To describe the last year in Welsh politics as eventful would be an understatement. It has been a tragic, turbulent, and unpredictable twelve months or so, but some order may have been restored last week, with the election of the frontrunner, Mark Drakeford AM, as the new leader of Welsh Labour and now First Minister.
The margin of victory was certainly narrower than some of the early predictions, but the fourth and longest of the leadership elections to take place in Wales in 2018, delivered perhaps the most predictable result. To their credit, both Eluned Morgan and Vaughan Gething ran excellent campaigns, which exceeded the expectations of many. The former showed that her fight to get on the ballot paper was more than justified, injecting ideas and urgency into a contest that felt like it was dragging from the moment it was announced, while the latter has surely secured his position in a big Cabinet job for the foreseeable. The question now will be whether the predictability of the result leads to more of the same from Welsh Labour in Government?
Reflecting on the legacy of the outgoing First Minister, Carwyn Jones, Professor Laura McAllister wrote over the weekend that Wales has been “crying out for a leader who not only leads but shows they care”. Drakeford has certainly tried to inject a sense of this into his campaign, with some feisty exchanges at hustings throughout the course of the election, but it will be interesting to see how a man who has openly admitted he has “no burning desire to be First Minister” conveys his passion in the top job.
While he has been a central figure in government for almost the entirety of Welsh Labour’s reign at the helm, there are certainly some subtle indications of a change of direction. While his support for Jeremy Corbyn meant the incoming First Minister would always be the left’s candidate in this contest, the “21st Century Socialism” branding of the campaign, and the echoing of Corbyn’s “For the many, not the few” moniker was unabashed. The manifesto – by far the most extensive of the three candidates’ – was a blend of ideas Drakeford has championed in Government – including a Vacant Land Tax – and ideas such as the appointment of a Cabinet Secretary for Housing that would mark a change of direction from Carwyn Jones’ time as First Minister.
From a housing perspective, there are encouraging signs throughout his manifesto. The appointment of Julie James as Minister for Housing and Local Government is a timely reminder of the importance of good housing to the future prosperity of Wales. There are positive noises around the closer alignment of housing and planning, and some of the ideas which have come out of the ongoing Review of Affordable Housing, including the creation of a central ‘Land Agency’ feature.
The ongoing Review of Affordable Housing presents a huge opportunity for the Minister and her Deputy, Hannah Blythyn, to create a long term policy environment which allows housing associations to continue building the homes Wales needs.
While it was encouraging to hear the new First Minister echo our Housing Horizons vision of a Wales where good housing is a basic right for all, it’s clear that housing will have fierce competition to reach the top of the list of priorities as he forms his new Government.
As the machinations over Brexit head for a crunch point at Westminster, the man who has led much of the Welsh Government’s work on the issue is unlikely to face much respite. He will also be faced with a decision on M4 relief road which has loomed over Welsh Government for longer than any of us can remember. The First Minister used the first weekend since his election to talk about the need to think long term, but it is short term decisions in those areas in particular which could very well define what a 21st Century Socialist Welsh Government looks like.
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