The election of the independents Dai Davies as MP and Trish Law as AM in the recent vote in Blaenau Gwent has many implications beyond maintaining the status quo. Unfairly dismissed as a sympathy vote, the result was an overwhelming rejection of Labour’s polices in an area until recently regarded as a party stronghold. Labour’s failure to diagnose let alone address Blaenau Gwent’s considerable economic and social problems is symptomatic of their wider failure to meet the needs of the people of Wales. With their dreadful mishandling of the NHS, ill-thought out plans for an all-Wales police force and inability to address a mounting crisis in the ambulance service, Rhodri Morgan’s administration’s failings have been obvious to all. The Conservative group have established themselves as the most meaningful source of opposition in the National Assembly for Wales, exposing Labour’s hypocrisy and waste.
The political make-up of the Assembly continues to have a broad spectrum, with the twenty-nine Labour members who form the Assembly Government opposed by twelve Plaid Cymru members, eleven Conservatives, six Liberal Democrats and two independents. There is considerable reason for optimism that the 2007 Assembly elections will see the Conservatives installed as the official opposition. Plaid Cymru offer little by way of constructive opposition, with the party lacking direction and their frequent claims that independence will prove a panacea for Wales’ problems sounding more tiresome and even less credible with every repetition. As the nationalist sentiment that accompanied the initial stages of devolution continues to wither it is vital for our success that those people attracted to the centre-right’s pragmatic solutions to the nation’s problems are not put off supporting us by a false perception that we are anti-Welsh and backward looking. David Cameron’s acceptance in January of the fact of devolution and his determination to make devolution work for the people of Wales was an important step forward in this regard.
It is furthermore important that we embrace the growing trend of
localism and ensure that Conservative values are represented at every
layer of government rather than waste time engaging in arguments that
have long been settled. We may have opposed devolution and it is true
that the structure and quality of debate in the Assembly leaves
something to be desired but to dismiss it as toothless and irrelevant
is crass. With a budget of nearly £15 billion to spend and the
likelihood of extended powers, there is purposeful work to be done in
scrutinising Labour’s proposals, particularly their misnamed social
justice agenda. We must unite, encourage debate on our future direction
and contribute to the improving profile of the party nationally by
building upon the already positive strides we have made amongst public
opinion in Wales.
In addition to last year’s Conservative-led motion to reject top-up
fees for Welsh students in Wales, the opposition parties have united to
inflict a series of notable defeats on the Welsh Assembly Government.
The most embarrassing of these was the recent approval of the motion
calling for an inquiry into the ailing ambulance service in Wales, a
victory secured with the assistance of the Health Minister mistakenly
voting with the opposition. As chief whip his discomfort was my secret
pleasure! Theoretically one of the strengths of devolution is that
different approaches may be taken in governing public services, taking
a much greater account of local issues than has been possible in the
past. Regrettably Labour in Wales has consistently differed from the
policies emerging from Westminster for the worse. By way of example,
the Welsh Assembly Government has adopted a markedly different approach
to education to that followed in England, abolishing league tables and
reducing the number of tests children take. I have taken Labour to task
for the fact that for the fact that the percentage of 15-year-olds
achieving at least five A* to C grades or equivalent at GCSE/GNVQ level
in Wales has fallen behind that in England having been equal at the
time of the introduction of the National Assembly in 1999. Whereas the
level achieved at this stage was equal in 1999 at 48%, by 2004 the
figure was 51% for Wales and 54% for England – a 3% gap.
While I agree with the Assembly Education Minister’s response to this
gap that education is about more than examination results, the fact
remains that examinations continue to be the principal yardstick by
which Universities will decide who to accept and employers will decide
who to recruit. If this deficit is allowed to increase further it could
very well lead to employers gaining the false impression that Welsh
students are inferior to their English and Scottish counterparts: a
prejudice which would have the capacity to greatly reduce economic
development in Wales.
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