“Huge respect” for Drakeford on the doorstep, but will voters reward Labour?

© Twitter/@MarkDrakeford

“People have realised that Wales can use its powers independently,” Jane Hutt explains to me. “But Welsh Labour is very clear that we want our powers to be used for a purpose.” This awareness of how the Welsh government can act independently is largely down to the pandemic, the MS candidate says. “There is this identification with Mark as our leader and that is what devolution is supposed to be all about.”

While Keir Starmer is needed to secure a UK government to usher in “progressive socialism”, she believes it must be recognised that Welsh Labour has “won power because of our policies”. Starmer apparently agrees. “Keir has been to meet us as candidates and said he cannot respect Mark Drakeford and the Welsh Labour Party more strongly for what we’ve achieved,” Hutt says. “Hopefully that’s going to influence him and his colleagues in the shadow cabinet.”

Hutt is campaigning to retain the marginal Vale of Glamorgan seat, which is a target for the Conservatives. Tory MP Alun Cairns has held the UK parliamentary constituency since 2010. The party came close to winning the Senedd election here in 2007, missing out by a margin of only 83. This makes her now 777-vote majority look positively healthy. But Hutt is not phased: “I had four recounts in 2007, so you just don’t know what’s going to happen in this constituency.”

UKIP came fourth last time, but took 3,662 votes. While recent polling suggests those voters are more likely to back the Abolish the Assembly Party or the Tories this time, this has not really come through on the doorstep, I’m told. “It’s whether they pick up on the regional list, not the first-past-the-post vote,” Hutt says, adding that “we don’t know how that vote will go because obviously it’s going to be split”. The Labour candidate does not seem overly worried. “Polls change.”

Being back on the doorstep has been important for Hutt, showing her face to constituents ahead of polling day. “It’s made such a difference that we can actually knock on doors.” Many recognise her after a long stint in the Senedd: she is one of the few remaining members of the class of ’99. “A lot of people know who I am, because for 22 years I’ve been their representative, but that isn’t to say there aren’t lots who don’t.” Campaigning in the pandemic here, as across the UK, has meant a lot more phone canvassing. “Before we were just phoning on the Dialogue system and obviously not everyone wants to do telephone canvassing,” she explains, adding that “not everyone likes using” Dialogue, a clunky tool widely disliked by party members.

Vale of Glamorgan activists are not the only ones who have struggled with Dialogue. Sarah Murphy, in Bridgend, explains that it took her mum four hour-long sessions to master it. I join the Labour candidate as she knocks on doors in the seat of outgoing MS former First Minister Carwyn Jones. Murphy is defending Labour’s majority of 5,623. It is a safer seat than Hutt’s, but again there is the question of where ex-UKIP voters could go. UKIP came third in 2016, and Abolish the Assembly is not standing a candidate in the constituency ballot here.

“It’s not a marginal when it comes to the Senedd,” Murphy tells me. But she describes the possibility of the Tories picking up ex-UKIP votes as “the big question mark with a lot of seats, including Bridgend”. The pandemic has limited the extent to which Labour has been able to respond to the threat this poses. I ask whether she has been able to target previous UKIP voters, but there just hasn’t been the time. “We had to focus on our own vote and getting out the vote, honestly,” she replies. “I wish we had a whole year, then we would have. It’s just not been possible.”

She is stepping up to replace Jones, who has been helping her campaign. “He says it’s like being at his own funeral,” Murphy says, laughing. “He knows the seat inside out and there’s such knowledge there.” I don’t doubt this: when I got lost on my way to the canvassing session, the former First Minister offered directions over the phone to me at a remarkable speed.

Carwyn Jones is confident about Labour’s chances. “What we’re finding is this enthusiasm,” he tells me. “It’s not, ‘yeah alright we’ll vote Labour’ – there’s a real enthusiasm to vote.” A question mark hangs over voter suppression, due to Covid, but he is not especially worried. “A lot more people have registered for postal votes and we know that postal voters tend to turn out in much higher numbers. Most people, especially the older folk who’ve had their jabs now, are not as worried now as they once were.” Murphy adds that many even seem happier than usual for the chance to take a trip down to the polling station. Covid works in mysterious ways.

What has sparked this enthusiasm? “A lot of people really like Mark,” Murphy says. “It’s just about really reinforcing that if you like Mark and you want him to continue as First Minister, vote Labour.” Starmer also comes up on the doorstep. I ask how people respond – good, bad? “Good,” she replies emphatically. “Here, he goes down very well, he really does.” She praises his ‘Call Keir‘ Zoom events held last year, saying the exercise showed “he really wanted to understand what had happened” with voters who turned away from Labour.

It is clear that Drakeford is a major asset to the campaign, as Rebecca Evans echoes this point when I visit Gower. She describes a “huge respect” for Drakeford and his work throughout the pandemic. “People feel that he has kept Wales safe,” she adds. Starmer comes up only infrequently on the doorstep. “Most people understand that this is the Senedd election and the choice is for our First Minister,” she says. “Do you want Andrew RT Davies or do you want to Mark Drakeford? Most people, I think, now understand the difference between UK Labour and Welsh Labour.” They are also more aware now of the Welsh government’s powers.

Evans points out the differences in approach between the UK and Wales to Covid, offering test and trace as an example. In Wales, it has been delivered via a public service model as opposed to the outsourced system in England. “The results of it have been so much better, we haven’t missed as many, we haven’t had allegations of corruption and cronyism.” People have been far more responsive when phoned by someone from their local teams, too. “People are more willing to engage and provide that sometimes quite sensitive information about the contacts they’ve had.”

Rebecca Evans has a slim majority of 1,829 to defend in the Gower. She is not taking too much notice of national polling. “You have to take the polls with a pinch of salt here because some of the majorities that we have are just like a handful, like just one or two hundred. A slight swing either way, or differential turnout between parties, will have an impact,” she says. Is she worried about turnout? “Not because of Covid so much because we’ve had a really strong push on that,” she replies. “It’s generally relatively low in Senedd elections, but people’s understanding of the work of the Senedd and the responsibilities of the Welsh government have really, really grown over the past year.”

The polls have been variable. Research has put Labour on course for just one seat short of majority, while another survey predicted the worst ever result for Labour in Wales. A newer poll put Labour up one point on last month in the constituency vote but down two on the regional list. Will the Welsh public recognise the work of their government over the past year? And will they back Labour to endorse Drakeford’s leadership during the crisis? We’ll find out soon.

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