IF a week is a long time in politics, then 25 years is an era. John Griffiths, the Senedd member for Newport East, is one of just four ever-presents across the first quarter-century in Cardiff Bay.

Mr Griffiths, 67, grew up in the "melting pot" of Pill. "It was multicultural, even then. In fact, my own mother came over from Ireland," he says. "It was a great mix of people which was very enriching, when I look back.

"You had such a variety of communities, cooking, clothing, languages. I learned a lot about how people get on together, or not, during my upbringing. But it was an area with a lot of social and economic issues, so, in some ways, it was quite a rough upbringing."

There were very few cars in the sixties, which meant he could play football on the street. School was at the end of the road - Tredegar Wharf - so close he could "fall out of bed" and in through the gates. His time at Duffryn Comprehensive School was not so easy.

“I didn’t like it at all, to be honest. I didn't go as often as I should have and I actually left without taking any exams," he says. "I had a series of different jobs, none of them with great prospects, then I met my wife and had children early."

South Wales Argus: Multi-time minister John Griffiths left school with no qualificationsMulti-time minister John Griffiths left school with no qualifications (Image: Sam Portillo)

Before politics, he had stints as a paper boy delivering the Argus and as a lifeguard at Maindee pool. While living with his young family in a Duffryn council estate, he endured a spell of unemployment that spanned several years.

It is hard to pinpoint a single turning point in a life as varied as his, but it may be this: when faced with poor prospects, he decided to go back into education. He took evening classes at the old Nash campus and studied law at Cardiff University.

There was a conversation with a tutor who advised him to take law instead of sociology: first and foremost, for an income to provide for his young family - but also as a path into a political career.

After spells as a councillor in Gwent and Newport councils, he was elected to the Welsh Assembly in 1999. Now a Senedd member with a vote on issues like education and health, family still plays a part in Mr Griffiths’ decisions. He likes to say he is a grandad first, politician second.

“I’m very lucky to have six grandchildren," he gleams. "I’ve got two boys and my younger boy has two children, aged nine and four.

"Spending time with them is just amazing, the best thing I can do and what I enjoy most. It’s priceless.” It is family time he looks forward to when the politics gets tough.

South Wales Argus: Partying like it's '99: John Griffiths was elected to the first Welsh AssemblyPartying like it's '99: John Griffiths was elected to the first Welsh Assembly (Image: Supplied)

“I was surprised just how many hours were involved in the job,” he says. “Obviously, it’s not just about formal sessions, debates, votes and committees. It’s everything that goes around it, particularly in the constituency.

“There are so many organisations and people doing good things and it’s a great pleasure to be able to work with them. To me, it’s about people and communities.”

Whilst at home in his community, Mr Griffiths has held big ministerial roles with national responsibilities for culture, sport, natural resources and the environment, and further deputy ministerial roles in education, health and economic development. 

He is particularly proud of his work with the environment brief, bringing sustainability ideals to urban areas. Asked how his politics have matured over the last 25 years, he points to a greater passion on green issues.

He says: “We’ve seen so much more evidence about the risks and dangers of climate change. A lot of policies have been developed and we’ve seen people understanding the challenges more.

"The percentage of people recycling in Newport is among the best in the world.

South Wales Argus: John Griffiths (right) with Carl Sargeant and Lesley Griffiths on their cabinet appointmentsJohn Griffiths (right) with Carl Sargeant and Lesley Griffiths on their cabinet appointments (Image: Supplied)

“And in Maindee, people are turning patches of land that are not very attractive and not used into nice green spaces where people can sit, relax and talk to others.

"It’s about making people more environmentally aware, improving their environment and then getting behavioural change.

“Once people develop a love of nature, it adds a lot to the richness of their lives. We’ve got some great opportunities around Newport, like the Wetlands reserve.

“Wherever you are in Wales, you’ve got mountains and coast on your doorstep. If people appreciate it more, it will add a lot to their quality of life.”

