Matt Smith was the Parliamentary candidate for Cardiff West in the 2017 General Election and has stood for the Welsh Assembly. He currently works as a lawyer and writes regularly about Welsh politics here.
The ‘devolution dividend’ promised Wales is two decades overdue. By the 2021 Senedd elections, Welsh Labour will have controlled devolved government for nearly a quarter of a century. But a Welsh Conservative Government wiould be able to draw a line under Labour’s two wasted decades, revive Welsh devolution, and deliver for the people of Wales.
Welsh devolution was carried on hopes for a tangible devolution dividend. Welsh Government would improve public services. Structural economic problems and shortcomings in infrastructure would be addressed, narrowing the gap between Wales and the rest of the UK. Former Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies, promised “a new democracy”, more bipartisan, and less given to one party government than Westminster.
This dividend has not materialized. Five out of Wales’ seven health boards are in some form of government intervention including special measures at the highest. Rhodri Morgan’s policy of ‘clear red water’ between Cardiff Bay and Westminster led to a lost generation of state school pupils. There is no evidence of materially improved economic performance. Infrastructure development suffers as the decision to scrap the M4 Relief Road shows. And devolved politics remains a minority sport with a marked lack of pluralism.
Yet it is not devolution that has failed Wales. Rather it is Welsh Labour that has failed Welsh devolution. Welsh Labour resisted an influx of talent at the time of devolution, rejecting a former Chief Executive of the Welsh Development Agency and a leader of a miner’s cooperative as candidates, instead rewarding loyal members of the tribe. Unprepared for power, Welsh Labour AMs have too often run governments with L-plates.
Devolution is a golden opportunity to innovate. Instead Cardiff University’s Professor Kevin Morgan attributes a ‘cowed culture’ in Wales’ institutions to Welsh Labour’s intolerance of ‘constructive challenge’. This chilling effect makes it harder to disseminate good practice and call out laggards, stifling devolution’s ‘laboratories of democracy’ with tried, tested and failed managerialism.
Fortunately, Wales’ political landscape is changing. The challenges to Welsh Labour in their post-industrial, working class heartlands fall thick and fast. In June 2016, Wales voted Leave, despite Carwyn Jones’ instructions. In April 2017 a shock Welsh Political Barometer poll initially placed Welsh Tories on 40 per cent . And in December 2019 Labour’s red walls finally crumbled.
Labour has held a majority of Welsh Parliamentary seats since 1922. Hitherto they have avoided the fate of Scottish Labour in part due to the fashioning of a distinctive Welsh identity. Both Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones successfully distanced Welsh Labour from Blairism and Corbynism.
Under Mark Drakeford, Welsh Labour is in harmony with Islington. Over his twelve month leadership, the Brexit Party won in 19 out of 22 Welsh local authority areas in May’s Euro elections. Labour nearly lost their deposit in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election. And in December, Welsh Tories turfed out Labour MPs in Ynys Mon, Vale of Clwyd, Clwyd South, Delyn, Wrexham and Bridgend.
The Cardiff Cobynista thinks there was nothing wrong with the “basic message” of their General Election campaign calling for Labour’s next leader to ‘retain our best ideas from the last two manifestos’. Consequently last year’s Conservative gains may now portend wider political change. The 2021 Senedd elections are an historic opportunity for Paul Davies to lead the first Welsh Conservative Government since the dawn of devolution.
Since 2010, Conservatives have burnished their devolutionary credentials turning Labour’s executive ‘body corporate’ into a legislature. Their Wales Acts increased the range of devolved policy areas and furnished a stable devolution settlement. Labour Governments tried to merge the territorial departments and Lord Hain was simultaneously Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland. Conservative Welsh Secretaries have dedicatedly held their roles independently of other territorial portfolios.
As Welsh Secretary, Alun Cairns negotiated the £120 for every £100 spent in England that Cardiff Metropolitan University’s devolution expert, Gerry Holtham, called “a very fair settlement”. Conservatives have brought the Welsh block grant to a record high level.
Wales is now the UK’s first ‘Growth Deal Nation’. The Marches Growth Deal, North Wales Growth Deal, the Mid-Wales Growth Deal, and the Western Gateway, go a long way in ‘levelling up’ Wales’ regional economies.
Abolition of tolls on the Severn bridges, our Manifesto pledge to ‘ensure the delivery of an M4 Relief Road’, and finance for a West Wales Parkway rail station, are big-ticket infrastructure developments.
Paul Davies stands for “empowering people, boosting localism, promoting accountability, supporting businesses and a strong Wales”. There must be ‘constructive challenge’ to Welsh Government even when they control the purse strings.
His Cabinet will devolve as much power as possible to communities in direct contrast to Welsh Labour Governments that instinctively centralise power “so devolution does not stop at Cardiff Bay.”
Investing in local economies with Seaside Towns and Market Towns funds empowering communities will rebalance the Cardiff-centric outlook of Welsh Government.
They will use the power of devolution to unleash Wales’ potential, tackling housing shortages, supporting affordable rents, re-introducing right-to-buy, and scrapping Wales’ Land Transaction Tax for first time buyers.
Wales is overdue the devolution dividend it was promised at the end of the last century. It will fall to the first Welsh Conservative Government in Cardiff Bay to deliver on the people’s priorities and revive devolution.