Vaughan Gething — meet Europe’s first Black head of government

Wales has a new leader. Now for the towering in-tray.

Vaughan Gething will formally become First Minister on Wednesday, after narrowly winning a ballot of Labour Party members, making the 50-year-old Europe’s first Black head of government.  

As the plaudits fade, attention will turn to what it means for the three million-strong country’s relationship with the U.K. government based in Westminster — especially Labour Leader Keir Starmer, who polls predict will win a general election later this year.

Gething also inherits rows over the lowering of many road speed limits from 30 to 20 mph, the performance of the NHS, and protests against subsidy reforms that will require farmers to hand back some land to nature. Planned reforms would also raise the number of members of the Welsh parliament, the Senedd, from 60 to 90. 

In one of his first interviews on taking office, Gething told the BBC Sunday show: “It’s likely there will be changes to some routes.”

But he has a more urgent task — holding Welsh Labour together. Gething won only 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent for his opponent Jeremy Miles.

And he has already angered critics by accepting donations worth £200,000 from a firm run by a man convicted of environmental offenses. Miles’ supporters also claimed that he was the victim of a “stitch-up” for the way Wales’ largest union, Unite, declared support for Gething. (Gething and Unite insist rules were followed.)

The dreaded Brexit ratio

“This result is very, very difficult for the Labour Party,” said Richard Wyn Jones, professor of Welsh Politics at Cardiff University. “This was a very unhappy contest … and there is a very widespread feeling amongst Mr. Gething’s opponents that he has basically bought his way to the leadership.”

There is “a really big issue around losers’ consent,” added Wyn Jones. This will be tested when Gething names his cabinet later this week, as he tries to balance party unity with rewarding loyal backers.

Miles congratulated Gething, but his message closed with what was widely seen as a warning shot: “Trust must be continually earned.”

While Gething is said to have won a majority among both party and union members, Labour officials have refused to confirm the breakdown or the number of votes cast, to avoid revealing the number of members.

Wyn Jones added: “The last time the machine’s candidate won was Alun Michael in 1999, and Labour were given a real bloody nose by the Welsh electorate in that election. It’s going to be very difficult to unite the party behind him and there is a potential spill-over into the wider electorate.”

‘This is a real opportunity’

Arguably this might affect the next Senedd election in 2026. But it seems unlikely to dent a predicted wipeout of nearly all the Welsh Conservatives’ 13 U.K. parliament seats later this year.

A poll last month put Labour 23 points ahead of the Conservatives in Wales. While down five points since January, this is still enough for a landslide. It would be the first time Westminster and Cardiff have both had a Labour head of government for 14 years. 

Vaughan Gething will formally become Wales’ First Minister on Wednesday | Huw Fairclough/Getty Images

Along with powerful regional mayors in places like Greater Manchester, Gething will be a test of how Starmer — who tries to enforce ruthless message discipline — works with colleagues beyond the M25, with their own mandates and views.

Outgoing First Minister Mark Drakeford was more left-wing than Starmer. MPs and officials in Westminster, granted anonymity to speak frankly about internal matters, told POLITICO they expect the relationship to be closer under Gething.

“We’re hopefully going to enter a new period of better cooperation and engagement between U.K. Labour and Welsh Labour,” said one MP. They said there is “universal recognition” that the publicity around new 20mph zones “wasn’t handled very well … they’re not very good at communicating or explaining to the public.”

A second MP voiced hope that councils will be given more flexibility and the scheme will be scaled back. “It should have been very popular,” they said. “When you have got it in residential areas round houses, it’s fine. It’s because some councils decided to stick it on main roads into town.”

An official in Westminster added there “worry about the missteps” under Drakeford. “This is a real opportunity to change the way the Welsh government works and make it more consultative.”

No more Tories to blame

But any MP who reckons the new leader will defer to Starmer is “living in a dream world,” said Ruth Mosalski, political editor of WalesOnline. “I think the Senedd group will really struggle when there’s a Labour government in London. Every 10 minutes you hear ‘this is because of the Tories’ — they won’t be able to say that.”

Wyn Jones argues Gething’s need to keep his colleagues’ buy-in will make it more likely he differentiates himself from Labour in London, to prove he is standing up for Welsh interests.

Starmer has warned he will inherit tight public finances, while Gething and Miles both stuck by expensive existing policies like devolving justice administration. A third MP said before the result: “Jeremy and Vaughan are living in gaga land if they think they’re getting justice devolved.” A scaled-down aim to “explore” devolving youth justice and probation is expected in Labour’s manifesto.

But all that can come later. 

For now, there’s an election to win, and outwardly the relationship could not be warmer. Starmer called Gething’s election “historic” for Black representation, and said he looked forward to campaigning “to deliver Labour governments across Britain.”

The second MP quoted above added: “It’s a general election year. Priority number one is to get the seats we need in Wales at a parliamentary level to get a Labour government.” The real story may be when the honeymoon ends.