Andrew RT Davies AM is the Welsh Conservative Leader and Assembly Member for South Wales Central.
In just a hundred days, the people of Wales go to the polls in what increasingly looks to be the most important election for our nation in a generation.
After 17 successive years of failed Labour administrations, Wales has a real opportunity for a change in direction, a change in leadership and a change of approach. Indeed, the position of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party here in Cardiff Bay has never been more precarious – and that’s all the better for Welsh democracy.
And yet, with the long campaign already in full swing, the critical debate our country needs about the future of our economy, NHS and education service risks being overshadowed. For Wales could well go to the polls twice in 2016; as speculation mounts as to the possible date of a referendum on EU membership.
That is a vote people across Wales have long desired and, despite Labour claims to the contrary, people right across our nation are firmly split on the issue. Nevertheless, with renegotiations on-going, and no polling date yet agreed, speculation about the referendum simply cannot be allowed to overshadow such a critical Welsh General Election; it’s simply too important.
Both Labour, the tired incumbents, and UKIP would like nothing more than the EU debate to dwarf coverage of the Assembly elections in the coming weeks. As Welsh Conservatives, we cannot allow them that luxury.
For Labour, it offers them an opportunity to deflect from their record of failure; their incompetence and their complacency. For UKIP, they simply have nothing else to say. It’s no wonder that Carwyn Jones and Nigel Farage were so eager to debate this non-devolved matter, recently – at the exclusion of everyone else.
Make no mistake, the EU debate is one I relish; and I’m proud that the referendum is being delivered by a Conservative Government. But, for Wales, the next 100 days must be about ensuring that, as the UK economy surges forward, Wales does not get left behind.
This election is about securing change for our NHS, which has been deprived of funding for too long; proving that Labour have become complacent with the public services that matter to people the most.
Labour have not hit their target for A&E waiting times since 2009. They’ve not hit a similar target for cancer waits since 2008, and the percentage of patients starting treatment within 62 days has fallen dramatically in recent years. In fact, despite the best efforts of hardworking NHS staff the health service in Wales is failing people throughout Wales, at every level of care.
Labour have overseen a system, riddled with endemic failure, for a generation – and since 2011, their cuts to the health budget have robbed frontline services of almost £1 billion. It’s unforgivable and the people of Wales deserve so much better.
Failure in the healthcare system in Wales doesn’t exist in silos either; it’s integrated at every level, from diagnosis, to treatment, to discharge.
The election in May must also be about reminding people that there is no reason why Wales’ children should not achieve the very best. Our pupils are as bright and talented as those from any other part of the United Kingdom, but this is a Welsh Labour Government that freely admits that where education is concerned they “took their eye off the ball”.
This morning, the latest Estyn Results will show that more Welsh secondary schools are delivering unsatisfactory standards. All the while, Labour plan to campaign on GCSE results that still see Wales bottom of the pile in the UK – and, for me, that simply isn’t good enough.
Labour ministers seem hell bent on persuading the people of Wales that they should be prepared to accept second best. Here in Wales, their candidates are currently distributing leaflets celebrating Wales’ “best ever GCSE results” – but whilst 66.6 per cent of results in Wales last year were marked *A-C, the figure in England remains substantially higher.
On the economy, the picture in Wales is equally frustrating – despite the best efforts of the UK Government. Welsh High Streets endure the highest vacancy rates anywhere in the UK – at 15.6%, compared to 11.7% for the UK as a whole. In Newport, more than a quarter of premises currently lie vacant. This week we will be launching a comprehensive strategy to support small business; Wales, after all, is a nation of shopkeepers – all of which deserve better than second best.
Since becoming leader of the Welsh Conservatives, my Group in the Assembly have been determined to articulate a clear and optimistic vision of the change Wales needs.
From prioritising rate relief for small businesses, utilising the new tax-powers to make Wales the low-tax capital of the UK, ending Labour’s funding assault on our NHS and freeing up teachers from centralised control; we’ve consistently offered alternatives to old Labour ideas that just aren’t working. These are the issues we need to be debating in Wales right now.
May 5th is a clear choice between change to secure a better future for Wales; or sticking with the same old ideas that are not working. Our future in the EU is for another day.