Following a vote of Welsh Labour Party members and affiliated trade unionists, last Saturday Vaughan Gething MS was elected as Leader of the Welsh Labour Party and on Wednesday he was duly elected by his Senedd Labour colleagues as the First Minister of Wales. His election, after a drawn-out and closer than anticipated campaign against Education Minister Jeremy Miles MS, marks both a shift in the generation in charge in Cardiff Bay and makes Gething the first black leader of any country in Europe. Naturally, the Welsh political class has handled both of these developments exceedingly well.

At the halfway point of the campaign most, including this writer, would have agreed that the overall result would be a question of the extent to which Gething would win rather than a question of if he would at all. At the time friends of friends on the Miles campaign were reporting that their canvassing returns were strong, but that they were being completely outgunned both in material delivered and in numbers of members reached. When members heard from Miles and his team they liked him, but all the bandwidth was being dominated by Gething’s high profile, better-resourced and prepared campaign. An anecdote of dubious veracity doing the rounds at the time was that when Miles was knocking doors for the Labour candidate in Monmouthshire, two kindly members approached him asking who he was and what he did.

A collection of spectators gathered after the Cardiff hustings didn’t know what to make of it either, there was little to choose between the pair of them in both style and substance, with the main talking point of the campaign not policy, but that Gething had won all the major trade union endorsements and Miles wasn’t happy about it. One of the group gathered noted that the line from Miles and his surrogates that Gething was “the candidate the Tories and Plaid wanted” rang a little dodgy, but that it more likely was just one of those things that people say in these contests. Welsh media struggled to find SEO-friendly newslines and it felt like the contest would never graduate beyond the glacial shadow-boxing on display.

Then came the news that the Gething campaign had accepted a £200k donation from a business that had been found in breach of environmental regulations, and the lid finally blew open on what had been a lukewarm and bloodless contest.

From the outset this story was staggering, but only in the manner in which it was covered and reacted to. Even within the context of threadbare UK election spending, £200k is an absolute pittance in the grand scheme of campaigns, but is a minor fortune in Welsh politics. The charge from some corners that because Gething had written and met with Natural Resources Wales on behalf of a business in his constituency he was somehow corrupt, betrayed both an all-too apparent desperation for news lines and a blessed ignorance about the current functionality of Wales’ environmental regulator (which is to say NRW isn’t very good at any aspects of its job). 

It was easy to see the bind Vaughan’s campaign found themselves in here, all is fair in love and elections so they were obviously correct to tool up as much as possible – especially given the relatively minor nature of the prior infractions, anyone suggesting otherwise is simply not serious about what sort of decisions need to be made to win these contests. My instinct however is that while getting out ahead of it and bouncing back onto the front foot rather than meandering around the topic might have been more risky, it would’ve perhaps averted some of the fallout Gething is now experiencing. But when out in front in these elections, the received wisdom generally is to mitigate risk where possible. 

I think it is undoubtedly understandable to see why this story put members off Vaughan and why the result eventually ran so close as a result, however the manner in which the story has graduated to become an existential matter for quite so many people is concerning and based on shaky thinking. 

The coverage and response to the donation has proved to be the animus for many of the whispers about Gething, and from figures and fringes of the distant past of Welsh Politics to begin crawling out from the woodwork. It has rattled parts of the Welsh Labour Senedd group in the wake of Vaughan’s election, but stepping back I think most should be able to view the furore for what it is and what it is predicated upon. Which is not a lot. 

For example, in a now-deleted tweet, respected Swansea University academic Martin Johnes bemoaned Gething’s apparent shiftiness and aversion to scrutiny as he was ushered away from farming protestors at the advice of police. That Jeremy Miles was also clearly visible in the video being ushered away by the very same police officers apparently did not raise the same concerns for him or the press covering the incident, nor did the fact that these protests are being regularly and loudly infiltrated across Europe by the far-right. But that is a conversation that can be revisited the next time the Leaders of Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives greet tractors on the steps of the Senedd.

On Monday Wales Online reported that a former Labour MP, Gwynoro Jones, was urging for the undemocratic blocking of Vaughan’s installation as First Minister on the grounds of a “stitch up from the affiliated big six unions not based in Wales”. Aside from the fallout of the donation story, here the leading exclusive from Wales’ biggest news outlet was that the legitimacy of Welsh Labour’s Leadership election was dubious. Quite why the views of a person who left frontline Labour politics to join two other political parties while Miles and Gething were still in primary school were aired so loudly and without any indication the journalist who penned the piece had sought comment from Gething or Welsh Labour is unclear.

On Tuesday, Will Hayward, one of the best-known and well respected political journalists in Wales (coincidentally the author of the aforementioned article) tweeted out a twenty-tweet thread highlighting Gething’s apparent history of reacting angrily to things, one of which includes the time he refused to apologise for having chips on a bench with his son during the pandemic. That Mark Drakeford’s outburst in the Siambr did not provoke the same sort of coverage beyond encouraging people to watch the spectacle before it was lauded across Wales, is perhaps worth noting on both the part of the author and the Welsh audience. As one is praised for publicly losing his temper and for his hot-mic moments, while the other is castigated. 

I hope the point I am making here need not be spelled out, but do read the replies and comments on the Wales Online articles about Gething if it needs clarifying what veins are being mined here.

What I am attempting to illustrate here is that much of the furore surrounding Gething’s election is constructed on dubious grounds disproportionate to the scale and nature of the donations story. That the Welsh media behaves like this is absolutely a given as they struggled to grapple with Drakeford’s popularity in an SEO friendly way even during its 20-mph induced nadir. But it is slightly arresting to see the sort of bedfellows being made between the rhetoric of mainstream reporting and the sort of lines normally found festering on Wales’ collection of far-right blogs and fringe political parties.

Which is why the response from some Labour MSs to brief out that they are meeting to discuss “concerns” regarding Gething ahead of his installation as First Minister shows how far detached some are from the political reality they are now operating in. The Welsh Labour Party just elected a black leader, and if they can’t recognise how that’s already changed the politics and media coverage in the country, they will play directly into the hands of the people angling to unseat them. A confected crisis only becomes real if you take it seriously.

Even though it was almost certainly in the best interests of his campaign, Jeremy Miles did not go in studs-up on Vaughan’s donations when the opportunity availed itself. This speaks to both Miles’ prescience and commitment to Welsh Labour’s continued governance of Wales. And why, having not torpedoed the incoming Government, he’s been given a plum job in Gething’s administration. 

I find myself in a strange position where I am not particularly animated by the thought of Gething’s leadership, but I am compelled by the way in which so many cannot see the wood for the trees regarding the opposition to his election. Vaughan Gething put it best in his opening pitch to the membership where he remarked that sometimes he is a black politician and other times he is a politician who is black – the Welsh Labour Party will have to recognise that, and contend with the Wales that actually exists, not the one where these sort of things don’t matter.

This article has been amended to reflect that Gwynoro Jones was an executive consultant to Wales News Online, and not Wales Online as had been previously stated.