Mark Drakeford stressed he was not about to tell Keir Starmer how to do his job, and that leading Labour in Wales was very different to heading the party nationally. But even with those caveats, a century of election successes tells its own story.
Speaking during a visit to Westminster to mark 100 years since Labour won the popular vote in Wales in 1922, something it has done at every general election since, Drakeford said the UK party could profitably extend Welsh Labour’s embrace of a sense of local identity.
The party in Wales “maybe noticed a bit earlier than some other places the strengthening and importance of identity in people’s sense of political affiliation”, the Welsh first minister, re-elected last year, said, and he insisted the national party could potentially do the same.
“Manchester would be the prime example for me there, how well Andy Burnham has managed to capture that identity for Labour,” Drakeford said. “To be Labour, and to live in Manchester are identities that go very closely with one another.
“So maybe the trick is less to try and emphasise that sort of pan-British sense of Labour, and more to emphasise the fact that wherever you live, the Labour party is there for you, on your side, working for you, earning every vote. So it’s Labour works for Manchester, but it’s Labour works for Norwich, and it’s Labour works for Exeter.
Wherever it is, it’s that identification between Labour and locality which you then build up into a sort of coalition that gets you to where you need to be across the UK.”
While stressing that both structural and historical factors mean Wales is “a more receptive territory for Labour politics” than the UK more widely, Drakeford said the party should be unafraid to focus on genuinely transformative policies at the next election, with less worry about how the media might portray these.
“I think it’s very important that we have a manifesto that speaks to the bread-and-butter stuff, that people see their everyday lives, that they can see the reasons we put those things forward is they reflect authentic Labour values and principles,” he said.
“You’re never going to persuade the Daily Mail. There is nothing they will not condemn if it comes from Labour.”
Drakeford, who has been first minister since 2018 and has said he will step down during this term in office, is not viewed as a natural ideological partner of Starmer. But he argued the national party was heading “uphill” under its leader, and that the context of Covid should not be forgotten.
“I hear people saying: ‘The Labour party needs to have a better policy programme,’” Drakeford said. “But where has been the space? Who has been interested in the conversation about what your housing policy or education policy is if all you’re talking about is how to stop people dying from a disease that we didn’t know anything about?”
He was, in contrast, notably scathing about Boris Johnson’s government, arguing that it had proved impossible to liaise with Westminster ministers over the likely return of Covid as they were focused on trying to keep the beleaguered prime minister in office.
“I have been trying for literally weeks to get a meeting with UK ministers where we would talk together about planning for the autumn and winter,” he said. “But can you get such a conversation? The ordinary business of government, that should be going on across the United Kingdom, is very, very badly disrupted by what is going on.
“Trying to get time in people’s diaries that are not about trying to get through this week, surviving the next crisis, is very difficult.
“One of the things we’ve surely learned is that we weren’t as well prepared for the onset of the pandemic as we might have been. There’s no excuse for not planning ahead now, knowing what we already know. And that planning should be on a pan-UK basis.”