Ever wondered how it might feel to lead a country through a pandemic? “Well, I suppose if I was to choose just one word, it would probably be relentless,” says Mark Drakeford, first minister of Wales. “It has often felt like a great high-wire act, not just personally but collectively, because we’d so often be making decisions where the balance of argument as to what you should do next has been so finely cast, where you’re always hoping that you’re managing to find the right path forward but you could topple off it at any moment.”
For Drakeford – who was elected first minister in 2018 – being in power through the course of the pandemic has been ‘full on’. “In an unprecedented way we were doing press conferences at least three times a week. They were watched by thousands of people every time,” he recounts, acknowledging too that “there are always people who feel we’ve done things too quickly. There are always people who think we’ve not been good enough.”
Be that as it may, the leader of the Welsh Labour party has been entrusted by the electorate to continue steering Wales through the biggest health crisis of our time. In fact, the outcome for Welsh Labour this May was, in Drakeford’s words, ‘pretty remarkable’. “We’ve been in power here ever since the start of devolution. ‘Time for a change’ is one of the strongest slogans in politics, isn’t it, and our opponents played that card very hard in this election. And yet we matched our best ever performance, both in terms of number of seats won and the share of the vote of the Labour party.”
Yet with support for Labour crumbling elsewhere, the party is looking to Wales for the winning formula. “The key thing for us is we never take a single vote for granted,” says Drakeford. “I never want anybody in any Labour constituency, no matter how high our majority might be, to think that we simply assume they’re going to go on voting Labour. They vote Labour, because every time we go out to renew that relationship with them.”
This approach is ‘hard work’, Drakeford admits. “You’ve got to bang the drum harder for people to know that every one of those votes matters to us, every one of those votes is a vote we’ve got to earn, not because we’re entitled to it in any way at all, but because we get it, because we go in to a conversation with people that persuades them that we’re a party that listens to them, a party that represents them, a party that’s on their side.”
According to the first minister, this election has proven that showing people Labour is on their side means having a strong identity rooted in the local area. “You know, one of the things that has always been very important to the Welsh Labour party is that we have a strong sense of identification with being Welsh and being Labour, they are two identities that people feel very comfortable with sitting on top of one another,” he explains.
Drakeford believes this infusion of identities – a combination of Labour and local – has been key to its popularity in other places too. “Where Labour succeeded across the border, in somewhere like Manchester, is because Andy Burnham was able to create that same sense of strong identity between being in Manchester and being Labour – they are two things that people are very comfortable to feel together. I think you can see it in London as well, to be in London and to be Labour are identities that reinforce one another,” he says. “So, when we were able to do that, I think you can see some common successes. And where we struggled to do it, then obviously the results for us were not as we would have hoped for.”
In Drakeford’s opinion, it also helped the party electorally that Welsh Labour has managed to keep the bulk of public opinion on its side during nearly a year and a half of lockdowns and restrictions. “One of the things that is slightly different in Wales is almost everything we are told that forms the basis of our judgements, we publish it. We publish it all. So anybody who wants to see why we have made the decisions we have can go to the primary sources and decide for themselves whether or not they would have made the same decision, faced with the same advice and information.”
In his view, people across Wales have been more willing to accept ‘a relationship of trust’ with their government because of such transparency and this openness should be replicated by those in power across the UK. “The more you share with people, the more I think people are willing to have confidence in you. This is not because I think, by the way, that thousands of people in Wales make their way through detailed technical advisory group reports week by week, but the fact that it’s available, I think gives people some confidence in it. The fact that there’s a thing we share with people, so they could look at it for themselves, tends to say to people, well if they’re willing to do that, then they probably are making the best decisions they can.”
“What we try and avoid is the dark arts of spin too much, and trying not to do things for gesture purposes,” adds Drakeford. “I mean, this has been a bit less more recently, but there were times when I really did think that the UK government’s approach to handling it all was always to make eye-catching announcements, and then to try and work out the plan as to how that was going to be achieved. The headline of the day was more important to them than the actual delivery of the objective.” This, Drakeford stresses, is in contrast to Welsh Labour’s approach. “We have always tried to have a plan first, and then to explain to people how that plan will take us to where we need to go. It probably doesn’t capture as many headlines, I would guess, but I think over time people have come to feel that that is a more reliable way of conducting affairs on their behalf.”
And now, just weeks after winning on a platform of trust and ambition, Drakeford and his team have released their 2021 to 2026 programme for government, laying out plans to translate manifesto commitments into action. “You know, it’s the strangest system we have isn’t it, that you spend well over 12 months dealing with a global pandemic, you go straight into an election campaign where you are having to be everywhere, doing all of that, and the day after the campaign is over you are straight into forming governments and getting back into the business of a new manifesto implementation,” he says.
