This week, Mark Drakeford announced his resignation as Wales’ first minister after five years as leader. Back in 2018, Drakeford built his leadership bid on a platform of “21st-century socialism”. As the manifesto reveals, the mantra was rooted in the ideas of “the radical tradition of Welsh socialism”, which would drive the creation of “a more equal, fair and just society”.

While it’s difficult to assess his legacy so soon, it is worth reflecting on whether these initial aims have been achieved. And what does Drakeford’s departure mean for the future of Wales and the Labour party?

Arguably, the COVID-19 pandemic was the defining feature of Mark Drakeford’s tenure. During this period, Drakeford raised the profile of devolution in Wales to the rest of the UK. His measured and cautious approach to the pandemic was popular and a stark contrast to that of Boris Johnson.

This popularity was reinforced when Drakeford led Welsh Labour to a decisive victory in the 2021 Senedd election. It further extended the party’s more than 100 years of electoral dominance in Wales.

In June this year, Drakeford emphasised Senedd reform as one of his priorities, including increasing the number of Senedd members. That is potentially a hard sell to the public, but Drakeford saw it as a “once in a generation” opportunity.

While the Welsh pandemic response appeared to be popular, Drakeford’s government is certainly not immune to criticism. Serious questions hang over the consequences of certain Welsh government COVID measures. To compound this, the rejection of a Wales-specific COVID inquiry has led to accusations that Drakeford is shying away from scrutiny.

More recently, the Welsh government has faced significant backlash over its policy to drop the residential speed limit to 20mph, which appears to have led to concern even within Labour ranks.

When it comes to achieving 21st-century socialism, five years on and in nearly all measures – health, poverty, education – Wales is struggling. The Welsh government’s ambitions have been hamstrung by a lack of funding, the confines of Wales’ devolved powers and the extreme circumstances of a global pandemic. And while these constraints cannot be ignored, the rhetoric of 21st-century socialism is not being met in reality.

Wales and Westminster

Drakeford’s legacy leads to questions concerning the future relationship between Welsh and UK Labour. Central to Drakeford’s rhetoric during his tenure was to position Welsh Labour as the defender of Welsh interests against a harmful Conservative government.

With the potential of Labour governments in both Cardiff and London, this line of argument may soon come under pressure. Starmer has been clear that the economy is simply not in a position for public spending to be significantly increased.

The Welsh and UK parties are also at odds when it comes to the future of the union and the UK constitution.

If a Starmer government takes a different view on the constitution, or if the spending taps are not turned on sufficiently, would the new Welsh Labour leader seek to build a closer relationship with Starmer? Or, if competing agendas emerge, will the “clear red water” between Welsh and UK Labour become choppier? Any new Welsh Labour leader will need to deal with these potential issues.

The phrase “clear red water” is a legacy of Drakeford’s that stretches back to before he became first minister. As special advisor to former first minister Rhodri Morgan in 2002, Drakeford coined it to mark the Welsh approach to policy making as distinct to new Labour, based on classic Labour principles and rooted in nationally bounded politics.

The saying has almost become a cliché by now, but if Labour wins the next general election, Drakeford’s successor will need to take inspiration from its purpose of emphasising the distinctive needs of Wales.

Drakeford made people across the UK take notice of Wales and devolution during the pandemic. Whichever phrase is deployed next – 21st-century socialism, clear red water, the Welsh way – the next Welsh Labour leader will need to fight Wales’ corner within their own party.

The future of 21st-century socialism

Drakeford stressed throughout his time as first minister that 21st-century socialism could only be achieved through practical action. His methodical and calm approach to governance has won him supporters both within and beyond the Labour party.

However, whether due to the nature of devolution, the lack of funding, the impact of the pandemic or the limitations of Welsh Labour’s programme for government, the 21st-century socialism Drakeford promised has not materialised.

It is unlikely that the next leader will articulate their vision in the same way as Drakeford, who tried to root himself within Welsh Labour traditions. But if they are serious about pursuing progressive policies, they will need to be bold in tackling the challenges plaguing Wales today.

They will need to be innovative in their approach to public policy and the economy, and forthright in demanding adequate funding from the UK government, no matter which party is in power at Westminster.The Conversation

Nye Davies, Lecturer in Politics, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.