By Mick Antoniw
This should have been the headline in all the newspapers in their reporting of the outcome of the Welsh elections. Instead, most of our rather lazy and London-centric media chose to report how Welsh Labour “hung on”, “failed to obtain a majority” or managed to “hold back a Tory onslaught”.
So let me put the record straight. It was a resounding and spectacular victory for Welsh Labour: our best result since the beginning of devolution.
At the start of the election campaign it was predicted we would suffer our worst ever results, possibly going as low as 22 seats. Nationalists and Tories gloated and predicted a Labour armageddon.
However, the outcome was totally different. We increased our number of seats from 29 to 30 – exactly half the total. Plaid Cymru former leader Leanne Wood lost Rhondda to Labour by two to one, and the Tories failed to make any significant dent in the so-called North East Wales red wall.
Thirty seats might not seem a lot, but under our electoral system of 40 constituency and 20 party top-up seats, it is almost impossible for Labour to gain a majority. Labour has never obtained more than 30 seats and even that only once.
Despite the electoral system, or perhaps because of it, we have nevertheless formed every government in Wales since the beginning of devolution 22 years ago.
To win exactly half the seats in the current political climate, post-Brexit, is a truly remarkable achievement, with increased majorities across Wales and former Brexit voters coming back in large numbers.
This has been a watershed moment for Welsh Labour which has emancipated into a successful political movement and ‘brand’ in its own right. Mark Drakeford will again be elected by the Parliament as First Minister and become the most senior Labour parliamentary figure in the UK.
So how is it that this proudly socialist, left-leaning, politician, who was the only Welsh Government Minister to endorse Jeremy Corbyn, has risen to these political heights and become the most popular, best-recognised and respected Welsh politician in generations? How has Welsh Labour succeeded where others in the UK have failed?
The successful handling of the Covid pandemic in Wales has clearly played a part. Achieving the fastest vaccination rate in the whole of the UK and in most of Europe, is one factor.
Mark’s ability to communicate the challenges and conflicts and to always steer a cautious but constructive course is another. On the streets during the election so many people came out of their homes to be photographed with him and to genuinely thank him for keeping them safe and for what he was doing for Wales. When has that happened to a politician before?
But it is more than that. Mark has built on the ‘clear red water’ legacy of his Welsh Labour predecessors and enhanced the Welsh Labour ‘brand’. He has tapped into the underlying culture of Welsh radicalism and cultural identity with a message of confidence and hope, which contrasted starkly with the messages from opposition parties.
He has maintained and led a united party where Welsh Labour is a truly broad church and the social partnership with the trade unions has built a solid foundation for what he openly describes as 21st century socialism.
Covid of course has highlighted the benefits of devolution in a way that many previously did not understand. Standing up for Wales against some of the more reckless decisions of the Tories in Westminster when it was in Wales’ interest to do so has won over many voters.
He was able to build on a progressive Labour record in Government. This included the investment of billions of pounds in new schools all over Wales through the imaginative 21st century schools programme, developing programmes for investment in public transport and taking the railways into public ownership along with Wales’ only international airport, social partnership with the trade unions and businesses, historic levels of employment, creating over 100,000 apprenticeships, increased protection for tenants, animal welfare, organ transplantation legislation and much, much more .
A radical Welsh Labour manifesto for the election was one the Party across Wales was able to unite behind. Progressive economic policy, investment, fair work and environmental protection created a political agenda, which opposition parties found difficult to challenge. When people went out to vote, they liked what they heard and they knew what they were voting for and that what was promised would be delivered.
There is much UK Labour can learn from Wales if they care to listen.
As the new Welsh Labour Government is formed, the challenges ahead are immense: UK Government austerity, NHS backlogs and economic recovery post-Covid. There are likely to be turbulent times ahead across Wales and the rest of the UK.
Although the issue of independence did not feature as a significant doorstep issue in the election, there is a growing undercurrent for change. Tory policies which are aimed at rolling back devolution and recentralising power in Downing Street will become an increasing source of conflict, not just in Wales but as we have seen in recent months, in the regions of England.
Existing constitutional arrangements, such as they are, no longer work. Radical change is needed. The Welsh Party now has a mandate for a radical federalist reform of the UK constitution, in effect, Home Rule.
The starting point is likely to be the creation of a Welsh constitutional convention to identify and build a consensus for change. Events in Scotland will almost certainly catalyse this process but one thing is sure: Welsh Labour is no longer a junior partner to UK Labour. It has come of age. We have a radical agenda to implement and battles to fight – so get ready for a roller coaster couple of years.
Mick Antoniw is the Senedd/ Welsh Parliament Member for the Constituency of Pontypridd
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