Stephen Crabb is Secretary of State for Wales, and is MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire.
In 1997 Labour planted a flag in Wales and declared it a Tory-free Zone. Nobody uses that phrase anymore and, at this election, Welsh Conservatives are defending eight out of 40 Welsh constituencies – and we’re looking to keep up the momentum of the last decade by winning further ground.
Wales is the last part of the United Kingdom where Labour is in office, and their tight control and influence over the machinery of Welsh Government, many local authorities and quangos means that we are fighting a formidable beast. Trade union membership is higher in Wales than any other part of the UK, and never is this presence felt more strongly than at election time.
This Welsh Labour machine has been in campaign mode since pretty much the first day after the Coalition was formed in 2010, waging all-out war on our economic programme and welfare reforms.
Nevertheless Welsh Conservatives are fighting our most upbeat, positive General Election campaign in decades. We’re tackling Welsh Labour’s negativity head-on by appealing to voters who “believe Wales’s future can be better than its past”, and challenging them to “let go of Labour”. There’s a growing dissatisfaction in Labour’s core valleys heartlands amongst communities who feel that they have been ignored and taken for granted by Labour for too long.
As in the rest of the UK, at the heart of the Welsh Conservative campaign is the economic message and the need to secure the economic recovery. Since 2010, Wales has seen some of the best growth rates of any UK nation or region and, although we start from a lower base, the economy is steadily improving and Welsh business confidence is at its highest for a decade.
Our campaign also points to our strong track record on infrastructure investment in Wales over the last five years. Major projects, like the M4 upgrade which had been discussed for 20 years, are now unlocked and being delivered. Despite Labour’s control over Welsh institutions, we’ve shown that it takes Conservatives in Westminster to actually get things done for Wales.
Allied to this is the Prime Minister’s own personal commitment to Wales. In stark contrast to Ed Miliband, who has hardly been seen in Wales in the last five years, David Cameron has made frequent visits here and enjoys being here. He gets how Wales is different and why Wales matters. His decision to bring the NATO Summit to south Wales last September sent a powerful message about our commitment to Wales. Recent polls show that people across Wales strongly prefer him to be Prime Minister than Miliband.
But there are some differences from the main UK campaign message too. In Wales, we are placing more emphasis on our progress in rebalancing the economy. During Labour’s 13 years in office Wales, like some other parts of the UK, slipped backwards in relative terms, as growth was increasingly dominated by London and the South East. As with our message about the Northern Powerhouse, people and business in Wales respond positively to a vision of a United Kingdom where wealth is generated more evenly and fairly across the whole country.
In this campaign, Welsh Conservative candidates are also talking about the NHS much more than candidates elsewhere. It is the number one issue on the doorsteps in Wales, as Labour’s mismanagement of the Welsh NHS reaches new lows. One in seven Welsh people is on a waiting list, and there is real anger among Welsh voters.
People do not necessarily know or care that it is a devolved issue, and Welsh Labour are shamelessly trying to blame their disastrous stewardship of the NHS on “Tory austerity”. So our candidates are tackling the issue head-on – explaining how Conservatives in UK government secured the Health budget, how Welsh Labour in Cardiff slashed it, and presenting a vision of improved healthcare in Wales based on stable financing, transparency and a restless ambition to see the best for Welsh patients, doctors and nurses.
The Welsh Conservative campaign unashamedly places values at the heart of our message, perhaps more so than the UK campaign does. It is a long time since Labour were able to tag us as the “English party in Wales”, but our Welsh identity is not merely a question of branding. We are able to talk confidently about ambition and belief in Wales, about Welsh aspirations, and how we want all communities in Wales to share in the fruits of economic recovery.
We have a message about the new jobs that have been created, but we can also point to the transformative impact of this in Welsh communities, in which cycles of worklessness had become entrenched under Labour. The figure showing a sharp drop since 2010 in the number of children in Wales growing up in households where there isn’t a mum or dad going out to work each day is one of the most powerful in our armoury.
Written deep in the Welsh psyche is a strong sense of social justice which existed long before socialism and the Labour Party emerged and cornered the market (with appalling consequences). Welsh Conservatives campaign with that sense of social justice too. It is a core mission of government to create conditions for society to improve and get stronger and Welsh Conservatives speak that language.
In so many ways our candidates are embodiments of these values. All eight of our incumbent candidates have deep home-grown roots in the constituencies they have been representing, and we have recruited many others across Wales who have links to their own seats. It is also an incredibly varied team of candidates in terms of backgrounds and life experience – from the young GP Dr James Davies fighting hard to win his home seat of Vale of Clwyd to Tracey West, the former air cabin steward from Ebbw Vale, who is a first generation Conservative supporter and is now flying the flag for us proudly in her own historically solid Labour constituency.
Or take the first generation Chinese immigrant steelworker, Edward Yi, who has learnt Welsh, and is now our candidate in the steelworks constituency of Aberavon taking on the archetypal Red Prince, Stephen Kinnock – who has been parachuted in from Denmark. Or Wrexham born-and-bred Andy Atkinson – who left school at 16 to work as a window cleaner, started his own contract cleaning business and is now taking the fight to Labour back in his home town.
I am hugely proud of our team of candidates – for their hard word and their spirit – a team of gritty streetfighters who know what is to take Labour on in the reddest part of the country.