Andrew RT Davies is AM for South Wales Central, and is the former leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Assembly.
They say a week is a long time in politics and for me that couldn’t be more true! It’s been a bruising few days, but the harsh reality is that “events” are never entirely under your control.
It’s been a huge privilege to serve as the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the National Assembly for the past seven years; an honour bestowed upon me by our grassroots, the party members, back in 2011.
However, it was Cromwell who summed up the essence of politics in his famous address to the Rump Parliament in 1653. He was warning MPs who’d voted to dissolve Parliament (but who were attempting to remain) that the time had come to leave. “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately” – he warned. “Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” I’d be lying if I said my departure was quite that dramatic, but you get the point.
Ultimately, any leader knows that the end is going to come eventually, but you hope – quite naturally – that your departure will come at a time of your own choosing. I had hoped to stay on for long enough to right the wrongs of the 2016 Assembly elections, which were overshadowed by a number of factors outside of our control; national issues which dwarfed the Assembly campaign – and not least an EU referendum. We have a huge opportunity to put that right in 2021, and I wish my successor well in driving the party closer to government in this country.
We now enter a new chapter, and there’ll be no moping on my part. It’s just part and parcel of the beauty and brutality of politics, and you can’t keep 19 stone of prime Welsh beef down for too long!
With the party now moving forward to determine my successor, I am very pleased to see that the membership will once again play a key role in that decision. Only in Wales could we deliver a straight fight between a Davies and a Davies to replace a Davies! But in all seriousness, it is right that there should be a contest and not a coronation – with the membership having the final say. This is the right thing to do and provides a mandate no other Welsh Conservative politician enjoys. The wonderful surname aside, I’m sure Paul or Suzy will continue to take our party forward with vigour, and they’ll have my utmost support in doing so.
However, it would be also remiss of me not to share some of my reflections on the past seven years and point to some of the lessons that can be learned from my tenure, before it becomes tomorrow’s fish ‘N’ chip paper.
As a starter, we need to do more in Wales to put our activists and members first, we also need to democratise our party and deliver a structure which is fit and appropriate for the 21st century devolved battleground we now fight on.cAnd to do that we need to resolve the dreaded ‘leadership question’. It’s one which divides opinion and for the most part has haunted my tenure.
That said, it’s frankly absurd, in the devolved era, that a leader of a political party in a national parliament – elected with a mandate from the members in Wales – is not afforded such leadership status in the wider party. It’s one of the reasons that forces outside the Assembly Group felt so comfortable actively plotting to remove me from my position – I’ve got the text messages and scars to prove it, but I’ll save the details for my memoirs.
Over the years I’ve witnessed some absurd arguments over the official name given to the post, but it would be farcical to continue to treat the job as an ‘internal vacancy’ for the Group – which makes it sound like an HR appointment, and makes it all the harder to cut through both here in the Assembly and amongst the wider public.
The obvious comparisons are clearly made with our counterparts in Scotland, but the Welsh Conservative leader has an equal mandate amongst the membership, and we need to show how far as a party in Wales we have come in both accepting and enhancing the devolution process.
The fact that this position has never been officially recongised by the party – despite the best efforts of David Cameron – has to change. The game’s changed, both politically and constitutionally, and we haven’t moved with it ,as we’re the only party in Wales not to have a dedicated and recognised Welsh leader. This needs to be rectified as soon as constitutionally possible.
Another area that we urgently need to tackle is the treatment of our activists, members and associations. All too often, they feel they are seen as simply “leaflet fodder” – and, in many cases, feel that they are treated with contempt.
This is totally unacceptable, and reared its ugly head before the general election in 2017, where a number of Associations across Wales felt that candidates were imposed on them with little regard for local sensitivities – or for the hard-working activists who were excluded from competing for the opportunity to stand.
The selection of candidates is one of the key roles of our associations. Removing this responsibility and parachuting candidates in some target seats led many members questioning their reasons for joining. Some have left the party for good. It’s vital that our members are given more power to make such decisions – and this has to be far more than a token effort on our part. Standing for elected office isn’t for everyone – but it’s hardly surprising that it’s an ambition many of our activists hold.
While hours upon hours of leaflet deliveries shouldn’t automatically qualify someone, our hardworking volunteers should at the very least have the chance to put themselves forward for consideration. If people have shown they can do it for someone else – or have achieved success at another level like local government – why not let them go for selection?
Let’s give our activists something to aspire for, and above all let’s reward them for their hard work too. Our attitude to campaigning has to change and we need to make it attractive for individuals and enhance that sense of comradeship. In 2015, “Super Saturday” events comprised a morning’s campaigning with free lunch and drinks at a local pub. As well as showing our hard working volunteers appreciation, it also gave them an invaluable opportunity to bond and form personal friendships.
The fact that campaigning became enjoyable made people want to come back – and. in many cases, bring their friends too. People saw it as a social activity – and it was a huge success. I could go on, and there are certainly other areas that require tinkering, such as our use in Wales of an archaic ‘electoral college’ system to appoint key figures in our voluntary party.
Under the new leadership at CCHQ, it’s clear we are making some huge strides forward, and it’s vital these become ingrained into our party’s DNA for the long-term. And the past does provide lessons for how we can do things in future. It’s vitally important we strengthen our voice in Wales. Let’s give our members the influence they had in the past – and let’s reward our activists for their hard work. And above all, let’s also allow the next person elected as leader in Wales to do just that, lead.