As with the other elections taking place on 5 May, those in Wales were always going to be treated, in part, as a test of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party. A significant setback for the party would have been attributed to its supposed ‘leftward lurch’, by detractors outside and within. Troublingly, the Welsh Labour leadership prepared the ground for this scenario by allowing the media to infer, on two separate occasions, that they considered Corbyn an electoral liability.
The first of these was at the close of the Welsh Labour conference in Llandudno in February, when First Minister Carwyn Jones said that he wanted to distance his party’s Welsh election campaign from developments in a way that implicitly identified Corbyn as the main problem.
The second occasion was in the specific circumstances of the Ken Livingstone “anti-semitism” media storm. Carwyn Jones not only called for Ken’s immediate expulsion from the party (displaying rather less respect for due process than one might expect from a trained barrister) but decided (supposedly in agreement with Jeremy) that the leader’s planned visit to Wales should be cancelled, giving rise to the headline “Carwyn bars Corbyn” on the front page of the Western Mail. Carwyn disputed the word “bar” in an email to party members but was evasive about who had initiated the change of plan and could not explain a press comment from an unnamed “source” to the effect that efforts to present Carwyn publicly as the only credible First Minister were a “a difficult sell with Jeremy”.
The latter was one of the few noteworthy incidents in a campaign generally free not only of drama but of serious political discussion (not helped by Labour holding back its – perfectly worthy – manifesto until halfway through the short campaign).
To the disappointment, no doubt, of Corbyn-bashers, Labour lost less ground than predicted, losing only one of the thirty seats it held before 5 May. This outcome does understate, to some extent, a drop of 7.6 per cent and 5.4 per cent, respectively, in Labour’s share of the constituency and list votes, but there was at least no loss of ground to the Tories, who failed to take any of their targets and slipped back behind Plaid Cymru. It was to Plaid leader, Leanne Wood, that Labour lost its one seat: the Rhondda, where she was able to stand (for the first time, under new rules) as a constituency, as well as a regional list candidate and defeated Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews, a ’big beast’ from the right of the party.
Otherwise, despite squeezing Labour majorities in Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly and Cardiff West, Plaid failed to make gains and it was, unfortunately, only UKIP who advanced across Wales, winning representation for the first time with a group of seven, now headed by the odious Neil Hamilton. Much of UKIP’s vote – as in last year’s general election – was a direct transfer from Labour, reflecting a sense of disillusionment and abandonment on the part of working-class voters in declining post-industrial communities and emphasising the enormity of the task Labour faces to win back many of its core voters who began to lose faith during the Blair years.
Labour’s one lost seat put the party at a two-vote disadvantage in the Senedd when the new Assembly met for the first time on 11 May. Following inconclusive talks with Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood was nominated as First Minister, in opposition to Carwyn, and dramatically won the support of Tory and UKIP AMs, which resulted in a tied vote (only the vote for Carwyn by the Lib Dems’ one remaining Member, Kirsty Williams, prevented Leanne from winning office). This unexpected deadlock prompted sharp condemnation of Plaid by Labour members and commentators, for accepting the support of the right, although it remains unclear how far Plaid actively solicited their votes (it seems likely that someone in Plaid – even if not Leanne – approached the Tories and UKIP).
Urgent talks between Labour and Plaid then ensued, producing an agreement based not on coalition but on agreed priorities for the new Assembly’s first 100 days and ongoing consultation via three newly-established committees. With Carwyn finally confirmed as first minister on 18 May, he appointed a new cabinet in which right-wingers were noticeably more prominent than before; Kirsty Williams was rewarded for her earlier support with the Education brief; and leading left-winger, Mark Drakeford was unfortunately moved away from the health brief (albeit to the substantial portfolio of Finance and Local Government). With the steel crisis just the most pressing of many formidable challenges, this new Cabinet has its work cut out.
This article was written for the current edition of Original Labour Briefing magazine.