Drakeford: exitus sinistram

Mark Drakeford, First Minister of the Welsh parliament, the Senedd, has announced that he will be stepping down at the next election, in or before May 2026. Don’t crack out the champagne just yet, as he has ominously added that “no firm date is set.”

Drakeford began his political career in local politics, becoming a Labour Party Assembly member for Cardiff West in 2011. Even though Wales voted 52:48 to leave the EU, he continued to support the Remain camp as a staunch backer of Momentum’s pro-Corbynite faction and later as Wales’s ironic Minister for Brexit from 2017 to 2018. Unlike Jeremy Corbyn however, he survived and subsequently won the leadership election for Labour, becoming the Welsh First Minister in 2018.

The following year, the UK’s general election landslide of 2019 returned Boris Johnson to power. The Red Wall crumbled in many northern strongholds across England but Drakeford held onto power in the Welsh Assembly (admittedly, Welsh Labour suffered its worst election result since 1935 in the process). The leader of the Tories in Wales said that the result had “confined Labour to being a party of The Valleys” but it was this kind of contempt by the Conservatives that is believed to have helped Drakeford. The Brexit vote had been about alienation, frustration and marginalisation of working-class communities and Drakeford was keen to point the finger at the English parliament as the problem (rather more so than the EU).

Drakeford is an oddly dated figure to have achieved such contemporary political success. He studied Latin at university, speaks Welsh (and English) with a thick Carmarthenshire accent, is a paid-up member of both Unite the Union and Unison, and professes a peculiar love of cheese. He is clearly not your typical, modern political leader: exhibiting all the traits of a Dickensian puritan. His Welsh Presbyterian vicar schtick belies his Socialist-inspired atheism. No Partygate scandal for him – predominantly because few people can imagine Drakeford actually enjoying himself and clearly he prefers to force dourness on others. He doesn’t drink, for example, but rather than keep his own mortification of the flesh to himself, he imposed abstemiousness on the nation during Covid by banning the sale of alcohol in pubs and insisting that they close by 6pm.

Indeed, it was his management of the various Covid-19 lockdowns that earned him the sobriquet, Kim Jong-Drakeford, primarily for his authoritarian diktats. Together with Scottish Prime Minister, Nicola Sturgeon they became a double act; competing with each other to outdo Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ever more draconian announcements. It culminated with the official announcement that Drakeford had moved out of his family home, leaving his wife in residence, while he slept in the garden shed to avoid potentially spreading of the virus.

Some of these quirky moments shouldn’t disguise the more insidious thoughts of Chairman Drakeford. Let’s not forget that he issued guidance banning people from talking on mobile phones, reading newspapers or eating food on public transport. He mandated that passengers should only travel in “relative silence” lest, presumably, the virus spread on the soundwaves. Drakeford’s remit extended to ordering “passengers not to run for the bus or in railway stations.” The Dark Lord doth mandate that we all move in mysterious ways

Even though he curtailed basic freedoms for users of public transport, he saved most of his despotic mischief-making for drivers. Indeed, his anti-car zealotry during Covid mandated that no-one be allowed to drive anywhere in Wales to take exercise. Having got away with that infringement of civil liberties, after the pandemic he proceeded to cancel all major road-building schemes at a stroke and introduce 20mph speed limits on all urban and residential streets throughout the country. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the introduction of horse-drawn carriages in the next session of the Senedd.

But this is all a distraction from his real record on the devolved responsibilities of education and healthcare. Wales has consistently ranked lowest in the UK in reading, mathematics, and science; performing significantly worse than English children and well below the OECD average. In the health sector, the emergency response rates “trended downwards,” across all of Wales. Doctors now warn of a possible collapse in GP surgeries, while dental services already have. It has recently been revealed that, under his jurisdiction, just 500 out of 5,000 Welsh government staff are back at work in Cardiff (although why there are 5,000 staff in the first place is seldom questioned).

Out-surviving Sturgeon and Adam Price (ex-leader of Plaid Cymru), Drakeford has been careful to oppose Welsh independence but still use the threat of it as a stick to argue for greater devolution – increased separation for Wales – and a seat at the table in Westminster to help achieve it. Anything goes in order to win, including reducing the voting age to 16 in order to capitalise on anti-Tory sentiment amongst the younger generation, or supporting gender self-ID (Drakeford claims that a ”trans woman is a woman”), although on issues of sex, Drakeford seems to be a dubious authority.

The record shows that Drakeford has performed badly as First Minister: his actions have ruined lives, he has overseen the continued collapse of medical and treatment services, and his authoritarian interventions that denied basic human contact and public life during Covid should never be forgotten. For instance, his Labour government’s closure of school and campus education to tens of thousands of students (coincidentally, he is a professor of social policy) was shameful. His record is pernicious, his coercive nudge politics have been dangerous, his legacy is corrosive. Let’s hope that he is leaving politics to spend more time in the shed.

Austin Williams





Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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