The battle to the ballot

Daran Hill reflects on the dynamics of the Welsh Labour leadership campaign so far

The Welsh Labour establishment is kidding itself if it thinks the start of the leadership campaign has gone well.


The elongated, process driven, ponderous period has been mere moments of verve amid a prolonged public hand wringing. Perhaps the central problem has been the desire at the centre to recycle its election management strategy from 2009. The plan has been to juxtapose the shape and pace of that contest on to this one. It has totally disregarded the hugely changed circumstances since then, not least the fact that the incumbent First Minister is damaged in a way his predecessor never was. For so-called ‘progressives’, this is a very conservative approach.


We thus have a situation where by the time Carwyn officially resigns next week, as I have written before, every other party will have done its dirty business in the garden and even the four weekly bin collection will have taken it away.


The oh so creamy, oh so delicious Extra Special Conference earlier this month at least finally set the rules for Labour’s election. It decided very convincingly on a One Member One Vote system with ordinary members supporting that change on a scale of eight to one. The media reported this seismic move solely through the prism of the leadership election, but there was a broader perspective too. The convincing nature of this result showed that the old power bases in the Labour Party have been fundamentally and irrevocably changed. Wales was the last bastion of Labour not run by the left, but all that has now altered. Forgive the need for a Welsh Labour dictionary of national biography, but the ghost of Ken Hopkins has been slain by Darren Williams.


The week following the Conference has been dominated by the scrabble for nominations. Mark “The Hoover” Drakeford just kept sucking them up. Vaughan “The Critic” Gething just kept saying how awful that was. Eluned “The Underdog” Morgan did a great Oliver Twist in asking for just one more.


And it worked. From far Liverpool a booming voice came. The newly bearded prophet descended to his people and read out the commandments from the tablet. His pronouncements were weighty and morally profound. “Don’t be nasty to each other or to me,” “Show respect for the Me Too campaign” and “Either nominate in the right way or I will do it for you.”


And lo, the frenzy of finger pointing was ended. No more defensive Facebook status updates from Drakefordites keen to stress the virtues of their candidate. No more tactical urgings and condemnations from camp Gething. No more Alun Davies blog posts.


Finally, five months on, we have three candidates who will make it on to the ballot paper. It is up to them now to set out their stalls and present their policies and their virtues. Eluned Morgan now needs to flip her campaign back from her gender and on to her vision. It might not have felt like it when she produced four nominees but not the elusive fifth, but that gap has actually been the making of her campaign so far. It has presented her as a doughty fighter. That now needs to be translated into an outward reaching campaign based on themes and policies and not just the vox pops from beyond the bubble. Because until now it has been clear to listeners who she is, what she has done, and how she is consulting, but not what she will actually do.


Similarly, Vaughan Gething has yet to clearly set out what makes him and his campaign different. The release on poverty said pretty much he didn’t like poverty and almost, but not quite, implied other things should be done to alleviate it. To be fair, it is clear his battle to the ballot has been far from easy either, but he has yet to show much of the reason as to why he fought so hard to get there. His campaign really needs to start communicating clearly and with fewer nuances and codes. A recent pronouncement on how Welsh Labour will “instinctively compromise, hedge and position” was written in such a compromising and hedgy way it was impossible to work out if he thought that was a good or bad thing. Maybe ambiguity is part of the strategy.


Mark Drakeford is clearly not happy with how things are going either. After a torrid week in which he was buffeted by family stress and pressure to relinquish a supporter, through no fault of his own he was put under significant pressure. I still think he could have alleviated the nomination question and emerged a hero by offering to propose Eluned himself, but I am human enough to recognise that Mark deserves sympathy and not criticism over the past week. Carwyn’s decision to help Eluned get on the ballot paper has therefore helped his candidacy almost as much as it has helped her. Yet I also think the lack of response from those around Mark to the political challenge of the ballot issue speaks volumes about the rigidity by which they are approaching this campaign. They have their plan, they are convinced they will win, and nothing will deviate them.


Indeed, we are now at a point where all three candidates are assured and all three can change the dynamics of the campaign. This was Mark’s clear hope too when he produced a video last night stating the campaign would now move from personalities to policies. I think he is both right and wrong. The focus has not been about personalities for the last week, it has been about processes, and has been since the Llandudno Declaration. What happens next in the contest to become First Minister is a shift from process on to both policies and personalities.


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Daran Hill is the Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Positif

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