Luke Evetts is a commercial lawyer. He was the Welsh Conservative candidate for Ceredigion in the 2010 General Election and the 2011 Assembly Election. He has held several roles in the Conservative Party and is currently Chairman of the Ceredigion Conservative Association.
It’s an interesting time in Wales for those of a political persuasion. While we have become used to almost monthly UKIP leadership contests, we now also have contests for the leadership of the Plaid Cymru, Conservative and Labour groups in the Welsh Assembly and will therefore have a new First Minister. If nothing else, it gives us something to think about instead of Brexit.
The importance of the role of leader of a group in the Welsh Assembly should not be underestimated. The Party has in the past been guilty of treating the Senedd as an electoral irrelevance – however, since devolution the Welsh Assembly has increased in importance. All of the important decisions that impact the day-to-day lives of people in Wales (education, health, social welfare, agriculture, economic development, local government etc) are made in Cardiff Bay, not in Westminster.
The circumstances leading up to the Conservative contest in Wales are very concerning. It follows the resignation of Andrew RT Davies, who had led the Conservative Group in the Senedd since 2011. While some may disagree with his opinions, Andrew has been a breath of fresh air and worked harder than anybody in the Welsh Party to hold the Labour administration in Cardiff Bay, and the Conservative administration in Westminster for that matter, to account.
Over the past few years, Andrew has been systematically undermined at both ends of the M4. The London-centric element of the Conservative Party has little time for the Welsh Assembly, let alone its Leader of the Opposition. In Wales, Andrew’s openness and frankness in standing up for what he believes made him unpopular with some senior members of the Welsh Tory hierarchy who preferred to operate quietly and not upset the central Party too much.
While the difficulties started earlier, the conduct of the 2017 General Election exacerbated these issues. It was clear from the literature posted out from London during that election that the central Party hadn’t got a clue about devolution. The imposition of candidates on Associations in parts of Wales demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of Welsh constituencies. The convoluted structure of the Party in Wales allowed for the buck to be passed around instead of taking responsibility for the poor campaign. Meanwhile, Andrew was heavily rumoured to have been subjected to strong-arm tactics by Number 10 for his willingness to point out some of the problems with the campaign.
It was therefore no surprise to hear of the text message sent to Andrew in error which appeared to detail plotting against him. Various rumours have flown about who was responsible for sending it.
If anything, these issues, as well as the debacle over whether Davies or Alun Cairns should speak during the Welsh leaders’ TV debate, showed that there needs to be a single Leader of the Party in Wales. In Scotland, Ruth Davidson was able to run an effective campaign based on local and national issues; in Wales we were given no say in how the campaign should be run at all, other than a small cabal selecting like-minded friends to stand in target constituencies.
I have long advocated a review of how the Party is managed in Wales. I recently wrote to the Welsh Board highlighting the need to carry out a ‘Sanderson Commission style review to ensure that the Party in Wales is in the best possible shape to face the future’.
In 2010, the Sanderson Commission published the findings of its review into the Scottish Conservatives, calling for the election of “a Scottish leader to have overall responsibility for the Party’s performance in Scotland”; to “replace the weak leadership and governance framework with a streamlined, transparent and accountable structure”; and to “overhaul candidate selection and development” amongst other recommendations. The Party in Wales would benefit from a carefully considered review and analysis of how it needs to modernise.
Regular and robust review of any organisation and its structure is a sensible course of action. The fact is that in Wales, our membership has been declining and our electoral performances in 2016 and 2017 were poor. I do not see why carrying out a fair and robust assessment would be anything other than an obvious way forward in the circumstances.
I have no doubt that Byron Davies, the current Chairman of the Welsh Conservatives, is seeking to change things for the better. My concern is the pace of change and the continued lack of transparency from many of those around him.
Instead of trying to turn an enormous, outdated tanker around without attracting too much attention, we need to build a new structure based on transparency and fairness, with clear lines of accountability. Most importantly, given that the important decisions that impact people’s day to day lives in Wales are now made in the Senedd, there needs to be greater control of the Party resting here in Wales alongside the appointment of a designated Leader of the Party in Wales.
There are no scheduled elections in Wales until those for PCC’s in 2020. Now is the perfect time to conduct such a review so that we can have the best chance of making electoral progress.
I suppose it all comes down to what the Welsh Board members want. If it’s an effective organisation and an increased chance of electoral success, a Sanderson-style review is the obvious step. If it’s to remain big fish in a small pond and retain the status quo, I fear that it won’t matter who leads the Assembly Group; we will remain on the path political irrelevance in Wales.