The Labour Leadership Contest

Carwyn Jones’ shock resignation announcement today at the Welsh Labour conference means that the party, which has just been electing its deputy leader, will soon also be launched upon a contest for the top job. How will that occur?

The new leader of Welsh Labour will be elected via an ‘Electoral College’. That has not been typical Labour practice in recent years. The last two UK party leadership contests involved a One Member One Vote ballot of the entire party membership (with ‘registered supporters’ of the party also able to take part). Recent Scottish Labour leaders have been chosen in a very similar way. But the party in Wales is sticking with the method that was chosen to elect both Alun Michael and Carwyn Jones. This gives one-third of the vote to each of three categories: the party membership, the affiliated trade unions, and elected politicians. (The last group comprises Welsh Labour MPs, AMs and their one MEP).

The most unpredictable part of this electoral college is the mass membership. Labour’s ranks have expanded greatly since the 2015 general election; most people who are members of the party now were not members then. We know that lots of these new members have supported Jeremy Corbyn in the last two leadership ballots. But we currently have little hard evidence on how these members might align in the event of a Welsh leadership contest.

Another ‘known unknown’ about any Welsh Labour leadership contest is the field of candidates. The candidates in any contest are rarely the expected ones: for some time before June 2016, people talked about the succession to David Cameron being a three-way fight between George Osborne, Boris Johnson and Theresa May. In the event, only one of these even made it to the first ballot. Few had ever considered Andrea Leadsom to be a serious contender until she suddenly, though briefly, became exactly that.

Any contender will need to have at least some support within the Assembly: to get on the ballot, a candidate needs to be nominated by one-fifth of Labour AMs. But we don’t yet know who might seek such nominations. There are plenty of potential runners within the Labour Assembly group. Three cabinet members – Mark Drakeford, Vaughan Gething and Ken Skates – have been mentioned frequently in recent times as potential contenders. All currently hold major ministerial portfolios and would be plausible candidates. Drakeford would be another in a line of Welsh speakers to lead Welsh Labour; Gething would be the first BAME Labour leader; while Skates would be Labour’s first leader in the Assembly to represent a north Wales seat. Alun Davies is another experienced cabinet minister who might consider throwing his hat into the ring.

Some of the members of the talented Labour 2016 intake might also be potential contenders: a number, such as Huw Irranca-Davies and Eluned Morgan, have considerable political experience in other settings. With the 28 Welsh Labour MPs all having a significant say, good contacts at Westminster will be worth their electoral weight in gold for any candidate. But there is currently very little evidence about how much support any of the possible contenders might have within the different parts of this rather complicated electorate.

The latest Welsh Political Barometer poll asked about both the current Welsh Labour leader and all of these possible contenders to succeed him. Although Carwyn Jones’ standing with the public was clearly damaged by the events of last autumn, he remained – alongside Leanne Wood – the most popular political leader in Wales. None of the potential candidates to succeed him have exactly captured the public imagination. Indeed, by far the most popular answer, when they were asked to rate the potential candidates, was ‘Don’t Know’ – an option chosen by a majority of survey respondents for all of the potential runners! Even among those who did offer a view, none of the potential candidates could match the First Minister’s popularity rating – either with the sample as a whole, or when looking only at Labour supporters.

The winner of the Welsh Labour leadership contest will inherit a dual role: to become both First Minister of Wales and also the leader of the Labour party in Wales. They will have to run a government but will also have to lead their party. That is never an easy combination to master. We have some idea of what sort of ministers some of the potential Welsh Labour contenders are. But we cannot necessarily know from that how, or how well, they would run a government. We also have little idea of whether any of the possible Welsh Labour leadership contenders can come even close to matching Carwyn Jones as an electoral asset. The man who led Labour to its best-ever Assembly election result in 2011, and last year to its best Westminster vote share since the first Blair landslide, will be a tough electoral act to follow. Given the dire current state of the opposition parties in Wales, Labour may not currently feel in great need of being led by a great vote-winner. But it would be unwise of the party to assume that none of its opponents will manage to up their game in the next few years.

But the result of a leadership race would also have a wider impact upon the Labour party. As they seek to develop a unique appeal, leadership contenders can seek to distinguish themselves from their opponents both of policy as well as style. There are no currently obvious great ideological distinctions between the potential candidates, but some may find themselves tempted in any contest to steer towards the ‘Corbynista’ wing of the party. If they do so, the success or otherwise of such tactics may tell us something important about the dominance, or otherwise, of the Corbynite wing of the party. Any leadership contest would likely also have implications for the position of Welsh Labour within the wider party. Carwyn Jones has long taken a strong line on devolution, and more generally been associated with the more ‘autonomist’ wing of Welsh Labour. Will any future leader have a similar position – and a strong mandate to pursue it?

As British party politics has fragmented between the constituent nations of the UK in recent years, leadership positions within those nations have become more important. No such position is more important in Wales than the leadership of our dominant party, Labour – not least because with it comes the role of First Minister. But as with leadership races it is probably wisest to expect the unexpected.

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