Laura McAllister gives her verdict on Carwyn Jones’ record as First Minister of Wales
This article first appeared in the Western Mail and on WalesOnline.
So the fat lady has nearly finished singing. Without being unfair, it’s been a painfully long-drawn-out aria for departing First Minister Carwyn Jones.
Next week, he takes his final First Minister’s Questions in the Senedd after nine years in charge of Welsh Labour and as First Minister.
Context is everything in politics and few would dispute that Carwyn Jones was dealt a mixed hand of cards.
Even his last appearance next Tuesday at the Senedd’s equivalent of the despatch box (the Perspex stand?) will be completely overshadowed by more significant events in the House of Commons.
Despite being one of Labour’s most senior elected politicians, for much of his time in charge there has been a sense of sidelines and shadows throughout Carwyn Jones’ reign.
The two unique and savage curveballs Jones faced were, first, austerity with brutal budget cuts unimaginable by his two predecessors in the role, and, of course, Brexit.
Then, in his final year at the helm, the tragedy that coloured every moment and movement – the “darkest times” as Jones himself described them – following the death of his ministerial colleague and friend Carl Sargeant.
Despite two inquiries completed, there is no respite, especially as the coroner’s inquest will resume next year and the independent QC-led inquiry is still to commence.
But, in football parlance, Carwyn Jones has also had a relatively easy, England-type draw too.
He inherited an enfeebled Welsh politics, with the two opposition parties floundering on direction, focus and strategy.
This meant little meaningful threat to the good old-fashioned one-party state that is modern Wales.
Labour’s electoral hegemony has been virtually untouched by a succession of opposition leaders, conjuring up images of King Kong swatting navy planes from the top of the Empire State Building.
Still, in another football analogy – and as Manchester United are displaying this season – too long at the top is not an altogether good thing.
Complacency, inertia and staleness can set in and, when opponents do sort themselves out, it can be painful to watch and often self-destructive.
Now clearly, Carwyn Jones can’t be blamed for inheriting a successful electoral machine alongside a disengaged, disenchanted voting public with little discernible interest in Cardiff Bay politics, meaning elections are largely shaped by the fortunes of the UK parties.
When he shocked the Welsh Labour conference in Llandudno earlier this year by announcing he would stand down as Labour Leader and FM, Jones boasted an enviable electoral record.
In the 2011 election, coming straight out of coalition with Plaid Cymru, Labour won half the seats in the Senedd. In 2016, the party lost just one, despite a dramatic fall in its vote.
In the 2017 UK General Election, Labour had rightly expected to lose seats in Wales but ended up gaining three with its best vote share since the Blair landslide in 1997.
Elections have a fair element of luck about them and this one began with Jeremy Corbyn as public enemy number one and ended with fandom and celebrity-style crowds, so the extent to which Carwyn Jones influenced the outcome is questionable, but he did at least stamp his authority on a drifting campaign.
Carwyn’s status as an electorally-successful politician is indisputable and I’d wager that, as a result, tributes to him from UK commentators (such as they are) will be more fulsomely positive than from closer to home. The bigger question is how Jones’ career will be judged politically.
His deputy, Carolyn Harris MP, described Jones as “a towering figure”.
Mmm, unless she meant physical stature, that’s a heck of a claim for a politician who, even after nine years as First Minister, isn’t recognised by a quarter of the public and is viewed positively by just over four in 10.
According to my colleague, Professor Roger Awan-Scully, Carwyn is no better known publicly here in Wales than Vince Cable, Neil Hamilton and Leanne Wood.
With so few distinctive and popular Welsh platforms, Carwyn always faced an uphill challenge to elevate himself and Welsh politics above the UK level’s noisy dominance.
Ultimately, the facts don’t lie – despite uninterrupted Labour government for nearly 20 years, Wales remains the poorest part of the UK, with education and health scarcely in fine fettle and the ambition to eliminate child poverty by 2020 abandoned.
In a BBC interview, and acknowledging that his record was “for others to judge”, Jones said his proudest achievements were “saving jobs at Port Talbot steelworks and attracting Aston Martin to St Athan”.
He also rather strangely claimed that he had no unfinished business. What about the small matter of influencing a likely future for Wales outside the European Union and a Conservative Government (whoever is in charge) highly unlikely to adopt the powerful redistributive policies of the EU?
As a blog from Daran Hill bitingly put it: “From the moment Wales voted with England in 2016, we automatically ended up in a pecking order below Northern Ireland, Scotland and even Gibraltar.”
No-one denies that is a pretty dreadful hand to be dealt – charged with representing a nation that had just given a collective knee in the groin to our elected leaders and voted to turn off the tap that gives £245m more to us than we pay in.
Along with Plaid Cymru, Jones tried to push a White Paper which argued for a future inside the Single Market and Customs Union to protect frictionless trade.
In fairness, Jones has been proactive over Brexit at least, playing to his strengths – his legal background and pushing a constitutional convention for the UK – but, in all that has followed, Carwyn Jones has largely been ignored. Understandable to some extent as even Nicola Sturgeon has been overshadowed by the Northern Ireland border crisis.
Then there’s the M4 and Jones’ departure before taking a decision on the relief road at Newport. For me, these two issues sum up Carwyn Jones’ period at the helm. Plenty of fine words and lots of consultations, with insufficient action and delivery.
No-one would dream of denying that Carwyn Jones is a clever, articulate, dignified, decent man.
He revelled in the glitzy VIP invitations being FM brings – the Nato Summit, the Champions League finals, rugby Six Nations, etc. These occasions suited his personality and style.
Carwyn was at his best in these formal environments. He could look and, more importantly, sound the part, his personal background making him at ease displaying Welsh pride and historical knowledge – throw in a few sporting anecdotes and Bob’s your uncle.
The problem is, this was never quite enough. Carwyn Jones rarely showed anger but critics felt he displayed insufficient emotion and animation.
His languid style annoyed and frustrated some and, as time went on, it became hard to decipher a clear ambition for himself or a decisive aspiration for the nation.
The irony is that, until this year, what we had never seen from Carwyn was raw emotion or a proper glimpse into him as a person.
When it did happen, it was in the most tragic and desperate of circumstances.
His inability/reluctance to display that sooner ultimately served him poorly and meant he conveyed little genuine conviction in his own ability to effect change.
This was hugely regrettable at a time when Wales has desperately needed hope and confidence.
We have been crying out for a leader who not only leads but shows they care, while also having the confidence and belief to make change happen.
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