Life After Rhodri

John Osmond looks at the problems Welsh Labour will face in filling the gap that will be left when the First Minster steps down next September:

Environment Minister Jane Davidson’s announcement that she will not be contesting her Pontypridd Assembly seat in 2011 underlines the problems Labour will have in putting together a high-profile leadership at the next Assembly election. She is widely regarded as one of Welsh Labour’s more effective communicators but she will be nowhere near as missed as the First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, who will also be standing down, vacating the leadership in September 2009.

Rhodri Morgan is the Donald Dewar of Welsh politics, in many ways the father of Welsh devolution. He is the only politician of any party currently in the National Assembly who is widely known by the electorate. His historic role has been to legitimise devolution, and to make people comfortable with the National Assembly.

In many ways his personality is contradictory. He is an intellectual by background and temperament, but is keen to project himself as an ‘ordinary bloke’, someone you’re quite likely to meet drinking with a few friends in one of his favourite haunts in his Cardiff West constituency.

His slightly shambolic image, colourful language, and occasional gaffes actually endear him to many Welsh people. It was noteworthy, for instance, that a recent attack on his personality by Opposition Tory leader Nick Bourne, spectacularly backfired. A Conservative dossier on the First Minister’s shortcomings, signed off by Bourne, criticised Morgan’s hairstyle and dress sense and called him the “Clown Prince of Wales”. Pressed in media interviews Bourne backtracked, distancing himself from the attack. The result was a threatened revolt from within his own Assembly Group, bringing his leadership into question and forcing him into a public apology.

The First Minister, who will be 70 next year, studied PPE at Oxford, and followed that with an MBA at Harvard. His father, T.J. Morgan was Professor of Welsh at Swansea, and his brother Prys is a distinguished Emeritus Professor of History at the same university. In Welsh terms this is an aristocratic pedigree, making the First Minister in effect a Prince of Wales. Nonetheless, he has maintained, and consciously cultivated, a common touch.

In a contribution to a new book, Politics in 21st Century Wales, being launched by the IWA at an event in the Senedd in Cardiff Bay during the early evening of Monday, 17 November (click on the Events button of this website for more details), Morgan demonstrates a commanding feel for Welsh Labour’s prospects. He sets out how the party must engage more in western Wales, where it has all but retreated from the electoral map, and must find a way of expressing a more confident Welshness at the same time as espousing the benefits of its British identity.

All of which means that Rhodri Morgan will leave a gaping hole in Welsh Labour’s electoral armoury when he departs the stage next September. The analogy with the departure of Scotland’s first First Minister, Donald Dewar, is apt. Since his premature death in October 2000 – the same month that Rhodri Morgan put the final touches to his first coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in Cardiff Bay – the Labour Party in Scotland has struggled to establish a stable leadership and identity. It has been torn between those wishing to strike out as a more autonomous Scottish Party, and those placing greater emphasis on defending the union against the Scottish Nationalists.

A number of personalities have been mentioned as possible successors to Rhodri Morgan. The most likely is perhaps Carwyn Jones, the affable Welsh-speaking barrister from Bridgend, currently holding the relatively obscure position of Counsel General in the Cabinet and Leader of the House in the Assembly. Better known is the combative Health Minister, Edwina Hart, but she is more likely to be kingmaker than king. Finance Minister, Andrew Davies, is another possibility, alongside Regeneration Minister, Leighton Andrews, and an outsider, backbench Merthyr AM Huw Lewis. However, as yet none of these have the stature or profile of Rhodri Morgan, or his unique ability to somehow encompass Wales’s identity and aspirations within his own personality.

The latest Welsh opinion poll, carried out by Beaufort Research for Plaid Cymru between 12 and 21 September, show that the Labour-Plaid coalition in Cardiff Bay appears to have benefited the partners. Among those saying they were certain or likely to vote in an Assembly election Labour would get 35.0 per cent (up from 32.2 per cent in 2007), Plaid Cymru 25.7 per cent (22.4 per cent), the Conservatives 18.9 per cent (22.4 per cent), and the Liberal Democrats 12.1 per cent (14.8 per cent).

These results are within the range of margin of error and essentially indicate that little has changed since the May 2007 election. Counter-intuitively Labour’s support was up slightly at a time when its poll ratings across the UK were in the doldrums, yet the Conservatives were down while in the UK overall they were well ahead.

What the poll does not reveal is the dynamics of an election campaign and the role and image of leadership as part of that. Welsh Labour had a poor result in 2007, but the outcome in seats would have been much worse if a handful of votes had gone the other way. For instance it held on to the Vales of Glamorgan and Clwyd by 83 and 92 votes respectively. Arguably, it was Rhodri Morgan’s personality and leadership that held off the worst. Labour will not have this comfort in 2011.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

One thought on “Life After Rhodri

  1. Interesting piece, and some of it is on the money. However, you would also do well to remember that before Rhodri became First Minister he was a little known, fairly shambolic backbench MP with a reputation that didn’t really extend out of his Cardiff West constituency. Obvioulsy being the face of the Asembly Government for the last few years has heightened his profile, but the contenders to take over (particularly Edwina Hart as you mention) are starting from a better place than Rhodri did back in the late 90s.

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