After the news of a Tory landslide in Hartlepool was announced early Friday morning, senior Welsh Labour figures were worried. The scale of defeat in the North of England was worse than expected, and represented nothing short of a disaster for Keir Starmer’s leadership. Could the same fate be expected for Labour’s Red Wall in North and South Wales, which started to crack in the 2019 general election? The answer, in short, is no.
Welsh Labour stormed to a breathtaking victory in the Senedd election, gaining a seat from its 2016 hall to win thirty of the sixty places in Cardiff Bay. There was a Tory whimper but no bang: the party turned Vale of Clwyd from red to blue but failed to make significant inroads in other Labour heartlands, winning five seats mainly thanks to the much-derided regional member system. Plaid Cymru, outmanoeuvred by Labour’s soft nationalism and tortured by a lulled period of campaigning, had a poor day culminating in former leader Leanne Wood losing the Rhondda. A nineteen percent swing.
For a moment it looked like Welsh Labour may do the impossible and win an overall majority; not this time. Nonetheless they are comfortably ahead of the Tories, who with 16 seats are again the official opposition group in the Senedd, while Welsh nationalists total 13 parliamentary members. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats had a catastrophic collapse across the length and breadth of the nation, but leader Jane Dodds managed to clinch a seat in the Mid & West Wales region.
Interestingly Labour will have to govern without usual coalition support from the Liberals. Dodds has already (rather carelessly) ruled out a formal deal - and with it perhaps any last chance for the party that champions its Lloyd Georgian roots to make a real mark on policy in Wales.
Mark Drakeford wants a ‘stable and progressive’ administration and he can probably manage without left-of-centre opposition parties too; instead using both the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru for ad-hoc support as and when needed throughout the next few years. Much easier said than done, of course.
Above all else, this Senedd election is nothing other than a triumph for Welsh Labour. After 22 years in Cardiff Bay, and 99 years as the true Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales), they continue to maintain the trust of the Welsh people. First Minister Mark Drakeford – whose own majority was extended by over 10,000 in his once marginal Cardiff West – has reached dizzy media and political heights throughout the pandemic, and arguably won this election almost single-handedly by his popular leadership throughout Covid-19.
But the real secret is in his party’s name: Welsh Labour. A distinctive brand for generations in Wales, but especially since the referendum of 1997. Mark Drakeford, for so long unknown outside the party faithful and Cardiff Bay, has been critical to its development. As is etched in political folklore, it was Drakeford who crafted the words ‘clear red water’ for his late boss and mentor, Rhodri Morgan, to state clearly that Labour in Wales was a different party than the one then run by Tony Blair in London.
The Welsh party is so nimble that it can pick-up votes from various demographic groups: Welsh speakers, the working classes, nationalists and indeed Brexit voters. It is the latter trend which is most interesting in this election, with voters in constituencies such as Merthyr Tydfil abandoning Neil Hamilton’s shambolic UKIP Wales and turning back to the party they knew and loved before: Welsh Labour.
Meanwhile the party has wiped the floor with the opposition: the Tories when it comes to trust in handling the pandemic, the NHS and education, as well as even Plaid Cymru on the constitution. They have also fielded strong local candidates to unseat the likes of Wood, and Labour national leaders appear a grade above their opposition counterparts.
More broadly this election reflects another defining trend in British politics: Wales is not England. Although each incumbent – in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff – won in their own patch following Super Thursday, the Welsh did not follow their neighbours in realigning behind Conservativism post-Brexit. Keir Starmer’s Labour and Mark Drakeford’s Labour could not be more different: the latter has mastered its identity in ‘fighting Wales’s corner’ across various constituencies and regions, while the former is in the midst of a national identity crisis.
It is quite telling that there is more talk now of a separate Welsh and English Labour Party. During last night’s election results, senior figures including Welsh Cabinet Minister Eluned Morgan emphasised that Mark Drakeford, not Sir Keir, was their leader. The former social policy professor had won the election for Labour, commentators like me were repeatedly told, and it is hard to disagree.
Starmer could therefore learn a thing or two from Llafur Cymru – including how to harness and embrace your political identity, in addition to sketching out a coherent position on the constitution, as Drakeford has done. If the Labour leader doesn’t, there is a real danger that another split emerges: between the Welsh and English branches of Labour, which may drive the ‘socialists of the Welsh stripe’ to cut away from what is increasingly looking like a soulless and hopeless British Labour party.
This may be one long term consequence of this distinctly Welsh election, where among other things, the devo-sceptics of Wales performed embarrassingly and right-wing politicians failed to get a seat in Cardiff. Not for the first time in this pandemic, Wales has shown it is different to other parts of Britain. All thanks to Mark Drakeford and Welsh Labour.