Dan Boucher: The future of the union is at stake in the upcoming Senedd elections. Conservative voters cannot afford to bow out.

7 Apr

Dr Dan Boucher has previously stood in Westminster and Senedd elections. He lives with his family in Swansea.

One distinctive aspect of Welsh politics since the advent of devolution in 1999 has been the tendency of some Conservative voters not to vote in Assembly or Senedd elections, as they are now called, on principle because they don’t believe in devolution.

This is a very relevant consideration when reflecting on the fact that if everyone who voted Conservative in the 2019 General Election votes Conservative in the 2021 Senedd elections, the Welsh Conservatives will form the next Welsh Government in May 2021, ending 22 years of continual Labour Government.

The same was also true at the last Assembly (as they were then called) elections. If everyone who voted Conservative in the 2015 General Election had voted Conservative in the 2016 Assembly Election then the Welsh Conservatives would have formed the Welsh Government in May 2016, but they didn’t.

Is there any reason to believe that things might be different this year?

Quite apart from the fact that the latest polling shows a significant drop in support for Welsh Labour, and an increase in support for the Welsh Conservatives, such that Labour are now just two per cent ahead, there are some underlying changes that could make 2021 a different experience from 2016. One of these is the increasing talk about Welsh independence.

The Yes Cymru campaign for an independent Wales was initiated shortly before the last Assembly election but was too new to have any impact on its outcome. Since then, however, the movement has grown – with a number of marches in Cardiff, Methyr and Caernarfon – and some polling suggesting support for Welsh independence, while still a minority view, has grown from around 12 to 39 per cent.

Of huge importance, the Yes Cymru movement has even impacted Welsh Labour – at one time an unequivocally unionist party. 2017 saw the formation of its own pro-independence movement – Labour for an Independent Wales – and the selection of three pro-independence Labour candidates in May’s Senedd elections. To allow the implications of this to sink in, one only has to pause and try to imagine an equivalent development within Scottish Labour!

In a context where it seems clear Labour won’t be able to form the next Welsh Government other than in coalition with Plaid Cymru, it’s inconceivable that Plaid won’t make pressing for an independence referendum the price for its support.

Indeed, that scenario is judged to be a sufficient cause for concern to have already come up in UK Cabinet discussions. Of course, Labour First Minister, Mark Drakeford rather suggested to Andrew Marr that he would not agree to a coalition on these terms, but given that where there is no guarantee Drakeford will continue to lead Labour after the election, this development surely has the potential to completely reconstitute the Senedd elections for many Conservative voters?

Anyone who has campaigned in Wales will know the experience of talking to the cohort of Conservative voters who don’t vote in Assembly elections. Invariably they will say something like, “I always vote Conservative in the Westminster elections but never vote in the Assembly elections because I think we should be governed from Westminster. I voted against the creation of the Assembly and think it’s a waste of money.”

In the past when encountering this view on the doorstep, one would respond by pointing out that as there now is a Welsh Assembly and Welsh Government, their decision not to vote was denying them a voice on key issues like health and education. By not voting in Assembly elections they were making themselves less and not more like the voters in England because they were cutting themselves off from the opportunity to vote on what many regard as the single biggest election issues, the NHS, which in Wales is wholly governed from Cardiff.

However, voters who would rather give up their ability to have any impact on one of the biggest election issues, the NHS, than authenticate an institution they regard as an indecent qualification of the union, are only likely to maintain that position for so long as doing so does not help facilitate what they regard as the greater danger. Prioritising expressing disdain for devolution becomes somewhat irrelevant when independence becomes the presenting issue, especially if doing so could inadvertently help the cause for independence.

Moreover, if this cohort of Conservative voters now concludes that in these changed political circumstances, the priority must be a unionist majority Senedd, such that for the first time they vote in the Senedd elections, then this will no doubt come as something of a relief, as it will also enable them to rediscover their voice on the NHS, Education, Agriculture and Tourism which they have not enjoyed for nearly a quarter of a century.

