“I genuinely have lost count of the number of people who come up to you, cross the road, to tell you that they are so glad that they have lived in Wales in the last 12 months,” Mark Drakeford says as he sits across from me reflecting on the campaign so far. The Covid crisis is, unsurprisingly, “definitely” the first thing people ask him about on the doorstep, he explains. When he was elected to the leadership role, many were worried his low profile would be a problem come election time, one Labour candidate told me. But the pandemic has seen the Welsh Labour leader’s profile soar.
Drakeford is now the most popular UK leader, with 57% of the public reporting that he was doing “totally well” in recent research, compared to 39% for Boris Johnson and 49% for Nicola Sturgeon. More than that, people have warmed to him in the course of the pandemic. 33% said their view of the Welsh First Minister had improved since Covid struck. Drakeford’s face has been broadcast to the nation like never before in his regular Covid briefings, but he focuses on his party’s record: “They feel in Wales that we have kept people safe.”
This is despite a bias in news reporting, the First Minister says. “I get frustrated on a daily basis by the BBC’s preference to report what is happening in the English vaccination programme.” Drakeford points to headlines reporting that England was inviting people over the age of 40 to get a jab last week. In Wales, he explains, they have vaccinated 75% of people in their 40s, 45% of people in their 30s and over a quarter of people in their 20s. Wales has the lowest rates of Covid anywhere in the UK. “We never, ever quite manage to get that reported,” he tells me. “But people in Wales know it.”
Will it be enough? Polling has been all over the place. Last week, a Savanta Comres survey suggested Labour would fall just short of a majority in the Senedd. Analysis by YouGov in March projected the worst ever result for Labour, with the party securing only 22 seats. ICM earlier this year recorded the party’s highest rating since 2018. Labour has been placed ahead of rivals in all the research, but the question remains as to whether it will have the numbers to implement its programme.
Drakeford describes the election as “very challenging”. “We have been, as every interview I do reminds me, in power since devolution. In some ways, there is no more powerful slogan in politics, is there, than ‘time for a change’? And every other political party runs that against us.” He also highlights the sheer number of marginal seats in the upcoming vote, which is far greater than the proportion in a UK parliamentary election. Drakeford predicts that Welsh Labour will land somewhere in the middle of the forecasts of recent weeks.
The reason for this, as he sees it, is largely down to the electoral system. Welsh residents get two votes, one for their constituency representative and another for the regional lists. “If you win constituencies, your chance of getting list seats diminishes, and vice versa.” The highpoint for Labour in Wales is 30. “Because no party has ever won that majority, we are very experienced at working across party boundaries,” he says. He will work with other parties now, as Labour has done several times before, he confirms. The key concern for him is that there is no “political fix”, dividing up the spoils. Policy comes first; politics second. They see whether a “common programme can be thrashed out”, he says, adding: “Then you put the political arrangements that are necessary behind it afterwards.”
So far, Plaid has been bullish about any coalition. Party leader Adam Price has said he is “not prepared to concede any other possibility than surging support”, noting that support for independence is higher than ever. That support seems to be cross-party: polling last year showed independence was backed by 39% of Welsh Labour voters. But that is not the story of this election, Drakeford insists.
“I can absolutely hand on heart say that I have had hundreds of conversations on the doorstep, including with many people who vote Plaid Cymru, and not one of them has mentioned independence.” Instead, Covid has boosted awareness of how independent the Senedd already is, he tells me. When people talk about independence, they are often talking about the current situation. “They’re actually just affirming the way things are now, because of the way that the last 12 months has demonstrated that support for entrenched devolution.”
Nevertheless, constitutional issues matter to him and the status quo is by no means adequate. We need a “fundamental rethinking” of devolution, he says. “When devolution began, sovereignty was regarded as resting uniquely and entirely in Westminster and then power was, to differing degrees, handed out,” Drakeford explains. “The facts on the ground are now just very different. Sovereignty now exists in four different parliaments across the UK.” He sees it as a “voluntary association of four nations”, pooling sovereignty for particular purposes “when we can achieve more together”. This points to a “radical federalist model”, he muses, one which he argues would give the UK a “fighting chance of staying together”.
Keir Starmer is “genuinely respectful of devolution”, he tells me. “Whenever he comes to Wales, it is as much to learn about what we’re doing and think about how that might prove a model for some of the things that the UK Labour government might want to do.” Any key takeaways Starmer is looking at? Drakeford explains that he has talked often to the UK Labour leader about the ‘social-wage’ approach, pointing to free prescriptions, council tax benefit retained in Wales and its national holiday hunger scheme. “All of those are things that leave money in the pockets of people who don’t have enough,” Drakeford says.
Starmer is doing “remarkably well”, Drakeford tells me, after a year in charge. “What is often not factored into people’s assessment, is that one, it is the hardest job in British politics to be leader of the opposition. And secondly, he’s had to do it in the extraordinary circumstances of a global pandemic.” Starmer was elected in April last year. “The scope for a genuinely distinctive UK Labour, Welsh Labour, offer has been limited.” Starmer is doing a good job within those constraints, Drakeford asserts. “He is showing people in the UK that there is a way of acting, behaving and discharging the responsibilities of the most senior offices in the UK in a way that does not look deeply distasteful.”
Deeply distasteful? What could Drakeford possibly be referring to? Johnson’s comment that he would rather see “bodies pile high” than order a third lockdown is having an impact. “People have been spontaneously mentioning it on the doorstep,” Drakeford explains. “There has been a cut through. It may not be reflected in all the polls yet, but I think people are genuinely offended.” The recent stories of Tory ‘sleaze’ are “disgraceful”, he says, and show just how out of touch the Tories are. “There are parts of Wales where £58,000 would buy you a house, let alone redecorate the front room.”
Before our interview ends, we touch on the First Minister’s future. He has already announced that he will stand down during the next Senedd term. As he reminds me, this is “standard” in Wales; Rhodri Morgan did so in handing the reins to Carwyn Jones, and Jones did the same when Drakeford stepped up. He does also point out that Tony Blair handed over to Gordon Brown during a Westminster term, as did David Cameron to Theresa May, and May to Johnson – although those occasions were not without controversy. Covid and carrying out Labour’s manifesto plans are the main considerations. Will he step down once the Covid response is squared away? “Yes, absolutely. I hope that within the next 12 months coronavirus will become a chronic condition that we just manage like we manage the flu. But we’re not there yet, by any means.”