Towards the end of last year, I wrote an article for the Times (£) urging politicians to “spend as much time discussing Wales as they do Scotland and the North of England.” Specifically, I wanted them to discuss the poverty in the country where I grew up, which is among the worst poverty in the United Kingdom:
“In the local authority of Merthyr Tydfil a fifth of the population claims out-of-work benefits. On some estates that tops a third. And this is only 20 crow-miles from Cardiff. In some fantasy Wales, Merthyr could be a sunlit commuter town. Instead it’s in a perma-slump. No wonder the country is growing more slowly than the rest of the UK and is forecast to lag behind until at least 2020.”
Well, this year, politicians certainly have been talking more about Wales and its problems – although not quite how I meant it. The Tories have realised that the Labour administration’s shoddy handling of the Welsh health service, along with other public services, is a ready-made campaigning point. They’ve decided to go big on it for 2015.
I’d prefer it if there was more room for nuance: after all, many of Wales’s problems are deep-rooted and stretch back through numerous Government. But such is the rough and tumble of British politics. Voters need to be won over, lest Labour be allowed to run all of the United Kingdom from next May onwards. So I can understand why Grant Shapps is today putting it about – on WalesOnline, among other places – that:
“We will not stop beating Labour over the head over their failure in the health service and that failure didn’t happen by accident; it happened because they cut the budgets… In no way is this an attack on anyone other than the Welsh Labour party who have let people down so badly.”
But hang on a second: “It happened because they cut budgets”? “It happened because they cut the budgets”?! This is a very dangerous argument for the Tory chairman to make. Of course, we should be used to it by now: it’s simply the corollary of that “I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS” poster from the last election, which basically linked extra spending with better quality. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pull him up on it.
The problem, of course, is that every party will have to admit to cuts at the next election. In the interests of honesty and of George Osborne’s deficit reduction plan, the Tories will probably be admitting to more of them than anyone else. And so, whenever they stray towards equating cuts with worse services it’s an act of self-harm. It undermines that idea that more can be achieved for less.
What makes it more frustrating is that it wouldn’t take much to fix. “It happened because they mismanaged their budget cuts,” might be a better way of putting it. What the Tories should be looking to argue about is who can deliver cuts best. Instead, as Mark pointed out recently, there are signs that they’re slipping into the lazy, old, Brownite routine – and Wales needs far more than that.