Labour won in Wales by being “authentically” Labour rather than “shamefaced”, Keir Starmer is warned today.
The party’s Welsh leader Mark Drakeford pointed to success west of Offa’s Dyke as a template for wider triumph.
And the First Minister said pinning blame for Labour’s woes on Jeremy Corbyn was too “simplistic”, as he urged his Westminster counterpart against “individualising” responsibility for Labour’s electoral turmoil.
Mr Drakeford, 66, also stopped short of backing Mr Starmer to become Prime Minister – fearing the UK might disintegrate before he can enter No10.
Speaking exclusively to the Mirror, Mr Drakeford said: “He’s got the hardest job in politics, the Leader of the Opposition, and he’s had a particularly difficult year because he became leader as the pandemic was happening.
“He did the right thing in supporting the Prime Minister.
“But that does mean it has been harder to establish himself as a separate identity.
“As the pandemic recedes, he will have more of an opportunity to make sure that people understand the distinctive offer that Labour has to make.”
Asked if he thought Mr Starmer would be Labour’s next PM, he said: “I certainly hope so and we will do everything we can to make sure that happens, and the next couple of years will be crucial in that.
“I will tell you what my hesitation is – that if we are not careful there will be no United Kingdom for him to be Prime Minister of.
“My hesitation is not about whether he can do it, my hesitation is about whether, with the current Prime Minister, the UK can stay together long enough for that to happen.”
In the run-up to this month’s Senedd poll, Labour was tipped to drop to 22 seats in the 60-seat chamber.
When the results were counted, it equalled its best-ever result, scooping 30 seats in a system designed to make winning an outright majority nearly impossible.
Yet in England, Labour lost 327 councillors and eight town halls, while the Tories gained 235 councillors and 13 local authorities.
Stressing “it’s not for me to offer lessons to anybody else”, Mr Drakeford cited reasons for the Welsh party’s success.
“We’re very proud to be Welsh but we are very proud to be Labour,” he said.
“We’re not half-hearted Labour, we’re not shamefaced Labour, Labour that quite wishes we were trying to look a little bit like something else.
“We are authentically Labour, we make an offer that is true to the values, traditions, histories of the Labour Party in Wales.”
Signalling that Mr Starmer is not yet doing that for the UK-wide party, Mr Drakeford went on: “I think that is what he will want to do, now that he will have more of an opportunity the other side of the pandemic to be able to set out that alternative view of what the United Kingdom could look like if it had a Labour government in charge.
“I think it has been much more difficult for him to do that because with every news cycle dominated by the pandemic and with him, I think quite rightly, wanting to show that a responsible opposition supports the Government where necessary in a national crisis, it’s much harder for you to set out that distinctive, authentic Labour offer.
“Now I think he will have the chance.”
Labour voters in North Wales who switched to the Tories in December 2019 were waiting to be won back for the Senedd ballot, said Mr Drakeford.
“We did some early focus groups with people who were once Labour voters but voted Conservative in 2019,” he said.
“The question we were asking them was, ‘Have they made a life-changing decision or were they open to the idea that they would come back to vote Labour?’
“Right from the very beginning the message we had from them was they hadn’t crossed the rubicon never to come back – they had leant their votes to the Tories for very particular reasons.
“They regarded those reasons as over and they were prepared to come back to Labour – but we needed to convince them to come back to Labour.
“They weren’t going to come back of their own accord, they still needed to know that what we had to offer would be what they would think was important to them.”
Mr Drakeford, a long-term ally of Mr Corbyn, did not initially identify the ex-leader as a factor.
Instead, he said voters claimed to be driven by Brexit and “credibility”.
He said: “Lots of things that Labour were offering in 2019 were things they liked.
“They didn’t credibly believe we could deliver them so there was a lack of confidence in not the ideas themselves but that the party could genuinely make those things happen.”
Pressed on whether Mr Corbyn was an issue, he admitted: “I don’t want to say Jeremy wasn’t a part of that credibility gap.
“But nor do I think that it is fair to just put it at the door of one person.”
Asked if the Westminster-based party had been doing just that, he said: “I think it’s understandable that the new leader wants to put his own stamp on things and to an extent that does mean needing to make a bit of a departure from the previous leadership.
“I don’t want to sound critical of Keir Starmer for doing that, I think it’s a natural thing for him to do.
“But I think there are wider lessons than just individualising the reasons why they had such a hard time in 2019.
