiff Bay in Welsh election

Senedd
Image caption The next assembly will have a very different composition

With the campaign under way for the Welsh general election on 5 May, BBC Wales political reporter Daniel Davies sets the scene.

Welsh assembly members have left Cardiff Bay and gone back to their constituencies to seek a fresh mandate.

For the first time, the assembly has formally dissolved ahead of the election.

Ministers will keep their jobs and the Cabinet will reconvene if there is a crisis before 5 May.

But at midnight on Thursday last week, the 60 AMs ceased to be AMs.

No matter how many succeed in getting their jobs back, the assembly returned by the electorate In May, will be very different.

There will be at least 14 new faces thanks to retiring AMs.

Former First Minister Rhodri Morgan, who has towered over the first decade of devolution, is among those standing down.

Other incumbents are swapping their seats to fight in new constituencies or have slipped down their party rankings on regional lists.

Go it alone?

There are big questions facing each of the main parties.

For Labour the task is to win enough seats to govern alone and keep Carwyn Jones in his job as first minister without the need for a coalition partner.

A single-party majority government has only been in place for less than two of the assembly's 12 years.

Opinion polls suggest Labour has recovered ground since 2007 when a tally of 26 seats forced it to share power with Plaid Cymru.

There has been some debate about what constitutes a comfortable majority for Labour. Thirty seats - half the Senedd - would be difficult. But Mr Jones says 31 is "government territory".

Plaid came close to seeing its leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, appointed first minister at the head of a rainbow coalition with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in 2007.

When that deal hit the rocks, Plaid opted to side with Labour. Mr Jones had to settle for the deputy first minister's job, but there was a hefty consolation prize: the prospect of Labour putting its muscle behind a referendum on a more powerful assembly.

Now that voters have registered an emphatic Yes vote in that referendum, what concessions would Plaid seek if it is involved in coalition negotiations this year?

The Conservatives will hope to replicate successes at last year's general election when they won the seats of Montgomeryshire, the Vale of Glamorgan and Aberconwy.

Will that be enough to dislodge Labour? Plaid has said it will be difficult to discuss a coalition with the Conservatives because of the actions of their UK coalition government in Westminster.

And the way the assembly's electoral system distributes its 20 regional regional seats could work against Welsh Conservative leader Nick Bourne. His seat will be in jeopardy if the party gains constituencies in his mid and west region.

Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams says this is the most important assembly election since 1999

Her party flatlined on six seats in the first three assembly elections. What's more, since May 2007 its support in the monthly ITV Wales/YouGov tracker poll has slipped from 15% in the constituency vote and 12% in the regional vote to 8% in both votes this month.

In their attempt to defy the opinion polls, the Lib Dems have hounded the assembly government over its record on the economy, the NHS and education. Meanwhile, their rivals will encourage voters to use this election to bloody Nick Clegg's nose.

Spending cuts

The next assembly will be more powerful than its three predecessors.

Last month's referendum vote in favour of direct law-making powers should have got the manifesto writers' creative juices flowing.

But the increased law-making power comes as the assembly's spending power shrinks.

The outgoing assembly government says Wales has been hit harder by spending cuts than any other part of the UK - an allegation denied by Prime Minister David Cameron.

What is certain is that there will be less money to go around.

During the first 10 years of devolution the assembly's block grant doubled in size, paying for flagship Labour policies such as free prescription and free primary school breakfasts.

Now the talk is of priorities. A Conservative pledge to maintain health spending in line with inflation will be a big battleground in the campaign.

Capital spending will be hit particularly hard. The assembly government predicts a 40% fall over the next four years.

Politicians are at war over how to fill the gap. Rivals have attacked as unfeasible a Plaid Cymru proposal for a not-for-profit company that would invest in public infrastructure projects with money raised on the financial markets.