Can Mark Drakeford keep his seat? The challenge Wales’ First Minister faces in Cardiff West

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Some of Wales’ most high-profile Labour politicians have represented Cardiff West in Parliament or the Senedd.

Former speaker George Thomas, the late First Minister Rhodri Morgan and current First Minister Mark Drakeford are among the Labour grandees who have pounded the pavements of the Welsh capital’s western regions seeking votes everywhere from the working class streets of Ely, Fairwater and Riverside to the leafier avenues of Radyr, Pentyrch, Llandaff or Pontcanna.

Yet despite the outsize dominance that the constituency has played in shaping Welsh Labour, it is not as safe as some of the party’s other heartland regions. Conservative Steffan Terlezki took it in the Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 General Election landslide. And five years ago almost brought an even bigger upset.

Five years ago, it was more than a decade of steady growth in Plaid Cymru votes as Labour’s support dwindled that nearly put Plaid Cymru’s then representative Neil McEvoy in the Senedd ahead of Mark Drakeford.

Labour’s share of the vote had fallen from 47.1% in 2011 to 35.6% as Plaid’s rocketed. Labour won nearly 1,700 fewer votes as Plaid Cymru picked up 4,700 more. The gap between them was just 1,179 votes.

From the area where the press sat – high above the counting tables at the Sport Wales HQ in Sophia Gardens – it looked like Mark Drakeford had been worried.

While most candidates will pass the time at a count giving you a bit of gossip and their feelings, either on or off the record, during the night he didn’t.

When asked just after 1am if he would speak, he refused. When asked if he would be interviewed later, the response was “we’ll see”.

That count went on, and on – and what had been taken as pessimism wasn’t proved right, Mark Drakeford was returned to represent the constituency in the Senedd again.






Mark Drakeford after retaining his Cardiff West seat in 2016

However, a source close to his 2016 campaign said he wasn’t worried.

“My recollection is it’s the character of Mark Drakeford, he doesn’t get anxious or down. It’s not how he’s assembled.”

Instead, he was “coolly looking at the numbers”.

As Labour’s counters made their way round the tables, they were watching which boxes were being counted.

While at one point Plaid appeared to be ahead, Labour knew the boxes that should contain the votes to tip them over the finish line were still to come.

“We had the data and could see from the boxes that weren’t in yet and we were more likely to win it than lose it.

“I think he was quietly confident”.

But throughout the night, Neil McEvoy’s smile got wider and wider. As he made his way round the tables in his Cardiff City shirt, he was the more chipper candidate.

He didn’t win Cardiff West, but he did win a regional seat.

When you ask those who were in the party hierarchy at that time they weren’t quite as confident as their candidate about his chances of unseating Labour. They expected gains, but didn’t believe the hype that the upset would actually come off.

What happened in 2016 were two things came together – a well-known local campaigner getting the backing of a sizeable party.



Senedd campaigning in Cardiff West

It meant that when people went into the ballot box, those who traditionally voted for Plaid Cymru backed Mr McEvoy, and he would also get personal vote from those who knew him.

With Neil McEvoy now standing for Propel and Plaid represented by a local barrister Rhys ab Owen, that vote looks set to be split. And neither candidate will find it easy to persuade voters that they alone are the way to unseat the First Minister. You can see the full list of candidates and Q&As with them here.

Mr McEvoy, representing his newly-founded party Propel, has been working hard ahead of this election and even those who are not fans of his style will admit he is a good campaigner.

A senior Labour source said: “We are used to Neil in Cardiff West, he’s not an unknown quantity to us. Whatever guise he turns up in, which he’s totally entitled to do, we have got a good idea what his style of campaigning is.

“He is a good campaigner. He organises well and he gives his time and we know that.

“He’s got good organisation and we knew what we were up against. There are a limited number of things you can do in a political campaign to win and we did them and we were successful.”

Yet he neither has the benefit of the Plaid machinery this time, nor some of the factors that helped him five years ago.

The 2016 Senedd election was taking place seven weeks before the EU referendum.

The year before, then First Minister Carwyn Jones was one of those who called for the votes not to be on the same day. But what campaigners found on the doorsteps was that the gap of a matter of weeks was still too close.

Mr Jones would find that his carefully planned campaign visits weren’t just on the topic his team hoped it would be, he was asked about the allegations of antisemitism within Labour; Jeremy Corbyn, then just nine months into his tenure as Labour leader, and, of course, the EU referendum.

