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Cardiff’s Corbyn: Who is Mark Drakeford, Wales’s next leader?

The election of the new leader of Welsh Labour marks a watershed for Corbynism. Here he explains his politics in his own words.

Speeches from the Conservative conference stage are not renowned for the quality of their political analysis, still less of the left, still less when they are made by members of the party’s unloved Welsh Assembly group. Addressing the hall in Birmingham this year, however, Welsh Tory leader Paul Davies offered something that passed for perspicacity as he assessed the contenders vying to succeed Carwyn Jones. 

“We don’t know yet who the new first minister will be,” he said. “But it seems likely that the choice will be from one of three Cardiff-based AMs. One a Baroness! One responsible for a catalogue of failures in our NHS! And the other a Corbynite before the term was even termed!”

That first epithet is a straightforwardly factual description of Eluned Morgan, the Welsh language minister and peer. The second is a party political attack on Vaughan Gething, the health minister. But the third, perhaps inadvertently, is a genuinely insightful reflection on Mark Drakeford, who, as expected, was announced as the winner of the contest on Thursday. (He was the clear favourite and had the overwhelming support of his assembly colleagues, but the contest was no coronation and with 46.9 per cent of first preferences he could not quite win outright on the first round – beating Gething 53.9 per cent to 41.4 on the second.)

Long considered a quietly influential thinker on the Labour left, and a longtime supporter of the party leadership, this week Drakeford will become the most powerful man in Wales when he is elected First Minister. He will lead what will inevitably be seen as the United Kingdom’s first Corbynite government. He has been at the heart of the devolutionist project since its inception: first as right-hand man to Rhodri Morgan, the maverick first minister, and latterly as an assembly member and minister running the Welsh NHS and leading Cardiff Bay’s response to Brexit. 

Slight and donnish, with light-sensitive glasses and a shock of feathery grey hair, Drakeford does not look like a prime minister. He certainly does not look like the broad, imposing Jones, whose nine years in office came to a distressing end after the death of Carl Sargeant, the assembly member who took his own life after being sacked over allegations of sexual harassment. Spending an afternoon in his Cardiff constituency office – as I did at the start of the leadership election in late July – was more reminiscent of the sort of university tutorial Drakeford might have given as an academic. He spoke gently and discursively. Tomatoes grew beside the window.

It was no surprise that Welsh Labour – in the assembly and in the country – had put its faith in this veteran administrator to salve the wounds inflicted by Sargeant’s death and lead it to a sixth assembly election victory. Drakeford, who is 64, has said that “radical socialist traditions” will be his lodestar in government – where he intends to ban smoking in town centres, abolish PFI and nationalise buses. He says he has "no burning ambition" to lead Wales and will inevitably be seen, for better or worse, as Cardiff’s Corbyn. But how does he see himself? 

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NS: Can you describe your politics in three words?

MD: Traditional Welsh socialism.

NS: You’ll be the fourth first minister. All of them – Carwyn Jones (42 when elected), Rhodri Morgan (61), Alun Michael (56) – were all white men of a certain age. Do you think that’s a problem?

MD: I think people should have a choice. That’s important, that people have a range of people to choose from. After that, my own rule in politics has always been to try to vote for the person whose views are closest to my own, so you’re looking for someone whose politics are the right ones...it’s not the person, it’s the politics that become important at that point. 

NS: What makes you the best person to be first minister?

MD: A combination of two things really. The lesser of them is the fact that to do this job and to do it during the year that we are entering into, I think having had experience of Welsh government, knowing how government works, knowing what the job involves, particularly having been directly involved in the last few years in the Brexit issue, and I represent Wales on the Joint Ministerial committee. Brexit is going to hang over Wales over the coming period in a big way. Having someone who is steeped in that, I think, is a bonus. I’m the finance minister and austerity is the other thing that we face every single day. 

So I think on the one hand I offer some experience in those things, which I think is important. But the more important thing really is the political choice. So I see myself as belonging to the socialist mainstream tradition of the Welsh Labour Party. Politics in Wales is to the left of the centre of gravity across the United Kingdom and the Labour Party in Wales is to the left of, historically, has been to the left of the Labour Party at a UK level, so you can be in the mainstream in Welsh politics and still be in a slightly different place than where the UK would be.

NS: How easy is it to maintain that strategy of “clear red water”  [a phrase invented by Morgan to describe the need for ideologically distinct left-wing policy solutions in Wales rather than Blairite reformism] when the UK leadership has moved so significantly to the left? 

