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Opinion

All three major Welsh parties need new blood at the top

24 Dec 2022 7 minute read
Mark Drakeford. Picture by Christopher Jones / Alamy Stock Photo. Adam Price. Credit: Euan Cherry/WENN. Senedd Cymru. Andrew RT Davies picture by Senedd Cymru (CC BY 2.0).

Theo Davies-Lewis

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.

Phony war

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.

Pragmatic

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.

Strategy

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.


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Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
1 month ago

So the race to succeed Mark Drakeford as Welsh labour leader is shaping up to be a repeat of the campaign to replace Ron Davies – with Vaughan Gething in the role of Alun Michael the candidate of Labour HQ in London and Jeremy Miles in the role of Rhodri Morgan the candidate of ordinary welsh labour party members. There isnt a vacancy for Plaid leader but when there is the excellent Mabon ap Gwynfor would surely be the frontrunner. By the way Theo Plaid Cymru are a internationalist party – its the tories who are the ‘nationalists’ (british).

Nia James
Nia James
1 month ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

Excellent final point Leigh. The Tories base their entire being on God, King and Country.

Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
1 month ago
Reply to  Nia James

Indeed Nia – and that country certainly isnt Wales!

Gareth
Gareth
1 month ago
Reply to  Nia James

God, King, Country and Self.

Owen williams
Owen williams
1 month ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

Check out member interests on senedd website before supporting any candidate.
lot of second home owners in plaid!

Last edited 1 month ago by Owen williams
Glen
Glen
1 month ago
Reply to  Owen williams

Didn’t the saintly Leanne own 3 properties?

Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
1 month ago
Reply to  Glen

No surprise to see the brit nat trolls resorting to smear and innuendo – they have no arguments!

Jon
Jon
1 month ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

You are a nationalist Leigh – just own it

The original mark
The original mark
1 month ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

You’re forgetting that dear old Theo is a raving tory and will push any c*ap that might further their agenda, hence the inference that Plaid Cymru = bad nationalism while ignoring the English nationalist agenda coming from the tories. I hope the tory scum are cleared out of Wales for decades to come.

I.Humphrys
I.Humphrys
1 month ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

International against National. Cymru needs a proper broad National party.

Last edited 1 month ago by I.Humphrys
Cynan again
Cynan again
1 month ago

A pox on all their houses. They are all jailers not “leaders”. And they shouldn’t even be leaders. The term minister means administrator. Public servant. These are public servants who don’t serve the public, either here or in Wastemonster. Large scale democracy is an abject failure, too open to the predations of the corrupt annd the ideologically extreme and the whims of the stupid and easily led. All administrative options on the table are like the cola wars. None are satisfying or nourishing, but criticise one and you are demanded to pick the one which is better, so that others… Read more »

CJPh
CJPh
1 month ago
Reply to  Cynan again

Well well. After nearly a year of finding disagreement with at least 50 % of what you say, we end the year on a comment I can endorse wholeheartedly. I’d give it 5 up votes if I could,but then I’d be in Arizona and not Cymru (wink and a nudge, ho ho ho and all that – secret santa has brought you some grade A American culture war grist for our little mill). Seriously and sincerely, though – Nadolig Llawen a blwyddyn newydd dda i ti ac i bawb arall.

Last edited 1 month ago by CJPh
Cynan again
Cynan again
1 month ago
Reply to  CJPh

Someone only disagreeing with 50% of what I say is a successful ratio for me.
Nadolig llawen a ti hefyd

I.Humphrys
I.Humphrys
1 month ago
Reply to  CJPh

Ha ha, and you also CJ!

Llyn
Llyn
1 month ago

More articles from Theo Davies-Lewis in 2023 please. The problem for the Tories in the UK as a whole and in Wales is that the party are hostages to their members. Would a membership who are now basically little different to the UKIP membership, who thought Liz Truss was a good idea and mostly don’t even identify as Welsh vote for Sam Kurtz?

Richard
Richard
1 month ago

Very true.
New Faces
New Ideas
4ANewCymru

George Thomas
George Thomas
1 month ago

“Adam Price is a gifted economist, emotive speaker (especially among friends)”

That’s exactly what Plaid need going forward. It may be a big error to get rid of person second best to Drakeford just when Drakeford is making plans to step down.

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