As you might have already seen on the news, and here on LabourList last night, Labour members in Wales yesterday selected Carwyn Jones AM to lead the caucus of Assembly Members and replace outgoing Labour leader and First Minister of Wales Rhodri Morgan. As a Welshman myself, I take a specific interest in Welsh politics, but as Labour activists, we should all be paying attention to developments in Cardiff.
Rhodri Morgan leaves office with his very high public opinion in tact, something which is very rare in politics all over the world, and even more remarkable considering Labour’s slide in the polls over the last eighteen months. All over Wales, people know who Morgan is, and they like him, despite the fact that Labour’s overall popularity across Wales took a hit at the last Assembly elections in 2007.
The outgoing First Minister has presided over two-and-a-half terms of the Assembly as Labour leader and First Minister, and his administration in Wales has implemented a number of popular and successful policies, including changes to the infant education system based on the Scandinavian model of playing to learn, the provision of free NHS prescriptions and free patient parking at NHS hospitals.
The morning after May 1997′s election, which promised Wales an Assembly of its own if Labour were elected, I remember walking to school in South West Wales with friends who were elated at the prospect of a national assembly. By all accounts, the project has been a great success for Wales.
Last night’s election of Carwyn Jones AM to replace Rhodri Morgan cements the progress made since 1999. Months of campaigning by Jones, Edwina Hart and Huw Lewis saw a number of hustings meetings and innovative online campaigning which culminated in a ballot of Welsh Labour members which gave Jones a majority and a clear mandate. Once confirmed as the next First Minister, Carwyn Jones will face pressure from his coalition partner Plaid to allow the people of Wales to vote on a decision to give the Cardiff government more power from Westminster, which is not something that the national Labour Government currently supports.
Jones will also be Labour’s highest profile figure in Wales at the next General Election, which will be held in Spring next year. With a resurgent national party, and an audacious Conservative party seething at the teeth at the prospect of a return to power, the new First Minister already has plenty of challenges to deal with.
Labour activists and politicians all over the UK should have one eye trained on the way our party handles governing by coalition in Wales. With the prospect of a hung Parliament looking more realistic the closer we get to May 2010, there is a very real possibility that Labour in Westminster will find itself in a similar position to Labour in Cardiff.