Fay Jones reflects on a turbulent year in Welsh politics
Just over a year ago, I found myself in a transit van, singing Catatonia’s International Velvet as I crossed the Severn Bridge – as it was then known. I was Coming Home; swapping life in Wimbledon for Pontprennau, switching from a role in public affairs in Westminster to heading up a public affairs agency in Cardiff Bay. But what I signed up for – working on a busy political agenda with focussed leaders – hasn’t materialised. Instead, my first year in Welsh public affairs has been dominated by personalities instead of policy.
Like many, I left Wales to go to university and didn’t look back. In 2003, I couldn’t see a role for me in Wales. Always fascinated by politics, the early years of the Assembly didn’t cut it for me. Early Assembly Members didn’t quite know how to get the best out of the institution and like many, the lure of green benches, spotting cabinet ministers in Westminster tube station and selfies on the House of Commons Terrace became too strong. Westminster became my professional home for the next 14 years. Like so many idealistic graduates, I took my first job as a researcher to a Member of Parliament and then to a government department, and then to a role in public affairs.
But every Welsh person away from Wales understands the term hiraeth. For many it’s a persistent longing for home. For me, it was the slow realisation that the balance of power was shifting. 18 years after its creation, the toddler Assembly I had taken almost no notice of was almost an adult. Assembly Members had found a strength of voice and the political landscape was completely different. In political terms, the party was in Wales and I had FOMO.
Three days after moving west, my shiny new work shoes barely had a scuff on them when the First Minister announced he would be reshuffling his Cabinet. And the following week, when the tragic news about Carl Sargeant’s death became known, the optimism promised by the Welsh Assembly elections faded away and Welsh politics went dark.
As was appropriate, a long period of mourning ensued. Shocked Assembly Members returned to the Siambr and tried to pick up the pieces of shattered political landscape – but the momentum, and trust, had gone. In the Spring, it soon became clear that going ‘back to normal’ was not an option. All the promising political ideas which bubbled away in 2017 had very clearly gone off the boil. Clearly, it was time for change. At that point, we didn’t know just how much change would come.
First, Llandudno. First Minister Carwyn Jones surprised everyone with the announcement in the middle of his conference speech that he would be standing down. Even Welsh Labour seemed to be caught short. Two days after the conference, front runner Mark Drakeford confirmed he would be standing. It would take a further five months to finalise a shortlist. As I write, we are still 2 weeks away from a result, leaving Welsh Labour without firm leadership for almost a year.
Plaid Cymru’s journey of self-discovery has been both shorter and sharper. Despite an ill-thought-out idea by Adam Price to share leadership with incumbent Leanne Wood, Price confidently swept away the old guard. While yet to achieve cut through with the wider public, according to the latest Welsh Barometer polls, Plaid is very clearly on manoeuvres. A temporarily free membership offer has boosted the party’s membership figures by 2,000 while the party’s leadership is currently seeking advice from Nationalist counterparts in Scotland – perhaps looking to concentrate firepower on Labour in order to deliver the same electoral drubbing that the SNP handed out to Labour at the Holyrood Elections in 2011.
The Welsh Conservative Party’s summer of discontent proved to be anything but. Live-wire Andrew R T Davies’ tensions with colleagues in Westminster finally came to a head and Paul Davies, his deputy leader, won the support of his party faithful. But to what end? Without a substantial shift in strategy, it is hard to see the Conservatives making gains at the next elections. The Welsh Conservatives have an added problem – voters in Wales judge the Conservative party on their UK wide performance. Plaid and Labour don’t have this issue. While Brexit paralyses the UK party, is there time (and inclination) for Paul Davies’s team to impose clear, blue water along Offa’s Dyke?
2018 will be remembered more for its turbulence, its division and its upheaval – tempered only by the shining of example of the Eisteddfod in Cardiff Bay – galvanising support for Welsh culture, heritage, identity and potential in a way not seen in some time. But the optimism with which I crossed the (now) Prince of Wales Bridge is starting to return and 2019 is looking promising. Plaid Cymru is on manoeuvres, looking to Scotland for ideas on how to capitalise on its momentum. Welsh Labour is set to put a dark year behind it as it brings forward a raft of new ideas to restate its authority in Wales. Clearly, other parties in the Assembly – especially the Conservatives will need to punch hard if they are to land a blow on either of their counterparts. In amongst this, we celebrate 20 years of the Welsh Assembly and usher in the era of the Senedd.
It tempts me to think of another Catatonia song: Game on.
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.