As someone who worked in Welsh Labour politics for most of my adult life, and has been a Liverpool supporter for a lot longer than that, this year has been mightily instructive. Winning is one thing. Staying on top is a lot a harder. That’s even more true in politics than in football. Keeping that winning streak going for an entire generation, as Welsh Labour will have done by the next election in 2026, is an astonishing electoral achievement.
I’ve said for the last two successive devolved elections that was Labour’s best ever result, but today’s tops them all. To match that 30 seat high water mark in the current context deserves all the plaudits the party is getting today — from the Welsh commentariat at least, the vast majority of London’s political observers are still opining over Hartlepool.
So, who deserves the plaudits? We should start with those who don’t often get much publicity — mainly because they don’t seek it. And that’s Welsh Labour’s incredibly well drilled political staff, headed up by their General Secretary, Louise Magee. I know from painful experience what it is like getting the sign-off, attention and agreement you need from senior politicians who are often too busy running the country to remember about mailout deadlines and campaign meetings. Managing that process during a pandemic would have required the patience of Job, the knowhow of Machiavelli and the willpower of Alun Wyn Jones.
Do we need to talk about the role of lady luck in Labour’s wins? I would be the first to admit (a few years after the result, at least) that in 2016 we relied on some luck to bring home all the marginals we did. We would have been happy with 26 seats at that point. This time the fact that the election coincided with the vaccine bounce, not lockdown gloom, certainly helped. But, you can’t seriously say that any politician, or political party, is lucky to have been holding the fort when along comes the worst public health crisis in any of our lifetimes. Rather you could argue that Wales has been lucky to have the politicians in charge that we did when the pandemic hit. The vaccine bounce didn’t happen by accident. You don’t have to believe me. Look at the 10,000 majorities racked up by the First Minister in Cardiff West and the Health Minister in Cardiff South & Penarth and draw your own conclusions. It is a vote of confidence on a massive scale. So look to leadership, not luck, to find your most important answers about this victory.
A word too for Julie James. The political campaign manager is not a glamorous job, but it is hugely important. You’re the phone call when things go wrong. You’re the peacekeeper, motivator and mollifier. Julie is, I think, one of Welsh Labour’s most underrated assets — not for much longer.
Does that mean it was a perfect campaign? No, of course not. There were stumbles at the start. The list of pledges looked like the result of a an argument that nobody won. And no-one will be more gutted at losing the Vale of Clwyd than Ann Jones, who had held off the Tories since 1999. But, such was the strength of performance right across Wales these were no more than stumbles on the road to Welsh Labour’s most remarkable victory.
It was clear when Welsh Labour switched up its campaign slogan to “if you value it, vote for it” things were going better than expected. A positive get-out-the-vote strapline meant that canvass returns were overwhelmingly positive, and minds didn’t need to be changed, it was now a matter of turning support into votes. Few pundits picked up on the significance of that switch-up, and for the political parties who did — by then it was already too late.