Then of course, in addition to those Conservative voters who don’t vote in Senedd elections on principle, there are those who don’t simply because they don’t see it as a priority. While their decision hitherto not to vote in Senedd elections is not based on the principle of not wanting to authenticate devolved government, it is likely that many could nonetheless be moved to vote for the first time in these elections because of their commitment to preserving the union and recognition that henceforth, it will be imperative to ensure that the Senedd has as strong a unionist majority as possible.

Some might respond to the above analysis by pointing out that just as some Conservatives only vote in Westminster elections, the same is true of some Labour voters. On this basis surely one might equally well say that if all those who voted Labour in 2019 in Wales vote Labour in 2021, Labour will form the next Welsh Government?

In a context, however, where support for independence remains a minority view, there must be the possibility that some Labour voters whose loyalty to the union is greater than having a permanent Labour First Minister (regardless of whether or not they usually vote in Senedd elections), might vote Conservative on this occasion to send a message to Welsh Labour?

In this sense the 2021 elections could have some similarities to 2019 when Labour voters turned to the Conservatives to honour Brexit, with constitutional concerns trumping normal party loyalties. Some Labour voters might find this an easier proposition to entertain this year given that in a democracy being permanently in power progressively erodes one’s authority. Labour has been in government now for 22 years without interruption. That’s already unprecedented in modern British history and yet it is now seeking another five years, which would take its total innings to 27 years.

At the end of the day, whatever way one looks at it, the upcoming election is distinctive because the new Senedd will not merely discuss how to manage the Welsh NHS and education system within the current devolved settlement. It will also inevitably engage with the independence question and in that context, unionists up and down Wales need to vote to ensure that the only serious party of Government that is passionately committed to the union, the Conservative and Unionist Party, (there are no “Conservatives for an Independent Wales”) is represented as strongly as possible.

Dan Boucher: Labour’s stewardship of the NHS in Wales has been disastrous. Come May, it’s time for a Conservative administration.

1 Mar

Dr Dan Boucher, Dan has stood as an Assembly and Parliamentary Candidate in Wales. He lives with his family in Swansea.

During the 2011 Assembly election campaign I well remember a lady telling me that if I hoped she was going to vote Conservative I must have another thing coming to me – given the state of the NHS in Wales. I said that I shared her concerns but thought they provided a very good reason for voting Conservative because the current situation was the result of fourteen years of Labour’s stewardship of the NHS.

The lady looked a little confused and so I explained that since May 1997 Labour had run the NHS in Wales, first, on account of the fact that Labour won the 1997 General Election and then on account of the fact that health had been devolved to the Welsh Government from the very beginning of devolution in 1999 and that throughout, the health minister had always been from the Labour Party.

Its record up to that point had certainly been none too inspiring. Labour inherited five health authorities from the prior Conservative administration but embarked on a radical restructuring programme, exchanging the five health authorities for twenty-two local health boards from April 2003. It argued this would bring health care provision closer to the people!

However, in 2009 the party performed a spectacular u-turn, explaining that the new structure was too bureaucratic and introduced an equally radical reform agenda in diametrically the opposite direction. Replacing the twenty-two local health boards with seven health authorities, it effectively conceded that the previous Conservative formula had been rather better.

Things did not improve thereafter. Between 2011 and 2016 the Welsh Government decided not to increase health spending in Wales proportionately in line with the increases introduced in England, costing the Welsh NHS approximately £800 million. This placed real strain on the system and in 2015 Betsi Cadwaladr Health Authority had to be moved into “special measures” where it remained for five and half years, the longest duration that any health authority has been put in that position anywhere in the UK.

In January 2020 – immediately prior to the outbreak of Covid – five out of our seven health authorities were subject to either “special measures”, “targeted intervention” or “enhanced monitoring.” Moreover, in that month the numbers of patients waiting 12 hours or more in A&E broke a new record, increasing by 1,590 patients compared to January 2019. Over a similar period the numbers waiting more than 36 weeks for hospital treatment almost doubled, increasing from 12,982 in December 2018 to 25,549 in December 2019.

