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By Ben Guerin
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How Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour Party Pulled Off A Spectacular Win

5 min read

Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford’s cautious and caring manner, his "firebreak" and Christmas lockdowns and a Facebook and grassroots ground-war was behind his party’s historic win.

While Labour has faced brutal losses in England, Wales may turn out to be one of the few success stories of the 2021 election campaign for national party leader Keir Starmer.

It was confirmed this afternoon that Drakeford has been returned as First Minister, and the party has a working majority in the Senedd after taking 30 out of the 60 seats.  

Labour has been in power in Wales for the past 22 years, leading a coalition government with the Lib Dems since 2016.

Starmer should take inspiration from the Welsh approach as part of his assessment of what went wrong in other parts of Britain, according to Alex Davies-Jones, shadow Northern Ireland minister and MP for Pontypridd in South Wales.

“That’s definitely got to be part of it," she told PoliticsHome. 

“My Welsh Labour MP colleagues and I will be flying that flag as we always have done.

Davies-Jones pointed to a solid grassroots campaign for "bringing people with us", and noted that she and her Welsh colleagues have long banged that drum in the chamber. 

"That is something I would love Keir to take on board – getting back to our roots and getting back to the people, speaking to them on the ground and finding out what’s important to them,” she continued. 

“Wales is a great example of how we should be doing things on a UK wide basis.”

The candidates selected to run as Members of the Senedd (MS) were testament to the type of politician often found in Welsh Labour, explained Davies-Jones. She said they come from community focused backgrounds, like Elizabeth “Buffy” Williams, who ousted Plaid Cymru’s previous leader Leanne Wood.

MSs and local Labour activists are often found running local clubs, services and sports teams, she said.

But Davies-Jones said party leader Mark Drakeford was also a big factor, both in terms of his leadership and personality. The 66-year-old former finance minister and social policy academic took over from Carwyn Jones in 2018.

“Everywhere I went in South Wales knocking on doors, people were saying to me how grateful they were to have Mark, for his thoughtful but careful approach to the pandemic – how he really cared about Wales,” she said.

The Covid-19 pandemic has meant he was a constant presence on television and in the media, so really knew who he was and warmed to him.

Ability to implement specific lockdown policies locally – the type Starmer was obviously unable to enact on a national scale – also led to an overall feeling that Drakeford was putting Wales' health first and foremost has also fared

“With the firebreak we had in October, people saw that Mark was putting the people of Wales first in the pandemic rather than anything else – he was valuing people’s lives," she said. 

“And our vaccine roll out is smashing all targets. People in their early 20s are now being vaccinated in Wales.”

The Wales-only firebreak lockdown ran between 23 October and November 9, and took place while debate raged in England over whether also taking such a step was too cautious. A longer national lockdown was implemented in England weeks later. 

Former minister and deputy leader of the House of Commons, Chris Bryant, Labour MP for Rhonnda, said a further early Christmas lockdown in Wales was genuinely likely to have saved lives.

Wales locked down on December 20, whereas Boris Johnson’s England lockdown did not start until January 6 as we entered the deadliest phase of the pandemic, with a landmark 100,000 of deaths reach by the end of that month. 

While Bryant believed that in Wales Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party and Brexit cast the same shadows over people’s feelings towards Labour as they have nationally, he said the party had been able to use local engagement around the pandemic to great effect. 

In Rhondda, Bryant’s Facebook page has became a hub for news and support during the pandemic. A live stream from Bryant’s living room for a Remembrance Sunday event had 27,000 people watching. A Covid memorial was also extremely popular, as was an earlier Advent event before Christmas had thousands of online guests.  

The popularity of the page proved to be a secret weapon in drumming up voter support too, and helping people get to know Elizabeth “Buffy” Williams in her election campaign.

“Really this was a social media campaign,” he said. “We decided in my office we were going to make my Facebook page the most reliable and authoritative place for anyone to find out anything in the pandemic – people turned to local MPs and Assembly Members for support.”

Lee Waters, re-elected MS for Llanelli, Hannah Blythyn, who kept her Delyn seat, Jeremy Miles in Neath and Sarah Murphy who won in Bridgend, all had impressive social media presences too, Bryant explained.

Before Covid, mass fundraising for flood victims who lost their homes and possessions in Storm Dennis in February 2020, driven in part by Bryant, also saw £1,500 given to each affected household.

“It’s felt like politics has been completely different in this last year," he said.

"It’s been much more about getting things done than it has been about policies, or party political positioning or anything like that.” 

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