Mark Drakeford has resigned as Leader of Welsh Labour and will be stepping down as First Minister of Wales in the new year. The decision, a surprise but not an unexpected one, comes as he enters his fifth year at the top of Welsh politics and follows a turbulent twelve months of political difficulty and personal tragedy.

Drakeford’s legacy, one which spans the length of the modern devolution settlement, from his time as a Councillor, academic, Special Adviser, and Cabinet Minister is too important to be discussed in great detail here. Through the COVID-19 pandemic he cemented the role of Welsh First Minister in the wider public imagination in both Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. However the roots of his immense influence on Welsh Labour (and Wales as a whole) can be seen in his authorship of Rhodri Morgan’s ‘Clear Red Water’ speech, which many credit as the theoretical backbone that allowed Welsh Labour to distance itself from the UK Labour Party. His departure will create a significant vacuum in Cardiff Bay.

A generational shift is occurring in Welsh Labour at the moment. A number of veteran Senedd Members are tipped to stand down, with few who stood in the first ever Assembly elections likely to continue to remain a part of the legislature. While the ink on many glowing political eulogies remains wet, the machinery of the public leadership campaigns will be groaning into life as runners and riders jockey to inherit or define themselves against the legacy of one of the most consequential figures in Welsh political history. 

The frontrunners

Vaughan Gething MS – Minister for the Economy

The name on most lips in Cardiff Bay tends to be that of Minister for the Economy, Vaughan Gething. A figure notionally from the right of the Party, but as always in Wales it’s a bit more complicated than that. Gething was a trade union solicitor before becoming President of the Wales Trades Union Congress in 2008. Following serving as Health Minister from 2016 and through the pandemic, he is the most high-profile Welsh political figure among Welsh Labour members and the wider Welsh public.

Name recognition and his record during the pandemic may prove to be a double-edged sword however, as the warm glow of measured press conferences and record vaccination rates are rapidly giving way to the cold reality of the Covid-19 Inquiry. None of them can truly hold the mantle of continuity candidates, but Gething’s time as Health Minister has undoubtedly associated him with Drakeford in the eyes of the electorate, as well as the responsibility for handling the COVID-19 pandemic in a similar manner to the UK and Scottish governments that accompanies it. If his recent performances are anything to go by, Gething will have to be better-briefed to contend with the kind of cross-examination he can expect as First Minister.

Having dealt with a creaking health service for the duration of the pandemic, Gething took the clever move to take up the role of Economy Minister. He has subsequently been able to sidestep most of the negative headlines emanating from Cardiff Bay in favour of opportunities to cut ribbons and meet with business people. Recently his Department secured US investment in the Welsh Semiconductor Cluster, a major boon for the area as a whole following 18-months of protracted UK-Government meddling.

Anecdotally, Gething’s campaign is likely the best-prepared of the pack, with his blood-caffeine content still unrecovered from the onslaught of meetings he had with MPs, members, and staff over the course of Labour Party conference. Early indications would suggest that the charm offensive has paid off, with rumours of a solid number of MSs and MPs already onside. Both he and Jeremy Miles ran the gauntlet of get-to-know-you sessions with Welsh CLPs, but there are still hurdles to clear. 

While the deep state of Welsh Labour generally errs on the side of the right of the Party, questions will remain about Gething’s ability to win over his immediate colleagues in Cardiff Bay after a public falling out with Jenny Rathbone MS that still irks some of his colleagues. A fact that if you know of Rathbone, should endear you to him.

Finally it’s worth mentioning that as Vaughan is a black man, he will likely have to contend with a laundry list of indecipherable hang-ups and hesitations from members who just can’t quite put their finger on why they don’t want him to be FM that other candidates simply will not. But judging by his write-up in the Guardian and his repeated dismissals of Adam Price’s unerring calls for him to resign over the most trivial things, he and his team are well placed to be able to handle it.

Jeremy Miles MS – Minister for Education

Miles is jostling for position with Gething after taking up the education brief in 2021. Here, he finds himself with the difficulty of occupying a similar space politically as the frontrunner, but without the record in Government and name recognition that accompany it.

Education, in stark contrast to the economy, is a markedly more difficult brief to deliver on given the pandemic, time taken for policy to take effect, and the ever-tightening constraints on the budgets of local authorities. This was reflected in Wales’ recent PISA scores, which would hardly be fair to attribute to Miles alone given his relatively short time in post, but reflects poorly on Welsh Labour’s historic record on education. 

