It was almost a surprise when the Welsh Labour leadership contest finally got properly under way last month. Following Carwyn Jones’ shock resignation announcement at April’s Welsh Labour conference, there were months of phoney war, with the party debating the rules for any contest, and only one confirmed leadership candidate. However, when nominations closed in early October, there were ultimately three confirmed contenders; ballot papers will go out later this week, with the final result due on 6 December.
But is it a genuine contest now under way, or merely a coronation? Much of the Welsh political class has spent the last few months regarding any election as little more than a formality. Mark Drakeford attracted much the largest number of nominations from colleagues within the Welsh Assembly (with 17 Assembly Members backing him, compared to only six nominating each of the other candidates, Vaughan Gething and Eluned Morgan). Drakeford has also garnered an almost embarrassingly large advantage over his would-be rivals in the number of constituency party endorsements (with 24 constituency Labour parties declaring in his favour of Drakeford, and only two each for both of his rivals), although recent history suggests that these are a less-than-perfect guide to how an election might actually conclude. Of the other candidates, Gething is viewed by many as “putting down a marker” for the next contest a few years hence, while Morgan – despite years of experience in the European Parliament and House of Lords – barely scraped onto the ballot.
Should Drakeford be viewed as a shoo-in to be the next First Minister of Wales? While he is still the overwhelming favourite, not everything has been running his way. This week has seen publication of a new Welsh Political Barometer poll, the third poll during 2018 that has asked the Welsh public their views about actual or potential contenders to succeed Carwyn Jones. One in March asked people to rate possible candidates (for a then unconfirmed vacancy) on a 0-10 scale; a second poll in July required respondents to choose the best candidate from a list of potential contenders. This latest poll used both question formats to ask respondents about the three Welsh Labour candidates. Two things stand out from the results in all these polls. The first is that most people in Wales have little or no idea who any of the candidates to be the next First Minister actually are. In the latest poll, a clear majority of respondents (including fully 60 per cent of all Labour supporters) opted for Don’t Know when asked to pick the best First Minister candidate; majorities also opt for Don’t Know when they were asked to rate each of the candidates individually on the 0-10 scale.
There is a second thing that stands out from the polling figures, though. Across all three polls, and both question formats, Drakeford scores poorly with those people who can offer a view on the leadership candidates. In the latest poll he averages only 4.0 out of 10, compared to 4.4 for Gething and 4.5 for Morgan. When selecting the best single candidate, 9 percent chose Morgan, 8 per cent Gething, and only 5 percent Drakeford. In short – not only do most Welsh people have little idea who their likely next First Minister is, but most of those who do have some idea aren’t impressed by him. The party members who will be voting soon may start to question whether Mark Drakeford as leader would be an electoral asset for his party.
The campaign trail is also proving a little difficult for the frontrunner. His performances at hustings, and other campaign events, have generated some criticism. The overall tenor of his campaign has appeared cautious. He has seemed less willing than his rivals to critique Welsh Labour’s record in government. He has also been notably more reluctant to take a bold stand over the key issue of the times, Brexit, supporting the line of the UK leadership in resisting calls for a second referendum.
There are two problems here. The first is that whoever takes over as Welsh Labour leader will be following on from two predecessors (Carwyn Jones, and before him Rhodri Morgan) who were politically skilful and publicly popular figures. Drakeford has done nothing to suggest that he has the public appeal or broader political skills to match them. But as the clear frontrunner in the leadership contest, his political skills are being examined more closely by much of his party.
But there is also a deeper issue. Drakeford has courted the Corbynites (of whom there are large numbers in his own constituency party). This is not simply bending to the prevailing political winds – he has a genuine affinity with the left. But he also has a substantial record in government for which he is accountable: as a minister, and for years before that as a close adviser to Rhodri Morgan. Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership in 2015 at least in part because he was the only candidate with clear and forceful message. But it was easier for Corbyn to articulate such a message because he had no past record in government, or in party leadership, that he was forced to defend. Mark Drakeford, with a long history as a generally rather cautious and moderate figure in government, is having to defend actually-existing Corbynism, rather than the unsullied ideal. This proving rather more difficult.