But what in the previous term had taken the first minister and his team 18 months to devise, has this time taken not many more than 18 days. “I am very keen indeed that the new administration gets on with the things that we are elected to do and grapples early on with the most challenging parts of our agenda while we’ve got the momentum from the election behind us. We’ve got the mandate for our manifesto, let’s use that by developing immediate plans for the hard things.”
Already, the first minister is confident that the groundwork to solving one of today’s most pressing issues is underway, having created a new climate change ministry immediately after his re-election. “We’re the first part of the United Kingdom to have a climate change minister and a deputy minister,” says Drakeford. This new department, which encompasses transport, planning and housing too, will focus on issues such as decarbonisation, the loss of biodiversity and the impacts of climate change, he explains. “It’s a challenging agenda. All of us will have to be willing to live some aspects of our lives differently.”
It is important to Drakeford that Welsh Labour demonstrates ‘the seriousness of its commitments’ to the climate agenda over his next term in office. “And I want to do it within the framework of our Wellbeing and Future Generations Act, possibly the most radical piece of legislation the Senedd has ever passed,” he says. “So I have an obligation, and all my ministerial colleagues have an obligation whenever we are making a decision to ask ourselves, not simply, what will the impact of this be in the here and now and for Wales today, but what will be the impact of this decision on generations who come beyond us, how will we hand over this very beautiful, but very fragile spot on the planet to people in Wales in future years? And having to ask yourself that question does make a difference to the way in which decisions are made.”
But on top of the climate and Covid-19 crises, Drakeford feels another major struggle brewing, and that is avoiding the breakup of the United Kingdom. Yet although there is certainly an appetite for Welsh independence in some quarters, Drakeford sees the result of this year’s election as a strong endorsement of devolution. “People in Wales are very committed to being able to make decisions on the things that only affect people in Wales but continuing to believe that we do better when we are part of a successful United Kingdom,” he says.
Still, the first minister believes we need something ‘radically different’. “When devolution was first established, the facts on the ground, pretty much, were that there was a sovereign parliament at Westminster, and it provided powers to three national parliaments, essentially under that umbrella. Sovereignty was retained at Westminster, but located on Westminster’s terms to the three parliaments. Twenty five years later, the facts on the ground are very different.”
“It’s no longer a matter of only one parliament that is supreme and three subordinate bodies. For an awful lot of what goes on in Wales, and this was very much highlighted during the pandemic, the decisions are just made here in Wales. And there is no reference to, or reporting to, or oversight from the UK government. And the same is true in Scotland and Northern Ireland. So, instead of sovereignty being held in one place and we share it out a bit, I think the future of the United Kingdom is to recognise that sovereignty is dispersed and that we choose to pool it back for certain purposes that we discharge better together.”
Defence, foreign affairs and, perhaps controversially, social security because of its redistributive potential, are all areas which Drakeford believes would be better exercised as a UK-wide responsibility. “But there will be a choice for the different nations as to how they come together to pool those responsibilities,” he explains.
“It is entirely different to the instinctive approach of a prime minister who continues to talk about a unitary state, something that I don’t think has existed since 1972 probably, and badly, badly misunderstands the way the United Kingdom can best be kept together,” Drakeford remarks. “Because if a UK government was seriously trying to make a reality of a unitary state, that could only now be done by reversing 25 years of devolution, in a way that I think, even in Wales, would cause far more people to ask themselves the question as to whether or not we’d be better off without being part of such an arrangement. So the people in Wales, I think, continue to want to be part of the United Kingdom, but they want the United Kingdom to operate differently, much more on the basis of it being a voluntary association of four nations.”
As Drakeford grapples with these resounding issues over his next few years in office, he sees the Fabian Society as playing a ‘very important’ part. “If you are in power as we have been successively over the whole of devolution, you’ve got to, not reinvent your values, but you have to reinvent the way you are applying those values in the changing challenges that you face. And that’s what the Fabian Society helps us to do”.
“It was Thatcher’s belief that government is best when government is least, but we absolutely don’t believe that in Wales. The government can be the vehicle for which you can solve those great problems, like dealing with a global pandemic together. But how you do it, and how you create practical policies that make that difference in the lives of people as we face changing challenges, that’s where the work of the Fabian Society comes to the fore for us in Wales, because we read the stuff, we draw on the ideas, we look to extend the repertoire of practical actions that we can draw on as a government,” says Drakeford.
“Every time we manage to win an election, then we have to apply ourselves again to that challenge. And having the Fabian Society there to help us is always a huge plus.”
Image credit: CPMR/Flickr