Andrew RT Davies AM is the Welsh Conservative Leader and Assembly Member for South Wales Central.
During the past year in Wales, we’ve had two big battles that turned up some emotionally conflicting outcomes.
The first fight was May’s local government elections, where the Welsh Conservatives achieved some ground-breaking results.
We fielded a record number of candidates; nearly doubled our council representation, and are now running six local authorities across Wales.
And then came the big one – the General Election. Welsh Conservatives made history in receiving a higher share of the vote than in any election since the 1930s – a record 34 per cent.
However, this was unquestionably dampened by the loss of three excellent Members of Parliament in Craig Williams, Dr James Davies, and Byron Davies.
They were exemplary constituency MPs serving with distinction, and I have no doubt their time will come again – in fact Byron’s already making an impact as the new Chairman of the Welsh Conservatives.
However, the loss of these three fine parliamentarians has provided all levels of the Welsh Party with much food for thought.
Over the Conference period, we are sure to hear much about the Party’s review into the election – what went right, what went wrong and how we move forward. In Wales, the party has many strengths but the casualties we experienced in June also highlighted weaknesses which we cannot afford to ignore if we are to continue evolving as a campaign machine.
Devolution stirs up many emotions and it is often a soft target for critics but it has undoubtedly created a different political environment here in Wales. The terms of engagement on which we now fight are very much on devolved territory. As a Party moving forward we will face a cycle that contains three elections – two of which are dictated and legislated on National Assembly grounds.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still some within our rank and file who would push the Senedd into Cardiff Bay, but for the party’s continued successful presence in Wales, we can no longer afford to just see England and press ‘copy and paste’. Our strength in the 2015 general election was built upon locally driven, Welsh-orientated campaigning married to a strong national narrative. One didn’t dominate or take priority over the other.
They sat side-by-side, and allowed Byron to break through 109 years of Labour rule by offering local people a distinct and clear alternative whilst James capitalised on Labour’s appalling failings in the Welsh NHS to take the Vale of Clwyd.
At the heart of this success, the Party in Wales had space to breathe and carve out a distinctive message which responded to the battlefield in which we fight. Nuanced to expose Labour’s failings in the Welsh Government, but underpinned by our great unionist roots and core Conservative values.
When you talk of the need to learn lessons, there is a temptation to look to Scotland but that would be an erroneous path to take too. The electoral terrain is again so different, and it’s vital we realise Wales has its own unique challenges and opportunities, strengths and weaknesses, and don’t push ‘Ctrl+C’ on the Scottish model either. For a start, I don’t think you’ll see me riding on the back of a bull any time soon – you wouldn’t wish that prospect on any poor animal.
However, what I do know about politics, and this is a sentiment which has been expressed by many members in Wales over the past few months, is that a core central message targeted at the English shires does not have the same resonance in Wales, particularly in our urban centres.
As ever, we can all be wise after the event but we saw a similar approach enforced from above in 2016 and the warning shots were there for all to see. The Assembly election was of course fought in the shadow of a difficult EU referendum for the Party, but the lessons are clear.
We have to adapt and we have to appreciate that the terms of engagement in Wales are different. No one, at any level of the Party in Wales, wants to return to the dark old days of 1997 where we didn’t have a single MP.
And for that we need to trust our message and fine-tune our campaigning machine here in Wales. We have some extremely talented individuals within the professional and elected ranks and they need some freedom to create an election offensive which can counter Labour on two fronts – at Westminster and in Cardiff Bay.
Recent encounters have proven armchair generals dictating from afar does not work in the 21st-century electoral battleground in Wales. An army needs to know its territory and who better to trust than those fighting on the front line in Wales, day in, day out.
We have a duty to the future of Conservatism in Wales, and to the electorate on the whole, to engage in the fight on Welsh terms. Eighteen years of a Labour Party strangling the potential of our communities demands that.