Welsh Labour’s conference in Llandudno last weekend took place in the shadow of one of the most difficult periods in the Party’s history. The resignation of the man known to journalists, supporters and commentators alike simply as ‘Carwyn’ was perhaps the inevitable conclusion of a chain of events which began with former Communities Secretary Carl Sargeant’s tragic death last November. After a highly challenging week for the First Minister in the Senedd, inquiries into Mr Sargeant’s death still ongoing, and rumours of walk-outs planned for the First Minister’s Llandudno speech, he had clearly decided that stepping down now was the best chance of leaving with a legacy intact.
The timing of Jones’ resignation and his announcement that a successor will be in place by the end of this year has left Welsh Labour chiefs with a headache. Carolyn Harris’s victory against Julie Morgan in the Deputy Leadership contest, which was conducted under electoral college rules, was marred by the fact that Ms Morgan’s vote amongst the party membership was almost double that of her rival’s. In a fringe meeting on One Member One Vote later that day, party members and AMs alike expressed their concern that the next First Minister would be fatally undermined if elected under the same system. With the upcoming review of party democracy planned to take a year, there is now pressure for the process to be expedited in time for the leadership contest this autumn.
So who will succeed Carwyn Jones? Several names are in the frame. Vaughan Gething, Huw Irranca Davies, Alun Davies, Jeremy Miles, Ken Skates and Eluned Morgan have all been mentioned. But it is the left-leaning Finance Secretary, Mark Drakeford, whose prospects look strongest. Having first rejected Jeremy Corbyn as electoral poison, Welsh Labour’s volte-face in embracing the man who cost Theresa May her majority is complete. Conspicuously absent from Welsh Labour’s 2017 election literature, Jeremy Corbyn’s face stared out from posters emblazoned on the walls of Venue Cymru, with coffee cups bearing the slogan ‘Cefnogi Corbyn’ (‘Backing Corbyn’) doing a brisk trade.
Meanwhile, many of Wales’ biggest businesses were conspicuous by their absence on the fringe and in the exhibition hall, which, with one or two exceptions, was dominated by Labour’s natural constituency of charities and third sector organisations. But given the tumultuous political events of recent months, this was a conference where business was always likely to take a back seat.
For the overarching, if unintentional, theme of this conference was family. The ongoing suffering of the Sargeants. The tributes being paid to Rhodri Morgan, the ‘Father’ of devolution, who died last year. Carwyn Jones’ heartfelt words about his own wife and children as he brought the curtain down on his frontbench career. And, most of all, this was about reuniting the Welsh Labour family after what the First Minister described as ‘the darkest of times’. The sea of eager young faces in the hall, and the impassioned youngsters who spoke from the conference lectern, would indicate that Welsh Labour’s future as a campaigning force seems assured for now. But unless its internal democratic rules are urgently reformed, that family truce risks being short-lived.