The Drakeford effect: Welsh Labour outperforms expectations in Senedd

Elliot Chappell
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Update, 2pm: Counting has now finished in the Senedd election. Labour is the largest party with 30 seats, 27 constituencies and three on the regional lists. The Conservatives secured a total of 16 seats, Plaid Cymru 13 and the Lib Dems one.

Amid a bleak set of results for Labour, Wales offers cause for celebration. Welsh Labour now holds 30 of the 52 seats declared. The party has outperformed all polling; 30 (of the 60) seats is the most Labour has ever achieved. It scored a stunning victory in Rhondda, where former Plaid leader Leanne Woods lost her seat. It also put up a good defence against Tories, as the Labour losses in Wales brought by the 2019 general election have not been mirrored in the Senedd. The party saw off the Tory challengers in Wrexham, Delyn, Bridgend and Clwyd South, for example, which all elected Conservative MPs 18 months ago.

Could this be the ‘Drakeford effect’? When I visited some of the Welsh seats ahead of Thursday, it was clear that the party leader had been an asset to the campaign. Rebecca Evans, who went on to triple her majority in Gower, a Tory target, described the “huge respect” on the doorstep for Drakeford. Covid has, of course, played a significant role: the pandemic saw his profile soar. Drakeford was recently ranked as the most popular UK leader. Voters appear to have agreed with the Welsh leader’s own assertion shortly before the election. He told me: “They feel in Wales that we have kept people safe.”

Results from across the UK continued to trickle in throughout Friday. Of the 86 English councils for which we have results at the time of writing, Labour has come up holding 33 and the Tories 36. This is a net loss of four for Labour and a gain of seven for the Conservatives. Tory Ben Houchen defeated Jessie Joe Jacobs in the Tees Valley, taking almost 73% of the vote. Labour’s Ros Jones was returned as the mayor of Doncaster, after counting went to the second round. In Scotland, the party lost East Lothian, but secured two seats. Scottish Labour held onto Edinburgh Southern and breathed a sigh of relief when Jackie Baillie successfully defended the ultra-marginal Dumbarton, increasing her majority.

London may be closer than predicted, showing those Labour worries over turnout on polling day were real. Seven of the 14 constituency London Assembly seats have declared: voters backed Labour candidates in Ealing and Hillingdon, Brent and Harrow, North East and Lambeth and Southwark, while Conservatives have been elected in West Central, Bexley and Bromley and Havering and Redbridge. Shaun Bailey has done better than expected, particularly in the suburbs. By 9.30pm last night, Sadiq Khan had 487,104 (39%) first preferences, while Bailey had 462,837 (37%). The areas more positive for Labour are yet to be counted. A final mayoral result is expected this evening or Sunday morning.

Following the historic Hartlepool defeat, the post-match analysis began. Diane Abbott called for a change in political strategy, and argued that “what we need now is not ill-considered changes of personnel, not more expulsions or exclusions”. Jim McMahon, who was Labour’s political lead in the by-election, wrote on LabourList that voters “don’t believe we have yet changed enough” and concluded that the leadership “must press ahead and put the pedal to the floor on the programme of changing the party”.

Keir Starmer is feeling the heat, from both the left and right of his party. Polling shows that the top reason given by voters for not backing Labour on Thursday was his leadership. In a difficult interview, Starmer reacted to the terrible results by saying the party has “changed” but must “go further”. He denied that Labour is in an existential crisis yet also said the issue “goes way beyond a reshuffle or personalities”. He refused to confirm on Friday afternoon whether changes would be made to the top team. LabourList has heard that a reshuffle is expected on Sunday, though may be delayed due to results. This timing was dismissed by another source as speculation, but we know that changes are imminent.

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