When looking at Labour leadership contests of the recent past, most are united by the shared characteristic that candidates define themselves against the previous leadership and then from one another. In 2019 Keir Starmer sought to ape the language of Corbynism while drawing a line under antisemitism, the others had competing conceptions of what went wrong to varying extents too. In 2018 much of the Welsh Labour leadership contest skirted around the circumstances of the vacancy becoming available, but that gave ample space to make abundantly clear who was on the left, who was on the right, and who the poor sod was that ended up somewhere in the middle. This Welsh Labour leadership contest is different for the two candidates on these two fronts.

Although Mark Drakeford’s star has dimmed somewhat in the eyes of the Welsh public in recent months, his standing is so strong with Welsh Labour members that his record as First Minister already finds itself comfortably passing into unimpeachable mythology alongside the likes of the longest serving First Minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan. As such, rather than contrasting themselves to his tenure, both Vaughan Gething and Jeremy Miles are seeking to claim or inherit the last of the sunlight provided by his premiership. However, both are in the bizarre position where referencing him directly creates no immediate political advantage with the wider public.

Political contrasts between the two are also more difficult to convey now, owing to the dire financial straits the Welsh Government and local authorities find themselves in. While much of Mark Drakeford’s legacy as a leftist is largely overhyped by English people wetting themselves over headlines about limited Universal Basic Income trials, in the early stages of his premiership there was the political and economic space for such things. However, it is fair to say that in a post-covid, post-Ukraine Wales, the idea of similar trials being floated would be shot down immediately in the light of spending pressures on the health service and local authorities

The Welsh Government not pursuing nice things isn’t a result of a particularly neoliberal crowd in Cardiff Bay holding sway (although there are a fair few of them around). It is a result of Wales being a relatively poor country that’s regularly stiffed by the Barnett formula and that doesn’t have the economic levers to pull for much meaningful radicalism. Both candidates and their campaign teams are also drawn from similar middling positions within the Welsh Labour Party. With Miles drawing support from the Welsh Labour deep state in Cardiff Bay, and Gething from the organised Trade Union Right. Politically you’d struggle to find much meaningful difference between these two groups as much as they’d like to protest otherwise.

As much as the rumour mill has swirled with tales of the riot act being read to both campaigns over how supposedly negative they’re being about each other, you’d be forgiven for thinking the election to decide the country’s next Leader was anything but a Welsh Labour love-in. In public, Miles and Gething are reasonably warm to each other, with the upper limit to their hostilities being coded barbs from Gething about Welsh school performance and outriders for Miles claiming that Vaughan is ‘the candidate the Tories and Plaid want’.

The Cardiff hustings were in essence designed to avoid any opportunity for contrasts to be found, with the jocular former First Minister Carwyn Jones presiding over questions drawn from the membership on issues such as Steel, and devolution of the Crown Estate. All of which were answered with variations of the same Welsh Government lines. A friend in public affairs pointed out that although the Welsh Government has no remit over foreign affairs, it was an opportunity missed not to draw either candidate on any of the major ongoing issues across the world, as at the very least it would give an insight into their values and way of thinking beyond pre-prepared lines.

Tipped by many as the clear frontrunner, Vaughan’s lead across all the major trade unions, Labour MPs and clear extensive preparation for the contest meant that he cut the figure of a candidate that was most able to confidently dispatch responses to questions posed on the broadest range of subjects. He has a strong understanding of the appealing parts of his story. From a question on Andrew Tate to the vaping ban, Gething was able to ruthlessly bring each question back around to his own key messages without so much as breaking a sweat. 

In this setting, he appeared every inch a dry but well-seasoned orator, comfortable in his own skin and able to command a variety of anecdotes from across his time in Welsh Government. The only notable gaffe of the evening was when it became clear that Vaughan’s command of the Welsh language still generates internal nervousness. He took two painful attempts to deliver a turn of phrase in Welsh. A moment that he likely is still kicking himself over, and will have an unnatural half-life in the memories of some attendees.

It’s clear that from the shape of his manifesto, and the way in which he talks about his own politics, Vaughan is not himself the right-wing anti-devolution bogeyman he’s often caricatured as. At the very least he has the good sense to understand the sort of commitments Welsh Labour members want to hear in these contests. But it is telling that his Parliamentary support is primarily drawn from Westminster and not Cardiff Bay. Welsh Labour Members of Parliament (including the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales no less) have made no secret of their scepticism about further devolution of powers. This either speaks to Vaughan’s power of outright persuasion, or that reassurances that have been made in private.

While Jeremy Miles looks and sounds like what they’ve come to expect of Welsh Labour First Ministers, with a command of the perceived historic essence of Wales built from his Neath stronghold, he is seeking to inherit the legacies of First Ministers past, rather than claim a spot at the top table of his own. Miles was nowhere near as comfortable in the setting as Gething, and appeared at points actively nervous when delivering responses to questions, lacking the depth of Welsh Government experience that Gething has in spades. He was less clipped and coherent in the way in which he was able to return to his own message and seemed to spray responses at the wall in the same way a person would when prepared but horrifically nervous for a job interview. On a human level it elicited sympathy, but it did not inspire much confidence.

This nervousness on the night also spoke to a certain level of desperation emanating from his campaign. With the spat over Unite’s endorsement of Gething, Miles looked less like a contender standing up to the establishment and more like a sore loser that wasn’t up to date with Sharon Graham’s rule changes.

As well this, the line being pushed by Miles and his outriders that “Plaid and the Tories want Vaughan” bears questioning. If there’s nothing to choose between the pair of them politically, why would Wales’ two Conservative Parties prefer it if Vaughan were First Minister? Cast your mind back to the Mayoral campaign of Zac Goldsmith and former Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price’s obsession with calling on Vaughan to resign and consider perhaps why the line has been greeted with disapproving murmurs every time it’s been rolled out.

With the backing of all of the major trade unions, ample preparation and the name recognition that comes with being one of the two faces of the Welsh Government’s pandemic response, Gething clearly still finds himself in the driving seat to win this contest as ballots drop. Anecdotally, members are receiving a significantly higher amount of communications from his campaign in the form of mail-outs, texts and phone banks, in the order of which completely dwarfs Jeremy’s operation. In a contest devoid of politics and personality, the ability of campaigns to stuff envelopes and mobilise supporters is the unspoken factor that will ultimately determine the outcome. This contest will be won by raw resources, name recognition and postage stamps – on all three counts, Jeremy Miles is in trouble.