Wales can be a 'beacon of hope in a darkening world'

Ever since Carwyn Jones, the most senior elected Labour politician in the UK, announced his intention to step down as first minister of Wales, the race to replace him has been on. Lowri Jackson, RCP head of policy and campaigns (Wales), discusses his successor and what it means for the Welsh health service. 

After almost 10 years at the helm, we've been asking who would succeed Carwyn Jones as first minister. Well, finally we have our answer.

The new Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford was sworn in just before Christmas as first minister of Wales. A former probation officer, charity project leader, and Cardiff university professor, he is a long-term supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, and a former special adviser to his predecessor, Rhodri Morgan.  

Yet the man who once said he had no ‘personal ambition’ for the top job has also had a long and varied political career. He started out as a Cardiff councillor and was elected to the National Assembly for Wales in 2011, almost immediately becoming chair of the Senedd health and social care committee. 

[Professor Drakeford, first minister of Wales] is keen to reaffirm that ‘we will continue to invest more money per person across health and social services in Wales than across our borders and [we] remain committed to ensuring that high quality care is at the heart of the Welsh health system’

Lowri Jackson, head of policy and campaigns (Wales)

After 2 years, he was promoted to senior cabinet level, becoming health and social services minister at a time when the NHS in Wales was being heavily criticised by the Cameron government in London. Since then, he has headed up the local government and finance departments, overseeing budget increases for the Welsh NHS while taking the lead on Welsh government Brexit preparations. A frontrunner from the start, he won the Labour leadership with 53.9% of the second round vote. 

So, what next? 

At first glance, and bearing in mind that Professor Drakeford has been a member of the cabinet for the last 5 years, it seems as if it’s business as usual. Even the title of the health section of his leadership manifesto, ‘A Healthier Wales’, is the same as that of the Welsh government long-term plan for the NHS. And perhaps unsurprisingly for a former health minister, he is keen to reaffirm that ‘we will continue to invest more money per person across health and social services in Wales than across our borders and [we] remain committed to ensuring that high quality care is at the heart of the Welsh health system.’

But wait. The new first minister is famously the author of the phrase ‘clear red water’, which was used to describe the policy differences between Welsh Labour and New Labour in the first years after devolution. Delving a little deeper into his leadership manifesto, it quickly becomes obvious that he’s got a few of his own ideas. For example, he promises further restrictions on smoking by extending the ban to outdoor areas of cafes and restaurants, and city and town centres. 

Indeed, there’s a strong focus on prevention and early intervention throughout the document – something the RCP strongly welcomes. He argues that we have to move away from the traditional ‘sickness response’ service and we need to promote healthier, more active lifestyles. So far, so good. He highlights the links between housing, health and education, noting that ‘warm and affordable houses prevent ill-health and help children to do well in school.’ His government, he says, will do the small things which help promote public health, such as making drinking fountains available in every town and village. He will also pass a new Clean Air Act to reduce air pollution – this is an RCP ask as part of the Healthy Air Cymru campaign, and we will be following progress closely. 

There are fewer details in the document about his plans for developing the medical workforce, beyond promising to create ‘a more diverse workforce in the Welsh NHS, using new professional skills to free up the time of doctors to treat those who need the highest levels of clinical care’

Lowri Jackson, head of policy and campaigns (Wales)

There are fewer details in the document about his plans for developing the medical workforce, beyond promising to create ‘a more diverse workforce in the Welsh NHS, using new professional skills to free up the time of doctors to treat those who need the highest levels of clinical care’. With the Brexit deadline approaching rapidly, he states starkly that ‘the decision to leave the European Union is bad for Wales and the United Kingdom. It will leave us poorer, our influence in the world diminished and creates new risks to our security’ and he promises to work closely with the Welsh university sector to help protect it from the consequences of Brexit.  

He says his government will also invest more in digital technologies and artificial intelligence to reduce waiting times and help speed up diagnosis and treatment. He wants to bring together the health and social care systems at the point where services are being designed and delivered while ensuring that new funding invests across both systems using joint decisions and pooled budgets. 

It is often said that Professor Drakeford was the only member of the then Welsh cabinet who voted for Corbyn in his first leadership bid in 2015. However, despite his campaign tagline - ‘21st century radical socialism’ - there’s very little ground-breaking in this document. It’s generally good stuff, and as a college, there’s nothing really to disagree with, and plenty to applaud. 

Here’s some food for thought though. Hidden among the usual commitments to better education, more investment in the trains, and accountable local government, is a promise to make sure that employers, schools and third sector organisations supported by government are challenged to play their part in creating a healthier Wales. Could this mean that an independent charity receiving public money could be obliged to ban smoking among its employees? 

He talks about local health boards using land they own for social care and housing; working with local authorities and public bodies to encourage active travel by the public sector workforce; and requiring all public services to take responsibility for prevention of ill-health. As cabinet secretary for finance, he oversaw the creation of Transport for Wales as a not-for-profit organisation owned by the Welsh government – now he proposes a new Welsh energy mutual body and a Community Bank of Wales to be owned by its members, on a one-member-one-vote basis.

Some of these ideas might indeed be radical, some might be rather more difficult to achieve. But after two decades of a Labour government in Wales, and with political chaos at the other end of the M4, it might be time to shake things up a bit. The RCP will be watching closely, and where we can influence change, we’ll speak up. 

Lowri is the head of policy and campaigns for the RCP in Wales, where she works with key stakeholders to develop messages that will influence change and improve patient care. You can follow her on Twitter at @LowriRhiannon