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8 May 2021updated 05 Jul 2021 5:41pm

What are the lessons of Welsh Labour’s remarkable success?

Exploring why Labour won in Wales is as important as exploring why it lost in England.

By Stephen Bush

Welsh Labour have hit 30 seats in the Senedd, equalling their best-ever performance since devolution. The First Minister, Mark Drakeford, can choose between a minority administration on an issue-by-issue basis or he could reconstruct the coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Welsh Labour defeated its opponents in every part of Wales. It took seats from Plaid Cymru in a bruising election for leader Adam Price, in which Leanne Wood, his predecessor, lost her seat in the Rhondda. Welsh Labour won in the godless capital, where Drakeford increased his majority. It saw off Conservative challenges in traditional marginals that the Tories have now held for more than a decade at Westminster, such as the Vale of Glamorgan, as well as the Tory challenge in seats lost by Labour in 2019 (be that first-time Red Wall constituencies such as Wrexham or long-time stretch marginals such as Delyn). 

The achievement is significant for other reasons, too: it means Welsh Labour will eventually have been in power in Cardiff for more than a quarter of a century (having taken office in 1999). Given that, in the past decade, London has gone from being a marginal bellwether, and that as recently as 2015 people were talking of the capital as a place moving towards, rather than away from, the Tories,  that success can’t be discounted or dismissed as an inevitability. (I’d argue the same is true of the success of parties of the left in London, but that’s a topic for another time.) 

Taken together with the wildly divergent election results in Scotland, it is clear that many of the more sweeping hot takes about what Labour’s struggles in England mean simply do not apply. While the collapse of Ukip/the Brexit Party boosted the Conservatives, it clearly did not do so to the same extent in Wales: whether Welsh Labour did a better job of winning votes from the Conservatives to compensate or of winning over supporters from the Farage-ist parties directly, Labour’s struggles to break down that Conservative-Ukip bloc in England have been overcome. 

There are a number of views about Labour’s difficulties in England that you can support with reference to what happened in Wales, but many of them obviously collapse into ridiculousness. The continuing drag of Corbynism? Come off it. The air in Delyn blows a party’s brand clean faster than the air in Darlington? A result of Anneliese Dodds’s failure to “cut through”? Tell me who the Welsh finance minister is without googling, and then take a look at her name recognition in Wales. Labour’s left-right position? There is at best an inch either way between the left-right position of the Drakeford-Evans-Skates team and the Starmer-Dodds-Miliband one. 

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You can, however, make any number of arguments about why Labour has triumphed in Wales: from simple professionalism (Welsh Labour is well run and remains a formidable election-winning machine) to Drakeford’s recognition, to a clarity and discipline of political message, to the benefits of incumbency during the vaccine roll-out, to the Welsh Labour Party’s obvious and unaffected affection for Wales. 

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What the English political class clearly should have learned by now is that voters can’t be taken for granted. Welsh Labour’s remarkable success has to be as much a part of the narrative as what happened in England or what happened in Scotland. Whatever the story of this week’s results, it has to make sense of elections across the UK, not just its biggest constituent country.