MD: Well luckily I think there’s an opportunity not to need a strategy of that sort. We needed it in the times when the centre of gravity in the Welsh Party was very different to the UK party. Now we have an opportunity to bring together the tradition that Welsh Labour has inhabited with the place of the party in the UK is now in, and one of the things I hope that I offer is that it is important that the leadership of the Labour Party in Wales is enthusiastic about the opportunity that the next Labour government in Westminster will offer, that is looking forward to having a Labour government of that sort in Westminster, that it is not hesitant or half-hearted in its attitude towards what a Corbyn-led Labour government would bring.

NS: Would you say that’s an affliction that hindered Carwyn Jones's leadership?

MD: I don’t imagine that the current leadership thought that when Jeremy Corbyn stood that it was likely that he would become the leader of the Labour Party. And neither did I. I voted for him the first time he stood but I didn’t think he was gonna win. 

I thought I was casting my vote as I had cast my vote for Diane Abbott the previous time in order to send a message about the necessity of the Labour Party continuing to take seriously a strand of opinion in the party. And I think there may be a bit of a struggle to catch up with, what has happened nationally and to see it as a genuinely exciting opportunity for us to be able to do things between the Labour government in Wales and a Labour government in Westminster. Rather than being anxious that it was gonna be a leadership that would struggle to get its message over to make a connection with people.

NS: Do you resent being called the Momentum candidate, the Corbynite candidate? Is it accurate?

MD: I try and say it all the time, I am neither the accusations against me are always twofold. I am either a Corbynista revolutionary who wants to turn his back on everything the Labour Party has achieved and tear it all up and start again. Well I’m clearly not that.

Nor am I, as the opposite accusation, you know, some sort of continuity candidate who hasn’t had a new idea since the year 2003 and that you can’t expect anything different to happen. So neither of those caricatures is true. I will be myself. I offer the experience I have, the ambitions that I have, the positioning of the Labour Party that I believe is right for Wales. And that’s why a contest is important because you lay this all out and you offer people in the Labour Party and in Wales a political choice.

NS: What do you think of the issues that are animating the grassroots left, like mandatory reselection? Are those horses you back?

MD: I’m not in favour of mandatory reselection. I don’t think that is the right place for us to be in Wales. We have a system in Wales in which Assembly members, all members of parliament, where their local constituency parties do not believe that they are doing a good job you can trigger a reselection process. I think it’s a proportionate process. You know, my experience of Welsh representatives is that they are generally very hard-working, that they generally have very strong relationships with their local parties and that they think very hard about how they can best represent them. But nobody has a right to be in these jobs in perpetuity and nobody has a right to think they are unchallengeable in them.

NS: How difficult do you think the job of healing the party — after the year it’s had with Carl Sargeant’s death and all the political consequences that had — how difficult do you envision that will be and do you think the party is still getting over that? 

MD: Well it’s been the most difficult time in the time that I’ve been associated with the Assembly and one way or another I’ve been knocking around since the year 2000, and the impact of Carl’s death was absolutely profound.

It has been a very hard time indeed for all sorts of people in lots of different ways. I feel very much for the people who were new to the Assembly, who were just beginning to find their feet, just beginning to feel their way into the job, and then to have this enormous event happen and the way that it has caused great distress across parties, not just in the Labour party but particularly in the Labour group. And there is a job of healing to be done, and there is a job of helping to pick people up and to say to them, by the time this election is over we will be two years from the next Assembly election and we have to pick ourselves up and focus on that and re-energise ourselves to be ready for that fight.

What do I bring to it? I bring to it a lot of experience of being at the Assembly and of knowing how the place works. We’ve gone through some tough times before not as tough as this but we have had difficult times in the past and I’ve seen a bit of what it takes.

But maybe most of all what I bring is the confidence of my fellow Assembly members. I’m nominated by people from all parts of Wales. I’m nominated by people who have been in the Assembly from the day it started and I’m nominated by people who have been in the Assembly only since the last Assembly election. I’m nominated quite certainly by the vast majority of women members of the Assembly. I’m nominated by people who are in the cabinet. I’m nominated by people who have never been in the cabinet. 

I think it does give me an opportunity to be able to reach out across the whole of the Labour group in the first instance and then to help with that healing process and with that process, as I say, of reorientating ourselves to look to the future and to do the things we need to do to be in the best position we can to face the electorate again in two years.

NS: What was the personal impact of Carl Sargeant's death on you? 

MD: Since the last election, I had sat in the room next door to him. We’re a very small government. We all sit on the same floor where our offices are next door to other offices and my office happened to be next door to Carl. Just chance, really. 

But if you are next door to somebody then you get a lot of just sort of small interactions with them, don’t you, you’re passing them everyday, you’re saying hello to them, you’re putting your head round the door: “How do you think that went? What are you going to be doing?” There are small changes that happen in politics if you’re just physically neighbours.

