New polling suggests Labour hegemony in Wales is under threat

Almost nobody knows who First Minister Mark Drakeford is – and those who do don’t like him.

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A big part of the successful Welsh Labour fightback during the 2017 general election campaign was leadership. By election day, the party had the two most popular political leaders in Wales. Labour not only benefitted from the astonishing campaign resurgence of Jeremy Corbyn; the main face and voice of their Welsh campaign was the popular first minister, Carwyn Jones.

Nearly two years on, however, Labour’s prospects of benefitting from popular leadership are looking increasingly bleak. The latest Welsh Political Barometer poll reinforces the sense that the Welsh public have – for a second time – fallen firmly out of love with Corbyn. Asked to rate him on a 0-10 scale, respondents to the poll gave the leader of the opposition a miserable average rating of only 3.2, which represents a fall of 0.7 points since December. In a highly competitive field – Theresa May and Vince Cable also average below four out of ten – and in their ultimate bastion of Wales, Labour now actually has the least popular leader of any of the major UK parties.

Sadly for the party, its leadership problems may not end there. Jones was a considerable electoral asset to his party: he was an effective electoral campaigner, and remained consistently popular throughout his nine years as first minister. His successor, Mark Drakeford, was always going to find this a difficult act to follow. But extent to which this is shaping up to be true is shown starkly in the new poll.

Drakeford faces two problems. The first is that most people in Wales simply have little or no idea who he is. When asked to rate him out of 10, fully 56 percent of all respondents chose the “Don’t Know” option.

This is hardly a problem unique to him. All parties represented in the Welsh Assembly have chosen new leaders in the last 15 months, and none of them are recognised by most Welsh people. But Drakeford has already been First Minister for two months during a highly tumultuous political period. Moreover, Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price would likely get a very substantial boost in public visibility during any general election campaign (as did Price’s predecessor, Leanne Wood, in 2015).

The second problem is that even many of those who have a view about Drakeford are not very favourable. This was seen during the Welsh Labour leadership contest last year: public ratings of him tended to lag behind those of the other contenders. Such continues to be the case in the latest poll. Drakeford averages no more than 4.0 out of ten; among those who recognise him, at least, Price fares significantly better at 4.6.

For most of the last two decades, Labour’s continuing dominance of politics in Wales has been underpinned by two factors: popular leadership and inept opposition. The first of those is now under significant threat. Meanwhile, under Price Plaid Cymru seem determined to offer a stronger alternative. The path to a serious threat to Labour hegemony in Wales may just be opening up.

The Welsh Political Barometer poll was conducted by YouGov for ITV-Wales and Cardiff University. YouGov interviewed a nationally representative sample of 1,025 adults in Wales online between 19-22 February 2019. You can read more about the poll here.  

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