Having inherited a programme for reform that was largely drawn-up pre-pandemic by a Lib Dem predecessor, Miles has delivered some significant changes to curriculums in Wales but has struggled to generate bandwidth on further reforms such as the suggested changes to the school calendar. As well as this, mooted reforms and the tenor of the Welsh Government has generated concern among the unions. This may stymy his ability to tack towards them and define himself in contrast to Gething, who, while not flush with trade union support, can rely on Community and potentially GMB for backing. 

It is also clear that the revealed preference of Welsh Labour members across candidate selections is for those that fall in with or have the support of the UK Labour Leadership. Gething’s proximity to both Rachel Reeves and Keir Starmer is instructive. Miles doesn’t enjoy the same kind of public relationship with either. That being said, Miles has already received public support from Andrew Morgan, Leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf Council (one of the largest Local Authorities in Wales), and Julie James MS, one of the most powerful and influential members of the Welsh Government. Both of whom may prove to be valuable endorsements.

Having watched the two of them speak, it’s clear that Gething has the better story but Miles on the whole is a more natural and fluid storyteller. Miles is able to seamlessly match the tone and mood that the setting demands in either Welsh or English, which will be appealing to members. The challenge for him, given the brief, the mood of the unions, and his smaller profile, will be whether he is able to meaningfully tell the story of a politics not defined by proximity to the UK Labour Leadership or the political status quo. Whether he’s up to the task, or brave enough to do it, remains to be seen.


Hannah Blythyn MS – Deputy Minister for Social Partnership

Heir-apparent to much of the remaining Welsh Labour Left infrastructure, Blythyn enjoys some of the more ready support among the trade unions across Wales (particularly given her history in Unite). Blythyn also has a unique appeal in an otherwise very South Wales-heavy slate of candidates by virtue of representing a North Wales constituency. Without getting into the minutiae of one thousand years of Welsh psychodrama, this means she can offer something tangibly different to both Gething and Miles without having to try particularly hard. The issues with the over-centralisation of the Welsh economy are fairly self-evident and transcend left-right party divides.

That being said, Blythyn hasn’t been in and around the top table for particularly long. Traditionally, to be elected First Minister a candidate is typically someone with experience at the highest level of the Welsh Government, which Blythyn doesn’t yet have. Having personally listened to her speak to a home crowd at Newport Pride, it’s clear that Blythyn is not quite the finished product when it comes to performing under the spotlight either.

Blythyn’s story and positioning is compelling when compared with the rest of the field, but experience isn’t quite there yet. Her name recognition among members and the wider public remains incredibly low. Regardless, a good run in this contest would leave Blythyn well-placed to take up a senior role after Senedd expansion and the next round of elections.

Eluned Morgan MS – Minister for Health and Social Services

Following a respectable showing in the 2018 Welsh Labour Leadership contest, it’s hard to imagine a bigger fall from grace for Parliamentary journeywoman Eluned Morgan MS. She finds herself well known, and unpopular in the Health brief, running a Department that’s contended with 13 years of austerity as well as the fallout of a pandemic response she played a minimal part in.

Properly apportioning blame aside, the facts are the facts, the health service in Wales is in a sorry state, and regularly finds itself being touted as the most high profile aspect of Welsh Labour’s supposed mismanagement of the country. Some of its problems are the sort of secular crises that most developed post-industrial nations are contending with, albeit in higher doses. Wales is an ageing population, and has high concentrations of deprivation and former heavy-industry workers living in places with poor air quality. But the rolling state of emergency at the Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board is a specifically Welsh problem, and even if we explain away some of the other issues, the fact remains that Morgan is the face of all the bad headlines.

Morgan’s also run into repeated issues with speeding tickets over the past couple of years, which normally could just be chalked up as a bit of trivia. But given the manner in which the rollout of the 20mph speed restrictions has gone down with the public (like a bucket of sick), it’s more incendiary than it would be normally.

I understand why Morgan is being mentioned as a candidate, it would be a surprise if she made the decision to run.

As we are now in the unofficial beginning of the campaign, Vaughan Gething finds himself in the strongest position in terms of name recognition and how the ensuing years post-pandemic have treated him. There is a risk that the COVID-19 Inquiry will take some of the immediate shine off his candidacy during the leadership contest, and if the unions offered their support to Jeremy Miles, there is a window of opportunity for him to strike out ahead in the eyes of the membership. However at this point the election very much remains Gething’s to lose.