State of Play 4 - Labour

The fourth and final instalment of our summer reading on the state of play for the four main political parties in Wales from @TobyMasonBBC

For years, Welsh Labour's headquarters was an apt metaphor for the party itself. The grim, grey concrete edifice dominates the road west out of the centre of Cardiff. Shared with several Welsh trade unions, in the final unhappy few years of the party's time in office in Westminster, work began on a makeover - but proceeded at a snail's pace.

The scaffolding, rubble, and general detritus which surrounded it during those years were mirrored in Labour's election results in Wales, which led many to speculate that their grip on power in Wales was finally being loosened.

At the 2007 election, they won just 32.2 per cent of the constituency vote, were down to 26 seats, came within a whisker of losing power altogether and ended up in a coalition with their old nationalist foes Plaid Cymru. They got a self-confessed belting at the local elections the following year, and saw the Conservatives top the popular vote in the European elections. The acid observation from Labour MP Don Touhig that Plaid were "running rings" round Labour in government was pretty much rock bottom.

Fast forward to 2012. The building is - finally - finished, with manicured lawns and an attractive smoked glass entrance hall. True, the concrete is still there behind it, but HQ, like the party's electoral performance, is finally looking up.

In Carwyn Jones they have perhaps the biggest asset in Welsh politics. He's one of very very few Welsh politicians with anything like widespread public recognition and enjoys untrammelled authority over his party thanks to the thumping mandate from the 2009 leadership election.

It must be galling and gratifying in roughly equal measure, then, for the party to pore over opinion polls since the 2011 election, in which they came agonisingly short of an overall majority, in part thanks to strong Tory showings in a couple of key constituencies. The latest YouGov poll for ITV has Labour on 50 per cent on the constituency preferences, up 8 per cent on the election. It's always tricky to extrapolate seats from polls, but people with a lot more experience than me say this is definitely overall majority territory and it's hard to disagree.

But the seats fell as they did in 2011, and although Labour have carefully concentrated on giving every impression of being a majority government when they're not, it means there are tricky times coming down the road when the big and complex pieces of legislation start to flow. The first year since full lawmaking powers have been ones of consultations, white papers and green papers. There are some difficult issues ahead which are going to need more than Labour votes to become law - the new statutory process for closing and merging schools being just one example.

Despite the polls, Labour can never be completely on the front foot. The party's biggest achilles heel remains the legacy of their record on health and education over the past decade in power. The Cabinet's case that the controversial health changes are unavoidable because some services have deteriorated to the point of becoming unsafe begs the question - on whose watch did this happen? Similarly, pessimists - or perhaps realists - within the education sector are not expecting any kind of miracle recovery for Wales at the next round of international PISA tests for pupils.

There are other difficult areas ahead too. Welsh Labour, perhaps tellingly, declined to provide any evidence to the Silk Commission on funding and financial accountability, preferring a 'wait and see' approach, although the Welsh Government did submit a somewhat cautious paper. If Paul Silk and his colleagues come back this autumn with a recommendation that the Assembly should gain powers to raise more than the "peanut" taxes like the aggregates levy and air passenger duty, then it's Labour who will have the greatest difficulty in accepting much beyond this - and will be the most exposed by being in government. The Wales Office were not unaware of this when Silk was set up - and his remit was drawn accordingly. Opinion polls suggest the people of Wales may be ahead of the current Labour position in this area too.

Looking further forward, there are senior and thoughtful voices within the party who are urging it to undertake a process of renewal from their current position of strength. Their argument is that this is infinitely preferable to sitting back now and then acting only when an electoral slide becomes evident. There will always be the eternal counter-argument of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" of course, and there are plenty of advocates for this within the party too.

It's impossible to say how many of those 50 per cent who backed Labour in the YouGov poll did so because they were enthused by the party's policies and stewardship of government, and how many opted for them due to distaste for the UK coalition's policies. As recently as 2007, remember, Welsh Labour got less than 33 per cent of the vote.

The party decided against any major change of direction then - no New Welsh Labour re-branding for them. Instead, they swapped one popular leader in Rhodri Morgan for another in Carwyn Jones, held on tight and waited for a change of government in Westminster.

Their policy platform in 2011 wasn't radically different in tone or direction from those in 2007 or even 1999 - but the result for the party was considerably better. One difference was the party in government at Westminster. Make of that what you will.

The question now is what the party might offer in 2016 or even 2021, when this time there might not be a Conservative government to kick against at the other end of the M4. It's much tougher to base your offer to the people as "Fighting Wales' Corner" when it's against your own party - although to be fair the Welsh Liberal Democrats are giving it a pretty good go at the moment.

At the entrance to the National Eisteddfod last week, among a series of portraits depicting famous inhabitants of the Vale of Glamorgan, between Wing Commander Guy Gibson of the Dambusters and Olympic cyclist Nicole Cooke, was Carwyn Jones' predecessor Rhodri Morgan of Michaelston-le-Pit. The caption reminded festival-goers that Mr Morgan led his party and Wales for more than nine years - some feat of political longevity and stamina. By the turn of the year, Carwyn Jones will be a third of the way to matching him.

It seems mischievous, even incomprehensible given the current situation to even suggest the party should start planning for a succession. But political strategists, like sports fans, know that teams don't automatically stay on top forever.