20 @ 20: 20 of the Most Influential AMs of the last 20 Years

Let’s be clear first of all: this isn’t a list of what I consider to be “the best” AMs, just the most influential – whether that’s the amount of legislation they’ve got through the Senedd, the length of time they’ve held cabinet or leadership positions, the impact they’ve made on their respective political parties or whether they’ve been an opinion former and opinion leader in Welsh society. It’s not a reflection on their performance or personality, more an objective assessment of their relative achievements. If this were based entirely on personal preference it would look probably look very different.

However tempting it would be to make a counter-list of the crappest AMs – and there’ve been more than a few clunkers down the years – this is supposed to be a time of “celebration” so I’m being nice.

The only ground rule is they need to have served at least two full terms in the Senedd (except those cases where they’ve been in government). I was going to include a number of “honorable mentions” who probably deserve to be on this list but just missed out, but I had to set a cut off point.

Assuming I’m still around for the 25th anniversary, this list will inevitably change and there are a number of sitting and former AMs who would be close to displacing some on this list depending on how the next few years pan out.

20. David Melding (Con, South Wales Central; 1999-)

As the author of several Welsh Conservative’s manifestos he, alongside Nick Bourne, managed to guide the party towards a soft Welsh patriotism and an embrace of devolution which has led to the Tories securing strong Welsh General Election results. While his party colleagues occasionally swing from base populism to child-like tantrums, David’s carved out his position as one of Wales’ leading constitutional thinkers who commands respect from everyone, including myself.

19. Dafydd Elis-Thomas (Plaid/Ind, Dwyfor Meirionnydd; 1999-)

Since losing the big chair as Llywydd, and the 2012 Plaid Cymru leadership election, Dafydd was sidelined as a one-man awkward squad and didn’t make himself popular amongst “dry” nationalists in the process. Despite this, his stint as Llywydd provided stability in turbulent times which threatened to undermine devolution, let alone the Senedd as an institution. During his period as Llywydd, he oversaw many innovations such as the e-petitions system, the current format of Senedd Standing Orders and the introduction of independent assessment of AMs’ pay and expenses.

18. Nick Ramsay (Con, Monmouth; 2007-)

A surprise inclusion perhaps, but he’s here for arguably being the best committee chair in the Senedd’s history, having overseen some of the most comprehensive and influential inquiries over the last few years. Some of the Fourth Senedd’s Economy Committee inquiry reports were the best I’ve ever read (if such a thing can actually happen) and you can see the reports’ influence in the new rail franchise and Metro development. During the Fifth Senedd, the Public Accounts Committee have upped their game by providing a forensic examination of serious problems in government oversight – and the embarrassment caused has made headlines and lead to real changes in many cases.

17. Andrew Davies (Lab, Swansea West; 1999-2011)

Prior to leaving the Senedd, Andrew oversaw one of the more memorable policy shifts in devolved Wales – the infamous “Bonfire of the Quangos”. Despite never rising higher than economic development within the Welsh cabinet, he was seen as a political heavyweight during his time in office, and successfully bridged the perceived gap between private and public sectors in Wales by promoting co-operation rather than confrontation.

16. Elin Jones (Plaid, Ceredigion; 1999-)

Farmers are often very hard to please, but Elin could certainly be considered a rare “farmers’ friend” in Welsh Government, overseeing a comprehensive review of land management payments and supporting a badger cull (which was eventually dropped). Since being appointed Llywydd in 2016, she’s had several difficult issues to negotiate including Brexit, an angrier and more confrontational Senedd, establishing a Youth Parliament and slowly implementing long-needed reforms to the Senedd itself.

15. Mike German (Lib Dem, South Wales East; 1999-2010)

If you’re looking for someone who “punched above their weight”, then the former Welsh Lib Dem leader ticks that box. Although he was rocked by one of the Assembly’s first major scandals (WJEC European funding), he showed a staying power even if it all fell apart towards the end with the failure to form a coalition in 2007. However, the Lib Dem’s single period in official coalition with Labour between 2000-2003 saw the introduction of many policies devolution has since become synonymous with, including free museum entry and the move towards free prescriptions.

14. Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath; 1999-2016)

Social care remains one of the more substantial responsibilities devolved to Wales, and Gwenda oversaw the passing of one of the most significant laws of the Fourth Senedd in the Social Services and Well-being Act 2014 – which was seriously threatened at several points and something I’ve listed as one of the best achievements since devolution. This has seen children’s rights enshrined in Welsh law and the creation of a national adoption agency. Probably the most understated member of government since 1999.

13. Leanne Wood (Plaid; South Wales Central [2003-2016], Rhondda; 2016-)

Leanne Wood deserves to be on the list not necessarily for what she did as Plaid Cymru leader, but where she came from to get there. Firstly, as a non-Welsh speaker from Plaid’s supposed “loony left”, if you had said around 2003-2004 that she would one day lead the party I’d imagine most political commentators would’ve called you nuts. Her own hard work – such as her exposure of borderline corruption at the Wales Audit Office and The Greenprint – showed there’s a lot more to her than what she’s been given credit for. While the melding of the idealism of the socialist/republican wing of the party with an increasingly mature approach didn’t deliver the long-awaited SNP-style breakthrough for Plaid in 2016, it’s certainly laid the groundwork for one as soon as the conditions are right.

12. Nick Bourne (Con, Mid & West Wales; 1999-2011)

Being a Conservative leader in Wales is a tough gig. Nick managed to turn the Welsh Conservatives from a joke with a poisonous reputation into a solid and respectable opposition party; a party which still harbours ambitions of one day leading, or being part of, a rainbow coalition – something that came close to happening in 2007. All this is despite his leadership of the “No” campaign in 1997 – a campaign that, when you consider what it was up against, was extraordinarily close to succeeding. He unceremoniously lost his seat in 2011, but since his exit from front line Welsh politics he was a key part of the Silk Commission and has become something of a respected elder statesman.

11. Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham; 2007-)

When Lesley was removed as Health Minister following a pretty disastrous tenure, you would’ve thought that would’ve been it for her chances in the cabinet. Since then, however, she’s become something of a safe pair of hands and one of the most trusted members of the Welsh Government, being handed some of the most difficult policies to manage. This includes local government, dealing with the growing threat of climate change, decarbonisation of the economy and one of the biggest issues Wales will have to deal with after Brexit: farm finance.

10. Jane Davidson (Lab, Pontypridd; 1999-2011)

Jane spent two lengthy periods in government – in education and environment – before standing down as an AM. She oversaw keynote policies such as the Wales Coastal Path, the introduction of the Foundation Phase and Welsh Baccalaureate, the ban on single-use carrier bags and making sustainable development a statutory responsibility of the Welsh Government – culminating, in part, with the Future Generations Act 2015. Jane will perhaps be one of the candidates for “The best First Minister we never had” along with….

9. Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda; 2003-2016)

Leighton’s influence pre-dates the Senedd – he played a key role during the 1997 “Yes” campaign and people often forget that. He developed a reputation of knowing what he wants and generally being able to get it – even if it means knocking heads together and being a bit cocky whilst doing so. This includes the introduction of controversial school banding, a reformation of Welsh universities, and a tuition fee policy designed to maximise the opportunities available to Welsh students. There was the little matter of local government reorganisation as well. These policy decisions aren’t without controversy, but you can’t question the influence he’s had in a short space of time. He seems to have called time on his political career for a life in academia, but maybe that’s a bit premature.

8. Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor; 1999-)

Kirsty’s managed to do a hell of a lot both in and out of government. Despite her party’s current woes, she’s seen the Lib Dem’s flagship “pupil premium” policy enacted in Wales and has undone some of the reputational damage caused by Nick Clegg’s tuition fee U-turn by implementing the progressive Diamond Review reforms. In addition, Kirsty will oversee the introduction of a new National Curriculum – one of the biggest reforms in Wales since devolution. Also, the value of the budget  concessions Kirsty has managed to get out of Labour during the Fourth Senedd runs into hundreds of millions of pounds. Although the Lib Dem group has always been small, Kirsty managed to turn them – on a pound for pound basis – into arguably the most effective opposition group in the Senedd. Sadly, that didn’t last.

7. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid, Ynys Môn; 1999-2013)

Although his first few years as Plaid Cymru leader were uneventful – a dagger plunged into his back on more than one occasion – he came into his own when he took Plaid into a stable coalition with Labour in 2007. His immediate challenge was to deal with the fallout of the Great Recession, which led to programmes like ProAct and ReAct, as well as the longer-term Economic Renewal Plan. Despite criticisms, the signs are that it did help and played a part in stabilising the Welsh economy. It’s his record as transport minister that’s perhaps underrated, managing to deliver several road projects and improve north-south rail links at the same time. Also, he managed to convince a sceptical Labour to back, and deliver, a referendum on law-making powers much earlier than they had anticipated.

6. Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside; 2003-2017)

The tragic circumstances aside, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that you realise just how much Carl managed to get done. Far from being in government to ensure northern Wales was properly represented, he was there on merit, becoming something of a “fixer”. Carl got more legislation through the Senedd than anyone else, including the flagship Future Generations Act and Domestic Violence Act, as well as several laws to reform housing and the rental sector. He was also decisive in intervening in Anglesey Council – which would’ve otherwise been considered an extreme measure; his intervention perhaps stressed the urgent need for local government reform and indirectly lead to the Williams Commission.

5. Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West; 2011-)

It’s too soon to really judge Mark’s performance as First Minister and he’s on this list more for his previous role as Finance Minister than anything else. His influence goes back further than that of course, being one of Rhodri Morgan’s closest advisers, but he’s managed to guide Wales through a period of austerity relatively smoothly – albeit to local government’s chagrin. He’s also heavily influenced Wales’ approach to Brexit for better and for worse. Some (particularly Plaid Cymru and myself) might not accept his agreement with the UK Government on Brexit-related powers, but at least he’s shown a willingness to compromise in an atmosphere of confrontation.

4. Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan; 1999-)

Having only briefly been outside the cabinet in Wales, Jane Hutt has been influential for the wrong reasons as well as the right reasons. Her term as Health Minister was dominated by service failures and a botched and complex system of governance. Waiting times started to increase and remain, to this day, significantly longer than England. Normally that would’ve ended careers at the top of government, but Jane proves second chances can bear fruit, displaying talent as a capable Finance Minister during the Senedd’s most difficult period in terms of budget cuts, as well as overseeing moves towards taxation powers.

3. Carwyn Jones (Lab, Bridgend; 1999-2021)

It’s unclear when Carwyn Jones was marked down as a potential First Minister, but his baptism of fire was the 2001 Foot and Mouth crisis – his handling of which drew both criticism and praise. His rise to the top is perhaps surprising considering that, a brief stint at education aside, he never held one of the major portfolios in government (Health, Finance, Economy etc.).

As First Minister he subsequently delivered a successful referendum on law-making powers – without his support as an election-winning face for Labour, it was always going to fail. Those new powers have since been used to pass landmark legislation. Despite well-deserved criticism of being too laid back, in a rare act of decisiveness his government also took the decision to buy the failing Cardiff Airport. His record, of course, has been tarnished by the Carl Sargeant affair and he left office under a cloud – though depending on the outcome of the various inquests and inquiries history might be a bit kinder to him.

2. Rhodri Morgan (Lab, Cardiff West; 1999-2011)

As has often been said, you know you’ve made in it Wales when you’re referred to by your first name alone. All future First Ministers for the foreseeable future are going to be compared to Rhodri. Though it wasn’t an easy ride to get to the top, once he was there you can argue he was peerless – which, admittedly, isn’t saying much when it comes to Welsh politicians. His willingness to distance his government from the centrist tendencies of New Labour has, for better and for worse, had a direct impact on every single public service and every single policy enacted since.

His affability (something that’s now considered a required trait from every potential First Minister) might have masked a decline in public service standards during his premiership. However, it’s probably down to him alone – and his grounded rationalism – that devolution moved from a very turbulent and unsettled period during the First Senedd to the more stable Parliament-lite we have today.

1. Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower; 1999-2016)

If you could pick one person whose political career has been fundamentally linked to every development in post-devolution Wales only Edwina Hart has a surefire claim, having given the impression of a definite “power behind the throne” vibe in terms of cabinet clout.

Edwina’s held three of the most important government portfolios in devolved Wales except First Minister itself: Health, Economic Development and Finance. Not only did she reform how the NHS is run in Wales and laid the path for the Human Transplantation Act 2013, but she also did a lot of the groundwork for the Newport bypass, South Wales Metro and Development Bank.

When you consider how many different departments she managed, Edwina has to be considered the most influential in terms of making a lasting impact on the broadest range of public policies since devolution.

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