All three major Welsh parties need new blood at the top
It’s almost as if he can’t wait to finish the job. Mark Drakeford, having admitted he had “no burning desire” to lead the country in 2018, now says it is time Wales “elected somebody who looks ahead to the next 25 years” of devolution. Ever since the First Minister took the reins, aged 64, political observers have mused about his successors. Finally they have now been ceremoniously introduced – in line with Welsh political tradition – by Professor Richard Wyn Jones in Barn.
Professor Wyn Jones is right that Jeremy Miles and Vaughan Gething are likely frontrunners of any contest. And despite occupying top cabinet posts we know little about what sort of government either would want to lead. But a couple of assumptions can be made.
First, Miles will be pitched as a continuity candidate, in tune with Welsh-speaking areas and aligned more closely to the Labour tradition set during devolution. Second, Gething may be the natural choice of the party establishment in London, while the Economy Minister has greater ministerial experience and overwhelming backing by the unions who dominate Welsh Labour elections.
Guesswork precedes every coronation. It is the nature of our politics that we know little of Welsh Labour leaders until they wear the crown. Only when candidates are probed with the stakes so high do they occasionally let the mask slip, as Mark Drakeford did when he confided his reticence toward the spotlight. But we may know more about the two frontrunners by the time of the next contest. They’re already on manoeuvres, after all.
Gething has lapped up visits to the Labour party business conference, where he was seen shaking hands with Starmer and appearing on a high-profile panel, and Qatar during the World Cup. He has given a stream of interviews recently, notably with the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ Welsh Agenda magazine last month. On the front cover, Gething peers at the reader from a vantage point in the Senedd. Its headline, “The Economic Challenge”, could be read as a brief for Gething’s portfolio or shorthand for Labour’s record since 1999.
Miles’ ambition is not so naked. There have been no visits to the Wales camp in Doha but schools and colleges nationally – maybe ‘getting on with the job’ is the strategy. He is, however, the face of Welsh language policy. Cymraeg 2050 has become his plan to deliver; a poison chalice or unique asset, depending on how you look at it. But whether your portfolio is education, the economy, health or transport, it is an increasingly difficult record to defend as a Labour minister. Fortunately for the candidates the scrutiny from any election only comes from party members.
Miles vs Gething may be the eventual battle but next year will see the phony war of leadership. Only the First Minister knows his timetable for stepping down. Which, judging by his own words of not wanting to leave when the “going was tough”, isn’t likely to be announced until at least the latter half of 2023. No potential successor will want to make the first move but assure gradual inroads over the next 12 months: curry favour among members of the Senedd, engage with the trade unions, meet party members and court the media establishment.
The First Minister is right that new blood is needed. Yet the success of devolution in its second generation, though heavily dependent on talent in Welsh Labour, will require fresh leadership in the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru too. The opposition parties have deep questions to answer over their identity ahead of the next Senedd election that, ultimately, will be determined by their leader over the coming years.
I doubt that either Andrew RT Davies or Adam Price will be at the helm in 2026. Whoever he or she may be, the coming of a new First Minister will bring new challenges. (Not to mention the prospect of a Labour government in Westminster by 2024 shifting the national political landscape.) Both opposition leaders have already been given several opportunities to change the electoral map in Wales, and their vision has been tested as much as possible.
So conservatives and nationalists may agree on one thing: a different era of Welsh politics requires a different approach. These people would be right. With a new leader comes new opportunities.
The Welsh Conservatives have lurched to the devo-sceptic and right wing under the second coming of RT. At least it has been a distinctive brand. But aligning the party in Wales with its parent in London has consequences, as the polls suggest ahead of a Tory wipe-out at the next general election. A successor, if installed 18 months prior to a Senedd election, may take the Welsh party in a more pragmatic path closer to the vision of those at its helm in the first decade of the century.
Samuel Kurtz has been touted as one possible successor. A young Welsh speaker from a rural background, his appeal at face value is clear to the party base. It could reap rewards for the Conservatives and lead to a more constructive role for the party in devolved Wales. As with any untested candidate, however, there are some doubts. Perhaps unkindly (as columnists sometimes are) I wrote earlier this year that he was a “politically inexperienced Pembrokeshire farmer”. Soon after, a friend texted to say the quote appeared in Kurtz’s biography on Twitter. It is always wise for any ambitious politician to brush aside the commentary and instead focus on the electoral challenges facing his party.
Plaid Cymru’s leadership issue is more existential. Adam Price is a gifted economist, emotive speaker (especially among friends) and expectations were high when he succeeded Leanne Wood. He has taken Welsh nationalism forward in the sense that his policy programme from 2021 now shapes a significant part of the government’s agenda. But are Plaid prepared to play second fiddle forever? Besides, how they navigate the political landscape after the Co-Operation Agreement comes to an end remains unclear. Next year an answer will be necessary.
Questions over strategy will go on to dog Welsh nationalism forever. Whether a leader would make a substantive difference to Plaid Cymru is a fair challenge. And who to take over? With Rhun ap Iorwerth setting his sights on representing Ynys Môn at Westminster in 2024, there is no obvious replacement. Arfon Jones, speaking to Nation.Cymru this week, called for Delyth Jewell to succeed Price. But if close observers of politics note that we know little of Miles and Gething, it’s probably fair to say that the Welsh public would not even recognise Jewell on their television.
The final stretch of Drakeford’s era brings urgency to the question of leadership in Wales. Of course, the foundations of our politics always stay the same: Welsh Labour’s internal battles always trump all else. But people, especially leaders, can shift the dial. With a new First Minister, from a different generation, should follow a collective refresh of figureheads for the next period of devolution. In 2023, all political parties must let that phony war commence.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.