Wales has a new leader – but will anything change?

Picture by Lee Waters AM/@mark4leader/Twitter.

Ifan Morgan Jones

After a gruelling seven-month-long Welsh Labour leadership contest, Mark Drakeford was today announced as the winner, and soon to be new First Minister, with 53.9% of the vote.

The early favourite was probably the best of the three candidates, none of whom exactly set Welsh politics on fire with bold new ideas.

Despite holding views on a second Brexit vote that were at odds with much of the party, and reports of some bad-tempered comments at the hustings, his opponents largely failed to land a blow him.

However, it’s unlikely that Drakeford’s merits as a potential First Minister played much of a part. This Labour leadership contest was indicative of many of the problems with Welsh politics as a whole, which is that the success or failure of parties and candidates is largely governed by Westminster issues beyond their control.

I follow numerous Welsh Labour Facebook groups and the leadership contest was hardly mentioned. It was the Corbyn v May battles at Westminster that dominated.

Beyond set-piece hustings and TV debates, I saw hardly any discussion amongst members of the important issues regarding powers that the new First Minister will wield in areas such as health, education and tax.

The contrast with Plaid Cymru’s almost too combative and passionate (perhaps bad-tempered) leadership race over the summer, where ideological differences were treated like fissures, has been stark.

In fact, at times Plaid Cymru members seemed to have more interest in the ins-and-outs of Labour’s leadership contest than Labour members!

Rather than focusing on Welsh issues, this was an election that played out largely in the context of continued infighting between so-called Blairites and Corbyn supporters.

Jeremy Corbyn sent his messenger Owen Jones to Wales to tell us that Mark Drakeford was the anointed one, and that seems to have been enough to sway most of his followers.

Jones’ tweet saying that Labour members should vote for Drakeford so that Wales could provide a “springboard” to success at Westminster summed up this line of thinking.

It was indicative of the contributionist mindset that has haunted Welsh politics since the 19th century, where all Wales has to offer is to be a helpful cog in the British machine.

Shouldn’t we instead choose a First Minister on the basis of his or her ability to solve the problems Wales still has with education, health and transport after 20 years of devolution?

Ambition

So, what kind of First Minister will Mark Drakeford be?

I think he might seek to make an early statement of intent, such as ditching the controversial plan to build an M4 motorway bypass through the Gwent Levels.

His interview with this site suggested that he had no lack of ambitious ideas, although his aim is to continue with the steady as she goes, pragmatic, cautious change that has characterised 20 years of devolution under Labour.

Overall, however, I don’t think we can expect any major changes to how Wales is run.

It’s somewhat ironic that Mark Drakeford has been able to position himself as the change candidate in this election, as he has been an influential figure in the Welsh Government since almost its beginning.

He became a Special Advisor to Rhodri Morgan in the year 2000, and later the head of his office, before he became an Assembly Member for Cardiff West in 2011.

This is a man who has very much been influential at the heart of Welsh Government throughout the almost twenty years of devolution.

What will be more interesting perhaps is how the opposition parties respond to the change at the top of the Welsh Government.

They have already indicated that they fancy their chances with Mark Drakeford. Particularly Plaid Cymru who think they will be able to contrast Drakeford’s more cautious, professorial style with Adam Price’s passion.

The question, of course, is whether the people of Wales will notice any of this.

If not, Drakeford’s electoral success and failure as First Minister will be largely governed by Westminster politics – something that is completely beyond his control.

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