The summer of 2018 has seen Welsh politics undergo multiple leadership elections at the same time. Four of the five parties represented in the National Assembly for Wales – Welsh Labour, Welsh Conservatives, Plaid Cymru, and UKIP Wales – have either undergone or will be holding leadership elections soon. Only the Welsh Liberal Democrats are likely to keep their current leader this year. These elections have come about for different reasons but the holding of four leadership contests at the same time is unprecedented in Welsh politics.
First, in April, the current first minister and leader of Welsh Labour, Carwyn Jones announced he would be standing down this autumn following the death of former Welsh government minister Carl Sargeant in November 2017.
Throughout the summer a number of Labour assembly members put their names forward for the leadership, but as of yet only two have secured enough nominations to run. Mark Drakeford, the current cabinet secretary for finance in the Welsh government was first to secure enough nominations to run, followed by Vaughan Gething, the current cabinet secretary for Health and Social Services.
Eluned Morgan, Huw Irranca-Davies, and Alun Davies, all announced their intention to run, though this has now narrowed to just Eluned Morgan who still requires the support of one more Labour assembly member to get onto the ballot.
Both Mark Drakeford and Vaughan Gething are running campaigns in which they advocate change. Many Welsh Labour activists are keen that the leadership contest does not turn into yet another Corbynite vs non-Corbynite battle. Nevertheless, Mark Drakeford is widely seen as the ‘Corbyn candidate’; having been supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s election and subsequent leadership he is now backed by Welsh Labour Grassroots (Momentum in Wales).
Arguably, if Drakeford, the current favourite, does wins the leadership, and Leanne Wood retains leadership of Plaid Cymru, there will be greater opportunities for cross-party working between Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour.
Welsh Labour has agreed to run its leadership via one-member-one-vote after a robust debate over whether the electoral college should be retained. The results of the election is expected to be announced in early December.
Plaid Cymu’s constitution allows for a leadership contest every two years. Following much discussion within the party, Rhun ap Iorwerth and Adam Price announced their plan to challenge Leanne Wood for the leadership in in July.
The election campaign has seen many accusations about the perceived lack of successes the party has had during Leanne Wood’s leadership, as well as commentaries on which of the candidates would or would not work with the Welsh Conservatives.
The outcome of the election will be announced on 28 September. Generally, it appears that the race has narrowed into a contest between current leader Leanne Wood and challenger Adam Price – something which would no doubt be contested by the ap Iorwerth camp! Should Wood win, there is the potential for Plaid’s agenda to become more radical in challenging Welsh Labour from the left. Whereas a switch to Adam Price may well see the party become more centrist, with Price proposing a cut in income tax, for example.
At the beginning of September, Paul Davies won the election to succeed Andrew RT Davies as leader of the Welsh Conservative Group in the National Assembly. RT Davies resigned at the end of June following criticism he had made of Airbus’ warnings of a no-deal Brexit and the feeling that he had lost support for his leadership from other elements of his party.
Near the top of the agenda for Paul Davies as he becomes the Party’s new leader in the Assembly is the push to secure more autonomy for the Welsh Conservative party from the UK party. Alongside this is the goal of solidifying himself as the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, not solely the Welsh Conservative group in the assembly.
Nonetheless, Davies’ election does almost certainly move the Welsh Conservatives slightly further towards the centre ground of Welsh politics, and he has explicitly said that he is open to doing a deal with Plaid Cymru in the future.
UKIP Wales were the first party to announce their new leader – Gareth Bennett – whose positions on trans rights, the Welsh language, and devolution itself have seen him come in for much criticism from across the political spectrum. While already losing one AM, quite what Bennett’s leadership will do to both the party and the assembly is unclear but his anti-devolution statements have led to concern from many in both politics and the Welsh media.
After the dust settles
Generally, the changes in leadership will create new opportunities for parties to work together. The election of Gareth Bennett will most likely further isolate the UKIP group, whereas Paul Davies is certainly more to the centre than his predecessor. Assuming all signs are correct and Mark Drakeford is elected, Welsh Labour’s leader would be further to the left than current leader Carwyn Jones, which may well see the Welsh government’s policy agenda become more radical.
Quite where Plaid Cymru ends up really depends on who ends up winning the leadership. A Wood victory could see more red-green working but a victory for Price or ap Iorwerth could open the door to a closer relationship with the Welsh Conservatives. This summer has shaken up Welsh politics. Quite what politics in the Senedd will look like when the dust settles will not be known until early next year.