What four party leadership contests reveal about Welsh politics

One party’s leader has resigned, another’s is standing down, one party is leaderless, and the last expects a leadership challenge. 

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Like the rest of the UK, Wales has spent recent days basking in glorious sunshine. Yet no matter how long the weather stays good, this will be no summer of love in Welsh politics. Internal party division and discord are more likely to form the dominant themes for the next few weeks and months. For we now face simultaneous leadership elections for all four parties in the Welsh Assembly.

Welsh Labour started off the fun with Carwyn Jones’s announcement that he would leave office by the end of the year. Mark Drakeford rapidly emerged as the frontrunner, but three ministerial colleagues in the Welsh government – health and social services secretary Vaughan Gething, Welsh language minister Eluned Morgan, and children and social care minister Huw Irranca-Davies – have also declared their interest in standing. Other possible contenders are keeping their counsel while the party first debates the rules for the election: an electoral college or One Member, One Vote. But with Drakeford courting favour with Corbynistas while Gething is clearly identified as a moderate, there is plenty of scope for the race to assume an ideological as well as personal dimension.

Ukip’s fractious Assembly group have made little positive contribution to Welsh politics since their election in May 2016 – beyond providing occasional amusement to observers. Their seven Assembly Members (AMs) have contrived to split in five directions: Mark Reckless back to membership of the Conservative group (though not, apparently, of the Conservative party); Mandy Jones remains a Ukip member but is not part of the Assembly group; and now a three-way leadership contest, due to be put to a membership ballot, between Neil Hamilton and two other AMs, Caroline Jones and Gareth Bennett.

Plaid Cymru’s Assembly group in the last two years has occasionally been fractious enough to almost rival Ukip. Two of the 12 Assembly members elected in 2016 have disappeared overboard: former leader Dafydd Elis Thomas left Plaid within months of the election, while Neil McEvoy was suspended from the party earlier this year. With the party drifting in the polls, and internal squabbles meaning they have virtually ceased to function in their key target seat of Llanelli, prominent Plaid members have called for Leanne Wood to be challenged. If either or both of the two obvious contenders, Adam Price and Rhun ap Iorwerth, do stand, Wood has said she will fight for her job.

Now the Welsh Conservatives have added to the fun, with this week’s resignation of Andrew RT Davies. There had been regular grumblings about his leadership since the Tories’ unsuccessful devolved election two years ago, and his robust and populist style and pro-Leave position had long sat uneasily with many of his Assembly colleagues. Any contest to succeed Davies will likely pit Davies against Davies – with Paul and Suzy competing to follow Andrew.

What does it say about Wales that all four parties face leadership contests? In part, of course, this is simply coincidence: a set of contingent events, most notably the tragic ones that brought forward the Welsh Labour leadership contest by a year or more.

But there is another factor at play: the febrile nature of contemporary politics. The two main parties at Westminster are increasingly dysfunctional and shambolic, and patently lack credible responses to the major and urgent problems facing the country. Wales is facing a Brexit that it voted for, yet which could inflict generational damage to its economy and society. That Welsh politicians in leadership positions are finding it difficult to have convincing things to say in such a context may say something about the calibre of some of those politicians. But it says much more about the times in which we are currently living.

Whoever becomes the new leader in each of the parties will face substantial and urgent challenges. The new Welsh Labour leader will be pitched straight into running a government, and also have to face the broader task of renewing the party’s sense of purpose while still holding office. Their Conservative counterpart will need to try to hold their party together in the short-term, and in the longer-term develop a credible strategy for breaking out of the Tories’ apparently permanent status as an opposition party in the Assembly. For Plaid, whoever is leader by the autumn needs to be able to bring the party back together, and provide a renewed sense of purpose after their previous visions of an “independent Wales in Europe” was blown out of the water by the Brexit vote. As for Ukip – well, simply not impersonating bad-tempered ferrets in a sack would be an improvement…

Electoral contests provide lots of energy but rarely raise the intellectual levels of debate. Internal party elections are particularly prone to witness pandering towards comforting certainties – no matter how inadequate that may be to the circumstances. With the Article 50 clock ticking, it would be nice to think that Wales’ political parties will rise to the level of events, and use the opportunity of leadership elections to develop and articulate some serious ideas relevant to the nation’s huge short-term and longer-term problems. It would be nice – but I’m struggling to imagine that they will.

Roger Awan-Scully is Head of Politics and International Relations at Cardiff University.