People have different vulnerabilities in politics, don’t they. If you’d said to me: think of the people you work with who, if they were in a very stressful set of circumstances, might find that difficult to cope with, I would not have put Carl in the top half of the list so despite all of that, despite the fact that I’d known him since before he was elected. 

I’ve been thinking about this before because I met him for the first time with Rhodri Morgan, when we were campaigning in the 2003 election and Carl was a new candidate and we met him in a bleak shopping centre in Buckley on the North East Wales border. 

So I’ve known him ever since. You might feel that you knew someone and you find out how little you knew and that’s quite a disturbing, upsetting kind of thought, isn’t it? You feel upset in all sorts of ways but I think that’s one of the ways in which I have felt it a lot is just that sense of, “I thought I knew this person,” and yet how little I turned out to know about them really.

NS: Do you think it’s a problem that Wales is led from the South and has always been led by — at least in the first minister role by South Wales?

MD: Well I mentioned Rhodri Morgan when he was first minister, he used to do this joke, which he told many times in my hearing, in speeches. He used to say General de Gaulle said that France was ungovernable because it was a country that had more than two thousand sorts of cheese. He then used to pause and say: “And he had it easy!”

In the sense that Wales is a nation of such local identities, not just north-south and Rhodri’s view and in many ways I think I share it, is that the biggest divide in Wales is not north-south, it’s east-west. So if you look at the Referendum results, if you look at the results in elections, you look at North Wales for example the turnout in the last Assembly election was double in the north-west of Wales what it was in the north-east of Wales. Double.

So in some ways there are multiple ways in which you can cut the Welsh cake, north-south obviously is one. I think we have to work harder, I think we have to do more. 

NS: Was Rhodri Morgan the most profound personal influence on your politics? 

MD: I’ve had people in politics who I feel I’ve been influenced by before Rhodri. When I was growing up in the Labour Party and I was much younger and Barbara Castle was always somebody who I particularly admired in terms of her politics and her ability.

NS: In Place of Strife? Her reforming zeal?

MD: Oh well, I suppose she had a tough time in those couple of years, didn't she? But if you think what she achieved more broadly that than, she was a force of nature. In a way my views haven’t altered over the years. I think that the basic things that brought me to the Labour Party when I was sort of 17 are the same now. And in some ways I think you could say the same with her, that the things that motivated her in her 80s and 90s were not that different from the things you see in 1945.

Anyway much more close to home and much more directly, I worked very closely with Rhodri. He was a remarkable politician in many ways. He was both much more serious than his public image, which tended to be of the person you meet in the pub. And he did all of that brilliantly, but he was much more serious than that image often led you to conclude because he had a series of really big political purposes that he wanted to achieve while he was first minister.

The image of him otherwise was absolutely true. He was as interested in what the person who happened to be standing next to him in the queue in Tesco’s had to say about something as he would be about what the most senior civil servant or the most eminent academic had to say on the topic. And he was exactly the same with everybody. He behaved no differently, he had no different sense of interaction with that person than he would with somebody who in a conventional sense would be much more powerful or important. And in that sense he had the most fantastic rapport.

NS: Do you think devolution has lived up to that early promise? 

MD: Well, I think some of the difficulties with devolution are the common ones in politics, that the things that you achieve, people tend to pocket them… So I think lots of those early promise things have been delivered, so one of the things that was promised in the beginning Rhodri was certainly very keen on it was that the gap between the institution and people would be a very thin one and that there would be a new sense of permeability between people who end up making decisions and people whose lives are affected by them and I think it has lived up to that.

We take it for granted a bit maybe and we forget the days when there were three ministers in the Welsh office and they spent all their time inevitably in London. And your chances of ever meeting them were incredibly remote. Whereas in the Senedd if you want to see a minister, if you come down on a Tuesday or Wednesday, there’ll be walking through on their way, and people just stop you. Anybody can stop you. To ask you anything. So I think it has led up to that but when it becomes part of the grain of the place, people stop noticing it, don’t they. It’s just the way it is. They forget that it’s a very big contrast to the way things were before.

There is a distinctiveness as well. We have free prescriptions, we have free breakfasts in primary schools, we don’t charge people to park in hospitals. Museums and galleries are all free in Wales. We maintain the council tax benefits scheme that was abolished in England.

If you add up all these things, the cash equivalents, so this is a Barbara Castle phrase, the social wage, as she always said, the things that governments do that leave money in people’s pockets, that if governments didn’t do they would have to pay for, that’s worth about £2000 a year to a family in Wales. And that’s a lot, isn’t it? Wales is not a high wage economy. In an era of austerity, if that money is still with you, you are able to be spent on other things that matter to your family. Your ability to get through tough times is definitely enhanced by it.

