All Change!

Well, it’s not dull is it? We now face the realistic prospect of there being simultaneous leadership elections running for all four parties in the National Assembly for Wales across the summer. To recap…

Welsh Labour started things off, with the announcement by Carwyn Jones at the party’s Welsh conference in April that he would be standing down later this year. Since then, Mark Drakeford rapidly announced his candidacy, and quickly became the favourite as he gathered the support of a significant number of his National Assembly colleagues. Two other AMs, both of them ministers in the Welsh Government, have also indicated that they would like to stand in the face: Vaughan Gething, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services; and Eluned Morgan, the minister for the Welsh Language and Lifelong Learing. However, neither of these latter two have yet apparently secured support from the five Assembly colleagues that they would need to nominate them. We don’t yet know for sure if other names may come forward.

We also remain unclear about the rules for the Welsh Labour leadership race. The party’s deputy leader, Carolyn Harris, was chosen earlier this year through the electoral collegesystem that also chose Carwyn Jones in 2009; there have been many calls for a move to One Member One Vote to choose the next leader. The party is currently conducting an internal consultation on the matter.

UKIP have been a fractious group within the Assembly more or less since the conclusion of the May 2016 election, in which they won seven AMs. Within days, the Welsh party leader (and MEP) Nathan Gill had been deposed as Assembly group leader by Neil Hamilton. However, recently, the Assembly group (which is now only five strong, Mark Reckless and Gill’s successor as AM Mandy Jones no longer being part of the group) deposed Hamilton in favour of Caroline Jones. We are now to have a party membership ballot, in which Jones and Hamilton will square off; but in which Gareth Bennett has also indicated he wishes to take part.

Plaid Cymru’s Assembly group has also been less than totally harmonious since their moderately successful 2016 Assembly result. Of the twelve Assembly members that they elected then, two are no longer in the party: Dafydd Elis Thomas resigned from Plaid Cymru within months of the 2016 election, and Neil McEvoy was suspended from Plaid earlier this year. In recent weeks, there have been calls from prominent figures within Plaid [see here and here for examples] for there to be a challenge to Leanne Wood, who has been leader of Plaid since she unexpectedly won the leadership race in early 2012. Adam Price and Rhun apIorwerth have been repeatedly proposed as potential challengers. If such a contest does materialise, Leanne Wood has said that she will accept the challenge; the decision would then be up to a ballot of the party membership.

Now the Welsh Conservatives have joined the fray. This morning, Andrew RT Davies, who has been leader in the Assembly since 2011, announced his resignation. His statement did not indicate quite why he was going – it may or may not be coincidence that he went so soon after the announcement that the UK government would not support the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon. It also remains somewhat unclear as to what process will follow next – in wonderfully old-school Conservative terminology, he referred to how the next leader would ‘emerge’. But RT himself was chosen in 2011 via a party membership ballot in which he defeated Nick Ramsay; if there is more than one candidate to replace him from within the Assembly group then one imagines that the same process would be followed again.

There will be plenty of time to assess the legacies of leaders who are, or may be, standing down; to consider the respective qualities of the candidates to replace them; and to explore how the respective leadership races are shaping up. I will doubtless be offering some of my own thoughts on this in the months ahead.

What, though, does it say about the state of contemporary politics in Wales that we have all four parties facing (definite or likely) leadership races? To some extent we have the coincidence of particular events – most notably the very tragic ones which brought forward a Welsh labour leadership context that might otherwise have happened a year or two later. There is also the political timetable to be considered: with less than three years to the next National Assembly election, parties need to be considering now how they can look to best prepare themselves, including by whom they can most effectively be led.

But there is another factor at play: the febrile nature of contemporary politics. At the UK level we see the two main parties looking increasingly dysfunctional, and patently lacking credible responses to the major and urgent problems facing the country. Wales is facing a Brexit that could soon inflict very substantial damage on its economy and society, within a UK state struggling to maintain its internal coherence and international reputation. And politicians in leadership positions are finding it difficult to have adequate responses to these challenges. That maybe says something about the calibre of those politicians. But it says much more, I think, about the times in which we are currently living.