A keen Parkrun participant and Newport County fan, Mr Griffiths sees a lot of solutions in physical activity and the outdoors.

“I’m very keen on grassroots sports and there are so many sport volunteers in Newport. It’s a brilliant effort, keeping kids fit and hopefully giving them good habits for life.

South Wales Argus: Come on County: John Griffiths with Wrexham MS Lesley GriffithsCome on County: John Griffiths with Wrexham MS Lesley Griffiths (Image: Supplied)

“So much of health is reactive. It’s a health service constantly fighting a battle with demand and it seems to me we have to be more preventative.

“A big part of that is getting people to exercise more and be more active. Obesity is a huge challenge at the moment, so, somehow, we’ve got to get on the front foot.”

That front-footed ideal is popular among Mr Griffiths' government colleagues who are trying to relieve immense pressures on education and public transport, as well as the NHS.

As someone who wants to see Wales take responsibility for policing and youth justice, the former minister also subscribes to the idea that better scrutiny means better governance.

That, he says, is why he supports proposals for 36 additional politicians in Cardiff Bay. 

“In the early stages, it was very much about getting the institution up and running. It was new territory, because for a long time Wales hasn’t had much responsibility for its own governance and affairs.

“Now, of course, it’s well established and the challenge is all about delivery. We’re lucky, I think, we’ve developed in terms of powers and widths of responsibilities. It means we can do a lot more for the people of Wales.

South Wales Argus: East side: John Griffiths MS and Jessica Morden MPEast side: John Griffiths MS and Jessica Morden MP (Image: Supplied)

“We’ve developed that new democracy. When I think of all the years I campaigned for a parliament in Wales, and now we have one. I think it’s tremendous Wales has that ability to decide its own fate and deliver for itself.

"When people saw Mark Drakeford on the television, they were aware what was happening was different to England. It made people aware, yes, we do have a parliament in Wales now.

“Sixty members, which is less than some county councils have, is not enough to properly scrutinise the government. At the moment, there just aren’t enough members to staff the committees.

South Wales Argus: John Griffiths in the SeneddJohn Griffiths in the Senedd (Image: Supplied)

“The way the government’s budget is spent needs to be rigorously scrutinised but because of the workload on MSs, they’re not really able to give the level of scrutiny it should have.”

His objectives are fairness, equality and social justice and, he believes, the best way to improve lives is to build and even “reinvent” the nation’s economy.

“Wales has lost a lot of its traditional industry, just like in the north east of England, and it’s still struggling to reinvent its economy," he says. "The semiconductor and cybersecurity industries are very promising clusters we should build on but we need to do an awful lot more.

“Of course, we’ll never be able to tackle poverty as we want to in Wales if we don’t have a lot more people in more rewarding and better paid jobs.”

Quickfire questions, one-word answers

  • Parkrun - fun
  • Family - love
  • Newport County - more love!
  • Mark Drakeford - respect
  • Carwyn Jones - respect
  • Rhodri Morgan - fun
  • Alun Michael - responsibility
  • Rishi Sunak - hopeless
  • Keir Starmer - prospects
  • Jeremy Miles - next leader
  • Vaughan Gething - support
  • Welsh Labour - future
  • Welsh Conservatives - past!
  • Plaid Cymru - partners
  • Senedd - development
  • John Griffiths - future

Mr Griffiths is more comfortable talking about the people he has met and communities he has served. Asked about his own job, it almost seems an afterthought.

He has never thought about standing to the “formidable challenge” of being first minister and says he is not sure whether he will stand for re-election come 2026.

“I’m getting on a bit," he says, "so spending more time with the grandchildren is very appealing. And more parkruns as long as my joints hold out! But politics is in my blood, and that’s why I got involved. I’m very passionate about issues.

“I passionately believe there is a lot more we can do to be fairer and equal, and to help the most vulnerable families. When you feel that strongly about it, it’s difficult not to be as involved as you can be.”