Adrian Mason is the Deputy Chairman (Political) of the North Wales Conservatives.
Imagine forming a new single-issue political party. In the first election, you field no constituency candidates and you do not produce any election material to promote your cause. Would it surprise you to then receive a quarter of the votes in some regions in the first election you enter? Of course, it would, but that is exactly what happened in North Wales during the Assembly Campaign in 2016. The Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party did just that, picking up 44,286 votes overall, not that far behind the Liberal Democrats! Incredible, well yes, but not if you put matters in perspective. Devolution in Wales has never been as popular a concept as in Scotland. In fact, anecdotal evidence from the doorsteps in the 2019 General Election campaign showed that even after 20 years of devolved Welsh Government, many people were not aware that the Welsh Assembly (now grandly renamed ‘Parliament’) is responsible for health, education, and other important areas affecting daily life.
Then along came Covid 19 and everything should now have changed.
The pandemic has opened the eyes of many here in Wales with regard to devolution and the powers conferred upon the Welsh Labour Government to diverge from Westminster. Over recent months the public has seen Wales taking a different path out of lockdown, often – seemingly deliberately – lagging behind England. It has left people feeling bewildered. Whilst many people in Wales looked to the Prime Minister’s guidance, it has come as a wake-up call to learn that even though many voted Conservative in the General Election – on a significantly larger turnout than at any Assembly election – and we have a Conservative UK Government with 14 Welsh Conservative MPs; vital decisions affecting our everyday lives now reside in Cardiff with a Labour administration.
The public indifference to the Welsh Parliament shown by many just last December has now hopefully evaporated. It should be crystal clear that devolution in Wales has made a seismic difference to how we are governed. This then presents an opportunity for the Conservative Party in Wales at next year’s Welsh Parliament elections.
In votes gone by, many Welsh electors have simply blamed Westminster for the ills of the Welsh NHS, where, in 2018, 3.4 per cent of patients waited more than 12 hours in A&E compared to 1.3 per cent in England, despite receiving more per head funding. Then we have the bottom of the class education system. Recent PISA statistics published in December 2019 show Wales still lags behind the other UK nations in maths, literacy, and science. These statistics provide an open goal for the Conservative Party. Welsh Labour have been content to allow the electorate to believe that their own failings were the failings of the Conservatives, and even in the 2019 General Election campaign some of their candidates were being disingenuous about this.
It is not just health and education that the Welsh Labour Government controls in Wales. They also have the power to vary the basic rate of income tax, given to them under provisions of the Wales Act 2017, wrong-headedly amending the Wales Act 2014 which provided that a referendum was required before tax varying powers could be granted. Sadly, this amendment to the devolution settlement, denying the people of Wales a vote on such an important issue, was enacted by a Conservative Government.
So, what do you get if you give a socialist government tax-raising powers? You get higher taxes, and this is exactly what will happen here in Wales. Taxpayers will be paying a premium to sustain Welsh Labour’s profligate spending and inferior public services. It will hold little value either for many parts of Wales as Labour looks to satisfy its core voters in the south-east.
The Conservative Party in Wales not only has to overcome voter apathy, it needs to make a positive case for devolution. The latter may be the solution to the former, but unfortunately, neither objective is in sight. A recent Survation poll carried out by the Centre for Welsh Studies saw the Conservatives in Wales trailing Labour by 14 per cent. In order to win power, the Conservatives need to provide a clear vision of how much better life would be in Wales under a Conservative Government.
It is not just a case of attacking Labour’s atrocious record over the last 20 years. The Party needs to set out exactly why life will be improved under a Conservative administration. You would expect such things as rolling back the State, a low tax, business-minded environment, encouraging international companies to set up base here. We need policies that promote excellence in health and education and investment in our agricultural sector, to promote our tourist industry and taking advantage of the fantastic opportunities that await us outside the EU. We need to set out a clear blue divide between the Wales of today and the Wales of tomorrow.
Only by painting an optimistic picture will the Conservative Party be able to win over the voters of Wales. Even those who voted Conservative in the General Election are more hesitant to vote for the Conservatives in Welsh Parliament elections. People though are genuinely tired of Welsh Labour and are looking for an alternative. They won’t find it with the nationalist Plaid Cymru with its narrow view of the world and they will not find it with a Party wishing to abolish the Welsh Parliament, which, like it or not, it is here to stay. The Conservatives are the only realistic alternative. However, unless something changes dramatically and quickly, we are likely to see another five years of Labour. This would be a tragedy for Wales.
The Conservative Party in Wales needs to analyse why so many people voted to abolish the Assembly last time around. A vote to abolish is a damning rejection of the status quo. These voters have been alienated and see the whole devolution project as not fit for purpose. The Conservatives need to promote policies that will give these people back hope that devolution, in sensible hands, can be a force of good. That is now the challenge for our Party in Wales. Failure to do so will see more people deserting the Conservative cause in Wales and either abstaining in next year’s election or lending further support to the abolitionists.