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6 December 2018updated 02 Sep 2021 11:09am

Mark Drakeford’s Corbynite rhetoric will soon be put to the test in Wales

The newly-elected Welsh Labour leader has the chance to put Corbynism into practice – and he can expect to be watched closely if he does. 

By roger Awan-Scully

And then, at last, it was done. Not Brexit, of course – but the Welsh Labour leadership race, which has been going since Carwyn Jones announced his long goodbye in April. After several months of phoney war – largely occupied with debating the rules – and an actual contest running since September, the result was declared by the Welsh deputy leader, Carolyn Harris, in Cardiff this afternoon.

On first preference votes, Mark Drakeford won 46.9 per cent of the vote, Vaughan Gething won 30.8 per cent and Eluned Morgan 22.3 per cent. After the second preferences of Eluned Morgan’s votes were re-allocated, the final result declared gave Mark Drakeford 53.9 per cent of the vote and Vaughan Gething 41.4 per cent.

So the long-time favourite was, in the end, the winner. But this had long been a contest that Mark Drakeford was expected to win overwhelmingly. The final result suggested that his strong support among Labour Assembly Members, and among constituency party nominations, had not wholly translated into the votes of grassroots Labour members. He had been expected to win decisively; in the end he won clearly, but by rather less than most observers had expected.

Vaughan Gething had enjoyed probably the best campaign period of any of the three contenders. His strong second place will surely put him in a very good position to expect a major ministerial portfolio in the Drakeford government. It also establishes him as the long-term favourite to win the leadership next time around.

For Eluned Morgan, who had faced a struggle just to get on the ballot, the result was rather as expected. Having started as the outsider in the race, she finished in last place. But with more than 20 per cent of the vote she was certainly not humiliated. As one of the Labour Assembly members with the widest range of political experience, she will also have strong claims to a Welsh cabinet job.

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The party election over, the formal process of installing the next First Minister should be completed without any dramas on Wednesday next week. Mark Drakeford will face all the usual challenges of forming a new government, and choosing his new ministerial team, over the next few days. He will then have to run that government in a context where the Welsh budget will continue to be under strain. But this is where things start to get politically interesting. With new devolved powers over income tax coming on-stream next year, will Mr Drakeford’s Corbynite rhetoric follow through into increased Welsh taxes to fund public services?

More generally, how will the new First Minister fulfil the hopes of his left-wing supporters? And how will political opponents react? His acceptance speech, replete with terms like “solidarity” and “collective action”, suggested that he may seek to turn Welsh Labour decisively to the left. But actions will now have to follow words. And as the clearest example of Corbynism in practice, we can now expect the Welsh government’s actions to be subject to much greater scrutiny. Just as David Cameron sought to turn the spotlight on problems in the Welsh NHS prior to the 2015 general election, so now too any policy failings – actual or merely alleged – in Wales may be claimed to illustrate fundamental Labour failings. Many in Wales who have longed for greater attention to devolved-level politics may find their wishes coming true, but not in quite the way they wished.

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But even before his new ministerial team have settled into their roles, Drakeford could be faced with the task of having to lead Wales amidst a wider UK constitutional and political crisis. As the Brexit imbroglio at Westminster gets ever deeper, the specific concerns of Wales – which is possibly more exposed to the economic dangers of a hard Brexit than any other part of Britain – will need to be voiced. Yet will they be heard in a Westminster that increasingly seems unable to look beyond its own dysfunctions?

Carwyn Jones had, at best, intermittent success in winning an effective hearing – and most commonly seemed to be paid attention when he allied with the SNP government in Scotland. How will Mark Drakeford seek to play things? During the leadership campaign, he supported the line of the party leadership in London in being sceptical about a second referendum – against strong calls from his two opposing candidates. In Eurosceptic Wales, which did after all vote for Brexit, evidence from recent Welsh polling suggests that Drakeford’s position is actually closer to that of the average voter. But events may soon move very fast, and positions on what to do next on Brexit may have to be similarly flexible.

With the “meaningful vote” occurring just the day before he is due to become First Minister, it is quite possible that Mark Drakeford might even be pitched into leading Welsh Labour in a UK general election campaign within weeks, or even days. Here he will find his predecessor a very tough act to follow. Carwyn Jones’ commanding leadership of Labour’s Welsh campaign last year built on an impressive electoral record that also included the party’s best-ever National Assembly election result in 2011. Mark Drakeford has always given the impression of being much more interested in policy and government than in vote-winning. But he may have no choice but to throw himself into the latter very swiftly.

In short, Mark Drakeford will surely expect no honyemoon period. His election victory should grant him some political capital within his party. But he may well need it: in this extraordinary political period no leader can expect a quiet or easy time.