“Labour had a very good time in 2017 with the same leader.
“It’s too simplistic to say it was Corbyn and Brexit.
“It was definitely Brexit and … I rather sum it up in the broader term of people not having confidence that Labour was a party that was capable of translating what we were offering into proper governmental action.”
Mild-mannered academic is now a household name
Mark Drakeford found it “very odd” when he tuned into a BBC radio comedy and heard an impression of himself.
“Very odd indeed,” he admitted.
“I was heading up to North Wales and we were listening to Dead Ringers in the car and, there you are – suddenly being part of the programme.
“It illustrates in a way that not only in Wales has the devolved nature of the United Kingdom become more apparent, but it has become much apparent across the whole of the United Kingdom.”
While funny, the episode also drove home to 66-year-old Mr Drakeford the fact he was now a household name – a quiet, softly-spoken academic now leading a nation of more than three million people in the gravest crisis since the Second World War.
The pandemic and regular press conferences have propelled him to a profile higher than any of his three predecessors enjoyed.
Admitting he is recognised in the supermarket, he said: “You cannot be incognito in Wales anymore.”
He hails ‘decisive’ result against independence
For many people, the Welsh Government’s distinct response to the pandemic – and differing rules from England – marked the first practical demonstration of devolution since it was triggered in 1999.
And for some – not only nationalists – it has fuelled the case for Welsh independence.
Support for separatism has grown and in November it hit 33% – its highest ever.
Yet at this month’s election, Plaid Cymru again came third behind the Conservatives, gaining just one seat – taking the nationalists’ representation to 13 in the 60-seat Senedd.
Acknowledging the coronavirus crisis has thrown independence into the spotlight, Mr Drakeford said: “There is no doubt that the experience of the last 15 months has led people in Wales to ask that question more than ever before.
“But the results of the election I think are really pretty decisive. People had a choice between a party that wanted to abolish the Assembly and hand Wales back to Westminster – and they didn’t win a single seat.
“And you had a party that, much more than previously, made independence the front and centre of their campaign – and they lost ground.
“Whereas the Labour Party’s message of a strong Wales in a United Kingdom still represents where people in Wales want to be.”
First Minister tries to explain death rate in Wales
Wales’ vaccination programme is the UK’s most successful for first doses and Mr Drakeford hails it as a “success story”.
But its death rate is the worst. Latest figures show it has 249.1 deaths per 100,000 people compared with 231.1 in England and 227.7 for the UK.
Mr Drakeford said: “Too many people died in Wales, too many people died across the United Kingdom.
“Amongst the reasons why parts of Wales were particularly badly affected are the ones which explain so much of health inequalities.
“This was a virus that sought out vulnerable people – and Wales has an older, poorer, sicker population than any other part of the United Kingdom.”
He also points to how Covid-19 targeted those who “lived in densely populated, urban areas – Valley communities in Wales are small houses on narrow streets, often with different generations of the same family living close by one another”.
Mr Drakeford feared “a lot of these things are fairly intractable, you’re certainly not going to put those things right in an easy way”.
Universal Basic Income pilot could start next year
Wales will become the first part of the UK to test a Universal Basic Income.
In its pure form, the welfare scheme sees everyone given a set amount of cash regardless of whether they are homeless, penniless and unemployed or a yacht-owning, mansion-dwelling billionaire.
Supporters say the system helps create a level playing field for the hardest up in society.
Critics say it offers a disincentive to work and gives the rich extra money.
Wales will pilot a scheme, probably starting next year and only involving care leavers. Fewer than 5,000 are expected to be involved.
How much they will be given is under debate, but Mark Drakeford believes the experiment could be groundbreaking.
“It will be a modest pilot because our powers and our finances will only allow us to do that,” said the First Minister.
“I am very keen that we make the attempt we can.
“We think we will do it with care leavers because it’s a population that we know about.
“We know it’s a population of young people that, as they leave the care of local authorities, often struggle to make their way in the world, not having enough money to do the things other young people take for granted.”
Mr Drakeford, whose PhD looked at UBI, wants to see “whether the promises that are made by its advocates are actually realised in the lives of those young people”.
He added: “I am sympathetic to it.
“What we have never seen though is whether the advantages on paper, which can often be convincing, actually happen in the lives of people when you get to basic income.
“I think it is definitely interesting enough for us to try to have a pilot in Wales – learn from doing this in a practical, applied way rather than the slightly theoretical debate there’s been about it.”