Campaigners were getting the same questions on the doorstep.

A seasoned election source said: “No seat is immune to the national picture”.

This time, campaigners will tell you that voters “aren’t offended” by Keir Starmer.

“People are coming back to Labour,” one told me in the days after canvassing was allowed to start in Wales.

Back in 2016, as the result finally came in just before 9am, Mr McEvoy was jubilant with his regional seat.

But the honeymoon didn’t last, in the five years following, Mr McEvoy fell out with more and more of Plaid Cymru. The headlines went from polite disagreements to suspensions.

Even those who had seen him as a campaigning asset couldn’t defend him.

His actions led to exclusion, and after months of wrangling, he did not reapply to rejoin.




Instead, he sat as an Independent in the Senedd before launching his own party, Propel, for whom he will fight this election.

Mr McEvoy has his supporters who will vote for him, Cardiff West already has the placards of his new party up. And those who think he burnt his bridges within Plaid Cymru have a new candidate to back instead.

That’s not stopping Mr McEvoy targeting Plaid voters.

He is sending a letter to those with placards on display by giving a letter detailing his version of “why I fell out with Plaid Cymru” and telling voters “Plaid is not the party you think it is, or once was. There are systemic problems and the party is not fit for Government”.

Clearly, the party doesn’t agree and Plaid is hammering home that they are the alternative to 20 years of Labour rule in Wales and Adam Price should be First Minister.

In Cardiff West, the Plaid Cymru machine clearly isn’t behind Neil McEvoy now, but Mr Owen, the son of former AM Owen John Thomas.

One of those looking to him for “fresh thinking” is 33-year-old Liz Rawlins who lives in Canton.

“I think particularly this year, we have all been through so much. I am just quite excited about a fresh start and a positive, optimistic campaign, approach and ideas.”

In Cardiff West, the support of her local candidate for affordable and sustainable housing was a big selling point as house prices continue to rise and exclude some.

“In Cardiff West, I am mindful there’s a need to provide affordable, sustainable and good homes but a need to protect the environment and green spaces. They go hand in hand”.

“I want the community to continue to thrive but remain inclusive, not exclusive.”

Ms Rawlins knows her other candidates. Her opinion of Mark Drakeford has not, over the last year, changed either way. She’s also followed the controversies of Neil McEvoy’s recent political career.

“For me, he doesn’t represent, from what I’ve seen, anything that I am passionate about. The kind of divisiveness and negativity campaigning isn’t for me.”




At the other end of the scale is 49-year-old Sharon.

She’s not, she says, a regular voter but has followed Mr McEvoy “for quite a while” on Facebook. “I just like the way he gets involved with normal, everyday people.”

With a Propel placard and poster proudly showing, she says this will be her first vote for him.

She knows of Mark Drakeford, but says he “hasn’t much of a backbone”. “I can’t warm to him at all. I think with me, it’s more about social media and Neil is active on that. I think he’s been given a rough ride as well. I like an underdog,” she says.




And while they won’t say it publicly, a senior Plaid source admitted Mr Drakeford is “comfortable”.

Labour know there are people like Louise Newman, 67, from Caerau, who has voted Labour in every election, and she says, her parents and grandparents before her.

Ask her opinion on Mark Drakeford and the superlatives flow.

“I think he’s a great leader for Wales. He’s seen us through lockdown and we have had a rough two years and he’s always stood up for us”.

“He’s a very nice gentleman. I like his personality, his friendliness, his courage, his forcefulness.”

Mr Drakeford’s profile has gone sky high due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While some criticise him as being too slow, cautious or even boring, Labour loyalists, including Mrs Newman, say he’s done the right thing.

However, if 2016 was a unique set of circumstances for Cardiff West, 2021 is a unique set of circumstances for the whole country.

It’s not been a normal year, and it’s not a normal election.

Mr McEvoy spent result night in 2016 telling reporters that Mr Drakeford’s performance in the campaign had been “dire”, Mr Drakeford used interviews after his win to criticise the “particularly unpleasant” and “very personal” campaign.

That animosity hasn’t eased in the last five years but the “two horse race” being boasted of on Mr McEvoy’s campaign leaflets looks unlikely to be repeated.

See the full list of candidates here:



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