Great Britain

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

Welsh Labour have hit 30 seats in the Senedd, equalling their best-ever performance since devolution having gained seats and votes since 2016. 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 their opponents in every part of Wales. They took seats from Plaid Cymru in a bruising first election in charge for their leader, Adam Price, which saw Leanne Wood, his predecessor, lose her seat in the Rhondda. They won in the godless capital, where Mark Drakeford increased his majority. They 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, and saw off the Tory challenge in seats the party lost in 2019 (be that first-time “Red Wall” constituencies such as Wrexham or longtime stretch marginals such as Delyn). 

And the depth of the achievement is significant for other reasons too: it means that 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, while in 2014 Labour was still weighing the vote in Scotland, that success can’t be discounted or dismissed as an easy inevitability. (I’d argue that nor can 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 as great an extent in Wales: whether Welsh Labour did a better job of winning votes from the Conservatives to compensate, or in winning over supporters of the Farageist parties directly, Labour’s difficulties in breaking down that Conservative-Ukip bloc in England cannot simply be written off as one of those things.

There are a number of views about Labour’s difficulties in England that you can support with reference to what happened in Wales, but a number of them obviously collapse into ridiculousness. The continuing drag of Corbynism? Come off it. Does the air in Delyn blow a party’s brand clean faster than the air in Darlington? A result of Anneliese Dodds’ 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. 

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

But what the English political class clearly should have learnt 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 whatever happens in Scotland as the SNP’s hunt for a majority continues today. Whatever the story of this week’s results, it has to make sense of elections across the UK: not just the UK’s biggest constituent country.

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