Britain votes: Wales - `Touch and go' whether Labour will win majority

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The Independent Online
IT IS touch and go whether Labour will hold an an overall majority in the Welsh Assembly. With the count beginning today, an exit poll for the BBC last night indicated that Labour would win between 28 and 32 seats in the 60-strong assembly.

It was not clear whether Alun Michael, Welsh Labour Party leader, would be elected as part of the "top-up" list, but he expressed "quiet confidence" that the second votes had gone in his favour.

Critical to the result, however, will be turn-out figures and early today the BBC poll suggested that it could fall substantially below the critical 50 per cent level. Anything less than half would call into question the Assembly's credibility.

A very low turnout - and the BBC poll suggested it could be as low as 35 per cent - compares with the 50.3 per cent who voted in the 1997 referendum which established the Assembly and was regarded as not high enough.

According to the survey conducted until 9pm - an hour before polling closed - Plaid Cymru continued its strong showing, gaining 26 per cent of the "first-past-the-post" votes, 28 per cent of second choices and probably securing between 13 and 17 seats. That means its support since the general election has increased three-fold.

However, if Labour fails to gain an overall majority, the party is expected to seek a coalition with the Liberal Democrats who are likely to win between four and eight seats, according to the BBC survey of 4,000 voters. The Tories were predicted to receive 14 per cent of the first votes, half their share in the general election.

Mr Michael, Secretary of State for Wales, said his party's projections showed it would gain between 30 and 34 seats, but he felt it was most likely to be 31 or more, giving the party an overall majority. Peter Hain, his campaign manager, believed there would be no need for a coalition. But, he said there was scope for a "new politics" involving Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. In Wales the Tories were nowhere, he said.

Ieuan Wyn Jones, of the nationalists, said his party had returned an "excellent performance", believing that the surge in support had followed Mr Michael's selection as leader of the Welsh Labour party in preference to Rhodri Morgan. Marc Phillips, a Plaid Cymru official, said that if Labour succeeded in winning a majority it would be "very small and difficult to manage".

Earlier it became clear that the complex voting system could be scrapped. Mr Michael said that the system, in which electors had to cast two votes, would be re-examined by the Assembly. The Labour leader said it was "a little bit like a bingo game with lots of crosses to put in". Returning officers in some constituencies were inundated with inquiries by puzzled voters. The Assembly, which meets next week, does not have the power to change the method, but it is thought likely that the United Kingdom Parliament would pass the necessary legislation if called upon to do so.