View from the Senedd: Rhodri Morgan’s role in Welsh Labour’s electoral success

John Griffiths

Labour has won every general election in Wales for 100 years, and we have won every Senedd election in the era of devolution. Party members outside of Wales regularly ask what is the secret behind Welsh Labour’s electoral success. There isn’t simply one magic ingredient, but in this month’s ‘View from the Senedd’, I want to point to our former First Minister, the late Rhodri Morgan. His legacy is still very much alive, and I believe it remains one of the reasons for Labour’s continued electoral success in Wales.

Later this month (May 17th), it will be five years since we lost Rhodri, who unexpectedly passed away at the age of 77. He was both a friend and a colleague, in whose ministerial team I was proud to serve in several roles. He is also described by many as one of the founding fathers of Welsh devolution, who helped lay the foundations for the strong Welsh parliament we have today.

When the Welsh assembly was established in 1999, the contest for what was then First Secretary for Wales was between Rhodri and Alun Michael (now the police and crime commissioner for South Wales). The latter was seen as the preferred choice of Tony Blair and those around the leadership of the UK party. Alun was successful and led a minority government, but resigned a little more than a year later following a vote of no confidence in the assembly. Rhodri then took over, a role he held for almost a decade – initially leading a coalition government with the Lib Dems, a Labour-led government from 2003 and, finally, a coalition with Plaid Cymru from 2007 known as ‘One Wales’.

Rhodri was a proud Welshman and a unique character. It was a pleasure to serve under him. He was, of course, a serious politician, but he was also great fun to be around with a lively intellect. He was the type of person you could relax around and enjoy a pint with at the pub. He was a great rugby fan, and on one occasion, I went with him to watch a Dragons match at Rodney Parade in Newport and we stood on the terraces with the fans. He was a Cardiff Blues supporter, but this didn’t stop him supporting the Dragons against the English opposition and getting stuck in and cheering them on during the game. He was a man of the people, and it was that passion and pride in being Welsh that made him popular with so many in Wales.

Kevin Brennan, a close advisor of Rhodri and now Labour MP for Cardiff West, said after Rhodri’s death that his great achievement was “bringing devolution into practical effect, helping it to grow and become popular, at a time when it was on shaky ground”. I couldn’t agree more. Without Rhodri’s presence, we wouldn’t have gained the support of the Welsh people for the granting of primary law-making powers to the assembly in the 2011 referendum. During his time in office, he led our Welsh parliament’s growth as an institution.

A phrase often associated with Rhodri is ‘clear red water’. This relates to the differences between Welsh Labour policy and strategy and that of the UK Labour Party during the Blair years. It came from a phrase coined for him in 2002 by now First Minister Mark Drakeford (then a special advisor) and is about strong socialist policies with a strong Welsh identity, which chime with the values and beliefs of the communities we serve.

In addition to the strong and skilled handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by Mark, it’s my view that our success at last year’s Senedd elections (where we had our best set of results in the 23 years of devolution) can also be attributed to our manifesto, which was underpinned by the strong socialist ideas and values that Rhodri stood for himself: a manifesto that included a real living wage for all social care staff, a young person’s guarantee of jobs or skills training and exciting plans to create a national forest for Wales.

A lot of this work will be supported and implemented by Labour in local government, where we enjoyed further success in Thursday’s council elections, building on last year. This includes in Monmouthshire (which covers parts of my Newport East constituency), where we became the biggest party for the first time since devolution.

I want to end with the words of Rhodri’s successor as leader of Welsh Labour, First Minister Carwyn Jones, who said: “He did so much to fight for, and then establish, devolution in the hearts and minds of the public in our country.”

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