NS: How difficult is it as a minister and a leading member of the Labour movement to negotiate politically the act of being the one to administer austerity and make those decisions? How do you manage the inherent conflict in those two roles? 

MD: Well it is genuinely enormously difficult. You simply cannot sort of wipe away the impact, it doesn’t make it invisible when it’s year on year cuts. The first thing you try and do is to make sure you do everything in dialogue so we have a genuine social partnership. We do all the things we do by sitting round the table, with our partners in the trade union movement, with our partners in local authorities and so on. And we do our best to hammer out collective solutions, to agree ways forward to the very difficult decisions that we face. 

You sit down, you talk, you explain, you draw people in as much as possible. And in the end you’re guided by your fundamental principles. Our fundamental principle was that the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden and the money we had should be concentrated on those who needed it the most.

NS: Obviously Wales voted for Brexit. But as a member of a party that overwhelmingly backed Remain, how difficult is that job? And also being in all likelihood the first minister who is the Brexit first minister, how difficult do you envisage that being? 

MD: Well it depends very fundamentally on how we leave the European Union. So ever since the referendum I say, I repeat this mantra time after time, we are not focused on the fact of Brexit, because that was determined in the referendum, we are relentlessly focused on the form of Brexit because how you leave, that will be the determining factor in how much damage is done to Wales. I believe that however we leave the European Union, we will be poorer. Our influence in the world will be diminished. And our security runs the risk of at least being more compromised as well.

But if you leave at one end of the spectrum those harms are capable of being mitigated and managed and you can find a way through them. And if you leave at the other end of the spectrum, crash out, slash and burn, Boris Johnson-style Brexit, then the impact on Wales is catastrophic. It can’t be planned for, you can’t just manage it. So from the very beginning in the Welsh government, we set out our key proposals, continued membership of the customs union, full and unfettered participation in the single market, a sensible approach to migration, which we believe we set out and would live under the umbrella of free movement of people.

NS: How do you get the Welsh health service to a place where it can no longer be used as a punchline by Conservative politicians in England?

MD: Well I think that is very difficult to answer because the debate about the Welsh health service is not one that is grounded in the truth. The Welsh health service is the dead cat on table isn’t it. It’s the Lynton Crosby idea that whenever Cameron was asked about the English NHS he couldn’t answer it, he had no answers, how will you get through? Oh I know, I’ll throw the dead cat of the Welsh NHS on the table instead. And that’s what he did relentlessly. He told many many untruths about the Welsh NHS which he knew were untrue when he said it. He said very many deeply offensive that caused great damage to his own party in Wales about the Welsh NHS.

But you know what narratives are like. If you just keep repeating it, I think it loses its power. I think Mrs May uses it and it doesn’t have much of an impact. And I think Jeremy Corbyn is pretty good at pressing back at it and putting some of the alternative facts out there. But when a narrative takes hold it is quite difficult to dislodge it, and particularly when opponents think it’s a way of distracting from their own failures. The Welsh NHS treats more people, treats them more quickly, treats them more successfully, offers a wider range of treatments than has ever been before in its history.

The sane approach to devolution has always been the living laboratory in which we use it not as a chance to point the finger at other people and try and parade what other people do, the way the Tories did with the NHS. But regard it as an opportunity to learn from one another and to make things better everywhere by looking at what works and saying well, we’ll have a go at that. And looking at what doesn’t work so we don’t have privatisation in the Welsh NHS, we don’t have PFI, thank goodness, in the Welsh NHS.

We run the NHS as a public service, publicly provided, a public service ethos is at the heart of what we do, and you can’t bottle that, and you can’t sell it, and you certainly can’t privatise it. And we will not be selling it off in Wales.

NS: Who are your greatest intellectual influences? 

MD: Richard Titmuss [who invented social policy as an academic discipline] would probably be one of them. The Gift Relationship. I still think that is at the heart of socialism, in that we understand that when we act together we always do better than when we act apart. And the way you act together, you will do things as an individual which are to the benefit of people you will never meet and you will never know, but in return, somewhere in the system is doing things that one day will matter as much as that to you.

The Tory view of the world is either look after yourself, at the Thatcherite end of it, or even at the noblesse oblige end of it is that you might look after your neighbour or someone you can see across the road. But the essential message of socialism is that you do things that strangers will see the benefit of it and that you understand that that gift relationship is about being prepared to act in ways that others will see the benefit, because in return they will be doing things where you will see the benefit and they’ll never know you either.

