Welsh Labour leadership election: Difference without division?

Vaughan Gething (left) and Jeremy miles (right) are the only two candidates vying for the top job in the Welsh Government. Credit: PA Images

With nominations now definitively closed in the Welsh Labour leadership contest and the "hustings period" about to begin, what to make of what's happened so far?

Both candidates have now published their manifestos and have begun a series of TV and radio interviews. Over the next two weeks they'll face questions from party members before voting begins on February 16th.

Launching their manifestos, they certainly manoeuvred tanks onto each other's lawns, to use those well-worn political terms. 

Jeremy Miles put “sustainable economic growth” as his top priority, while Vaughan Gething said a big aim for him was “raising standards across the field of education.”

That can be seen as the simple fact that, notwithstanding an expansion of the Welsh Government’s powers since the beginning of devolution, it still operates in limited fields with education and economy being among the main policy areas.

But it’s also implicit criticism of each other’s records. It’s not fanciful to interpret Jeremy Miles’ pledge as suggesting that there hasn’t been sustainable economic growth under his rival’s time as Economy Minister. 

Similarly, if Vaughan Gething is promising to raise standards in education, that must mean he thinks Mr Miles has not succeeded in achieving that. 

This has (mostly, see below) been a polite campaign without the ferocity seen in recent Conservative elections, say, between supporters of Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, and certainly without the deep division of Labour leadership contests since 2010. 

Have you heard our new podcast Talking Politics? Every week Tom, Robert and Anushka dig into the biggest issues dominating the political agenda…

The Welsh cabinet is much smaller than the UK Government - limited to 14 ministers and deputy ministers - with far fewer MSs to draw on as future cabinet members than is the case when it comes to the hundreds of MPs that Prime Ministers have to pick from. 

That means that they have to get on in the future. It seems highly unlikely that the loser will be excluded from the winner’s government. 

When I asked Jeremy Miles if he’d give Vaughan Gething a job if he were to win, he said that “Vaughan’s a fantastic minister and I’d be absolutely delighted to have him in my cabinet. 

“I don’t think either Vaughan or I are constructing cabinets at this point but he’s a great minister and I’d be very, very happy to have him in government.”

I asked Vaughan Gething the same question and he answered, “Of course.” However, when I asked him if he’d serve under Jeremy Miles he told me, “Well I think I’m going to win so it’s about looking forward to the future, being optimistic and positive and I am focussed on winning this election.”

So to win, they have to prove their difference, which is difficult because they agree on so much in terms of policy. 

That’s what allows the Welsh Conservative Senedd leader Andrew RT Davies to say that With two continuity candidates in the running, it’s clear that whoever replaces Mark Drakeford, all Wales will get is more of the same.”

Mr Drakeford announced his intention to stand down late last year Credit: Yui Mok/PA

Neither are going to be able to attack their own record in government so the next best thing is subtly to question the other’s. 

Maybe too, that sense of consensus (whether or not you think that’s a good or a bad thing) is why the row over one Union’s nomination has caused such an intense reaction. 

Labour’s leadership election rules have changed a lot from the days when trades unions welded block votes - when Unite backed Vaughan Gething last week it was welcome support for his campaign, but individual members can vote for whomever they choose. 

But it’s decision to exclude Jeremy Miles from standing on the basis of a rule change that his team claims nobody knew about brought immediate echoes of those bad old days, particularly in relation to the late Rhodri Morgan’s experience of running for the leadership at the start of devolution. 

Those close to Vaughan Gething say they’re mystified by the row, that the vote change was in UK General Secretary Sharon Graham’s manifesto and that they’re just glad to have the nomination. 

On the other hand, Jeremy Miles has spoken strongly about unfair treatment with those close to him going further and using the term “stitch-up.”

Outside the Labour Party it may seem like an argument over an arcane procedure that, in the end, won’t force individual union or party members to vote one way or another. 

Inside the party it’s a real cause of tension and bad feeling that could store up trouble for the future, destabilising a party that’s mostly been very good at keeping its problems under wraps, particularly in an election year.

That’s why the two principals in this battle are trying to avoid public slanging matches. Behind the scenes tensions over the Unite risk knocking that plan off course. The aim of this leadership election is to discuss difference without division.

But it is much closer than many expected, increasing the stakes and making it a genuine possibility that it will bring both difference and division.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To know...