This year marks the most astonishing achievement for a political party in western democracy: Labour’s undisturbed century-long reign over Wales.

Not even the Conservatives, the natural party of government in England, or even tinpot dictators, can rival this feat of continuous dominance. Since November 1922, Labour in Wales have won the most seats at every general election, while devolution has ushered in twenty years of assured control over the levers of power in Cardiff Bay.  

Now seems like an apt moment to ask why.

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Some have instead decided to probe whether Labour’s long rule in Wales is deserved, understandably, but that is a non-starter: the electorate has already given the answer by voting in the party time and again to represent them.

Before, it was David Lloyd George’s Liberals who were champions for the diverse electorate, from rural nonconformists to industrial communities. At their high point, the 1906 election, only one Welsh MP did not take the Liberal Whip in parliament.

The National Wales: Mark Drakeford retains an unbridled hold over his party and political affairs. Photo: Huw Evans Picture AgencyMark Drakeford retains an unbridled hold over his party and political affairs. Photo: Huw Evans Picture Agency

Welsh Labour, according to a recent Focaldata MRP poll, could again reach similar heights by winning all but three of Wales’ 40 constituencies if a general election were held imminently.

Meanwhile, in Cardiff Bay, Mark Drakeford is recognised as the most powerful politician of the devolved era – not just in terms of the powers at his disposal, but because of his popularity in the Labour movement and beyond – reaffirmed by another decisive victory in the Senedd election in May.

That result was brushed away by opposition as an example of the power of incumbency, with some merit. There is no question that Welsh Labour are a well-oiled electoral machine with thousands of organised grassroots campaigners too, or that the movement’s traditions and history remains embedded across constituencies, particularly in former mining communities across south Wales.

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To boot, the party have been skilful pragmatists when under threat from nationalists, like in the 1950s and 60s; Labour politicians saw the danger of Plaid Cymru and adapted to the needs and desires of Welsh nationhood, notably affirming a progressive position on a Welsh Office with administrative powers.

But an unbroken record of winning – not just seats, but more recently government – has often bred complacency. Though its electioneering remains unrivalled, and devolution was a strategic gift to solidify the party’s dominance in the Celtic nations,

Labour’s rule has a shabby record in Wales: an NHS suffering from years of underperformance, education records at the bottom of the UK league table, and a stagnant economy that has led to an exodus of young people and reliant on cherry-picking inward investment successes. The party is now trying to reverse some of these failures.

As it tries to do so, blaming successive Conservative governments in Westminster for funding cuts will continue. During the devolution era, this has been a constant and clever diversion tactic, trailed most enthusiastically by media outlets, at times of acute pressure over policy delivery. Of course, there are structural funding issues to address, yet it is obvious some decisions cannot be explained away – now and especially post-pandemic – by the Treasury purse.

Take the recent Covid-19 regulations, the latest in a pandemic saga that has demonstrated the measured and composed nature of the First Minister; exaggerated, if not amplified, simply by holding a mirror up to Mark Drakeford in contrast to the haphazard leadership provided by Boris Johnson.

As before, the new restrictions announced by the Welsh Labour Government on Boxing Day were strict and cautious, significantly impacting businesses and livelihoods, and were a clear break from the reckless ‘hope for the best’ approach adopted by Downing Street.

Wales has, by-and-large, supported Labour in its management of the pandemic. Its communitarian strategy has been commended, though not without flaws, while Johnson remains hamstrung by the Tory backbenches and beset by accusations of corruption. While devolved government in the pandemic has proven that decisions are better made by leaders locally, there is growing disquiet at the easy ride Welsh Labour has in making the rules, an underappreciated explanation for the party’s dominance over politics.

For example, scientific evidence from the Welsh Technical Advisory Cell and Wales' Chief Medical and Scientific Officers to justify curbs on hospitality and events such as Parkrun was not published as the government made its announcement before Christmas. Drakeford carried on regardless. This after the First Minister and his ministers spent months dismissing the prospect of a Welsh-only Covid inquiry, at the same time emphasising their position of authority when under pressure from Conservative politicians suspicious of devolution.

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It leads to a vicious cycle: as Tories attack Mark Drakeford and Welsh devolution more broadly, even sceptics of the First Minister’s policies rally around him and his party to defend its mandate to make the rules. It exposes, in short, that there is one national party in Wales, synonymous with power but cleverly aligned to the cause of the people it represents – despite a debatable record.

The ease to which Welsh Labour can govern, particularly in the face of recent criticism, exposes the weakness of our democratic accountability and explains, in part, how the public have come to accept a wider culture of mediocrity across policy areas.

The former First Minister, Carwyn Jones, said this week that the public are not “sheep” simply following a red rosette. But let’s assume they are. Remember, you can herd sheep in different directions. The problem is that opposition politicians are poor shepherds.

The National Wales: Plaid Cymru's Adam Price with Mark Drakeford at the Senedd to announce their co-operation agreement. Photo: Huw Evans Picture AgencyPlaid Cymru's Adam Price with Mark Drakeford at the Senedd to announce their co-operation agreement. Photo: Huw Evans Picture Agency

Plaid Cymru are, at least, honest in being a political party focused on pushing policy rather than gaining power. The Conservatives, meanwhile, can only protest about devolution and amplify messages from Westminster in response to disagreement with Welsh Labour. They play the ball and the man ineffectually.

Therefore, it should be little surprise that Welsh Labour – so pragmatic on constitutional questions, accustomed to weak opposition and comfortable sidestepping potentially damning scrutiny – remains in power after 100 years.

Now, more than ever, the party is as dominant as it ever was: with a renewed mandate, influence over the wider Labour movement, and with a co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru that will radically mould Wales even more in its ideological vision, and confuse both opposition parties’ strategy.

Then again, nationalists have one solution to ending a one party state: if you can’t beat Welsh Labour, join them.

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