NS: Do you think electoral hegemony is healthy for Labour in Wales? How do you keep Welsh Labour a fresh and effective governing force? 

MD: I do think it’s one of the great achievements of Rhodri and of Carwyn that they have done that. And that they have sustained that position in the minds of people in Wales. And to be Welsh and to vote Labour are things that go together, in an identity sense, there’s a very natural place to be and people are very keen still to support that. But we have to deserve every vote that we get, we have to work hard for every vote that we get. There’s never been a position where we think, simply because we are the Labour Party, somehow people will vote for us on that basis.

I will say something heretical, which probably would get me into trouble in some places: there are some pluses to coalition governments. If you have to form a government with another party, there is a level of internal challenge in that government that can bring benefits. 

Before you go out there and persuade someone else of a proposition, you have to persuade another political party inside the government. And your arguments have often been tested and refined, and aspects of them recalibrated, before you go out and sell these ideas to the public.

That element of internal challenge you get in a party, in a government that is made up of more than one party, it does have pluses to it and Labour has benefitted from that. We’ve been a coalition government four times out of five in one way or another, and we are in this government too. And having people from a different party around the table, it’s not all loss.

NS: Are you a unionist? Do you have a strong sense of British identity? 

MD: No, I don’t personally. In these polls that are done, I am Welsh first. But I do believe that Wales’s position is best secured through a continually successful United Kingdom.

I have no sentimental attraction. I never understood really the sort of Gordon Brown ideas of Britishness. I’ve never believed in such a thing as British values, the way that he would talk about it. The United Kingdom is a great insurance system in which we pool our resources and we share out according to need. I’ve been a strong devolutionist and I don’t think the devolutionist journey is over.

I have in the last few years found myself for the very first time on the different side of the argument to some people who continue to be my colleagues because I’m not in favour of the wholesale devolution of tax and benefits. I think that is the glue that holds the United Kingdom together and makes it worth having and splitting that up and scattering it about I think breaks down the socialist case really for the UK.

NS: Outside of politics, outside of work, who are you?  

MD: Well I’m very lucky that I’ve not been in politics. Most of my working life has not been in politics, at all. So I’ve got lots of things that I’m interested in, and do, in a Corbynesque way. I have an allotment that I’ve had since 1983. Mrs Thatcher’s victory in the Falklands war drove me to an allotment. I wanted to be somewhere I couldn’t hear the news. So I’ve had the same allotment ever since.

Glamorgan Cricket Club – which I live right beside – is the only organisation I’ve belonged to longer than I’ve belonged to the Labour Party. As we say, a lifetime of supporting Glamorgan County Cricket club does inure you against suffering, so it’s useful to you in that way.

I’ve got a family, of course. So we spend a lot of time with them. And I like reading, I like going to the theatre. I’m very fond of the opera, which we’re very lucky indeed to have in Cardiff. At the school I went to you either played rugby or you played music. There was nothing else on offer. I was never likely to play much rugby myself, so I grew up through all the Welsh ways of county orchestras and youth orchestras, and all of that sort of thing.

NS: Do you sing?

MD: Yeah. I do, I never have time to do it now but yeah I did, a lot. Choirs and things like that.

NS: Can you translate any of your allotment tending lessons to government?

MD: I tend to go to the allotment to escape from government, rather than to ponder it, but I suppose there are lessons about patience. All politicians are impatient in a way, aren't they. Most people that I know in politics, not everybody, but most people, and in other parties too, do come into it because they want to change the world in a way that they think would make it better for others. You know, you may profoundly disagree with the way they want to do it but that's what brings them through the door. So we're all impatient, we all want to get things done fast and the allotment teaches you that patience is a virtue in politics as well as in gardening.

NS: How do you think history will remember Carwyn Jones? 

MD: I think history will be a lot kinder to him than the recent period has been, which has obviously been the hardest period in his first ministership. I think people, when the dust settles and people look back, they will remember him as the first minister who fought the second referendum we had in Wales [to give the Assembly more power in 2011] that was emphatically one that was in favour of law-making powers.

So I think he'll be remembered definitely for that and I think he'll be remembered, as I say when people are able to take a cooler look at it, as the person who demonstrated that the Assembly was competent and capable of exercising those powers, in a very typically Welsh sort of way.

Rhodri Morgan used to describe Welsh people as being pathologically modest. I thought it was a very nice phrase. It tells you something on both counts, doesn't it.

NS: Would you say you are pathologically modest? 

MD: Oh, I don't know. You can't be in politics in the end I think without having a certain core of self belief and a certain core of enough arrogance to get up and expect that people, or think that people might listen to what you have to say. So I don't think I got it in the full Welsh sense.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.