Islwyn MP Don Touhig’s announcement over the weekend that he will not be contesting the forthcoming general election brings the number of Welsh MPs standing down to six – all of them Labour – with the likelihood of one or two more following them. Equally, if not more significant for the future of the party in Wales, eight Labour AMs will not be seeking re-election in May 2010.
Welsh MPs so far not standing, in addition to Don Touhig, are: Betty Williams (Conwy), Alan Williams (Swansea West), John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan), Martin Jones (Clwyd South), and Kim Howells (Pontypridd). AMs that have announced their retirement are: Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff West), Brian Gibbons (Aberavon),Irene James (Islwyn), Jane Davidson (Pontypridd), Val Lloyd (Swansea East), Karen Sinclair (Clwyd South), And Andrew Davies (Swansea West). In addition Alun Davies has announced he will not be standing for his Mid and West Wales seat but has been nominated to contest Blaenau Gwent, currently held by Independent Trish Law.
This shake out in leading Welsh Labour figures that will occur in the next year is unprecedented and adds to the uncertainty and change around the future of Welsh politics. Most observers believe between 10 and 12 Welsh Parliamentary seats will change hands at the general election, expected to be held on May 6. Together with the outcome of the election itself, whether a minority government, hung Parliament, or a narrow lead for Conservatives or Labour, this will directly affect the prospects for the next Assembly election in May 2011.
In al of this Labour will remain the largest party in Wales but likely to be much reduced from its current crop of 29 MPs and 26 AMs. The number of Welsh MPs and AMs could fall to around 20.
In these circumstances tremendous amount will depend on the calibre of the candidates Labour chooses to replace those who are standing down. At the Assembly level, the choice of Mick Antoniw, a solicitor with a string campaigning record to fight Pontypridd, and Vaughan Gethin, a prominent trade unionist who has chaired the Wales TUC to fight Cardiff South and Penarth bodes well. If Rhodri Morgan’s former key policy adviser Mark Drakeford is chosen to succeed him in Cardiff West, the party in the Assembly will be strengthened even more.
With the likelihood of a referendum on increasing the Assembly’s powers taking place this Autumn, all these changes mean that Welsh Labour faces an existential choice about what kind of party it wants to be. Does it strike out as a more autonomous organisation, stressing distinctive left-of-centre and more distributivist policies from English New Labour? Or does it opt to emphasise Labour’s essential British identity along with competing for the centre ground with the Conservatives, for example in stressing the outcomes of public service delivery, especially in education? Can it find a different way for framing these debates that unify the party in Wales as well as providing a narrative that can excite activists and attract new voters in an era of coalition politics? None of these are easy questions.