In the last year, of course, the NHS in Wales, like the NHS across the UK, has faced the previously unimaginable Covid challenges which have demonstrated the heroism of our doctors and nurses as never before. In this context, however, Labour’s management has again been the cause of real concern. In March/April last year over 13,000 shielding letters were sent to the wrong addresses and then in August identifying details of 18,105 Welsh residents who had tested positive for the Coronavirus were uploaded onto the Public Health Wales website.

At the same time there has been less willingness to focus on addressing non-Covid health challenges than in England. Between December 2019 and December 2020 there was a tenfold increase in people waiting more than two years for a procedure on the NHS and the Health Minister has now acknowledged that it might take a full parliamentary term to clear the backlog.

Concerns came to a head in January as a result of the First Minister’s statement that rolling out the vaccination programme against Covid “is not a sprint.” Given that the proportion of people vaccinated in Wales at that time was significantly less than in England, and that the sooner people are vaccinated the less chance they will have of contradicting the disease, this generated huge public pressure for a change of approach.

In assessing the significance of Labour’s stewardship of the NHS in Wales as we approach the upcoming Welsh Parliament elections on May 6, it is important to appreciate just how central health is to Welsh devolution. Nearly 50 per cent of the Welsh Government’s budget, over £9 billion, is absorbed by health. While health might be only one of nine cabinet positions, therefore, the truth is that in monetary terms it is nearly half of devolution.

Moreover, what was true in May 2011 has continued to be true, namely that while in coalition, some ministerial posts have been held by the Lib Dems or Plaid, the Minister of Health position (along with that of First Minister and a majority of ministerial positions at any one time) has always been held by Labour.

In this context the question facing the Welsh electorate in May (or whenever the election takes place) is, in an important sense, more a question of health than anything else and in seeking to answer it the people of Wales must ask whether Labour’s record justifies another five years? Would Wales benefit from twenty-six years of Labour running the Welsh NHS, and indeed the wider Welsh Government? Now is surely the time for a Conservative administration in Cardiff Bay.

Dan Boucher: Welsh Labour has been given twenty-four years to transform the economy – and failed

5 Jan

Dr Dan Boucher is a former Assembly and UK Parliamentary candidate. He lives with his family in Swansea.

The British political party that has enjoyed the longest period in government in modern times is Welsh Labour. Indeed, given that prior to devolution they governed Wales from May 1997, when the people of Wales go to the polls on May 6 this year, we will have been governed by Labour in many key areas of our lives for twenty four years! They have enjoyed an opportunity no other modern British party has had. How have they used it?

In November 1998, just months before the first Assembly elections, I attended the launch of the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ seminal book The National Assembly Agenda in Cardiff. The chapter on economic development began: “Of all the measures by which the National Assembly will be judged none will be as important as the challenge of raising the level of economic well-being…much can be achieved through more concerted and dynamic action at the Welsh level”.

In 2001 the Welsh Labour Government launched its first major economic development consultation, A Winning Wales, proposing a National Economic Development Strategy. They recognised that Welsh GDP per head was just 80 per cent of the UK average and set themselves the target of closing the gap by 10 per cent over the next ten years to 90 per cent. In engaging with this challenge, there was great excitement arising from the fact that under Labour we came to qualify (not itself an achievement) for a huge injection of EU regional aid. There was a real expectation that this would transform the Welsh economy as it had that of the Republic of Ireland. We too would become a Celtic tiger!

In the subsequent ten years, Welsh Labour failed to close the gap by one per cent let alone 10. Indeed, notwithstanding EU regional aid, Welsh GDP per head fell even further to the low 70s where it has since remained. In this context Wales went on to qualify for a second round of EU regional aid. Today we represent five per cent of the population of the UK but generate only 3.4 per cent of its wealth.

The last government to control economic development policy and preside over an increase in Welsh GDP per head was the Conservative one between 1985 and 1990. Moreover, under its stewardship, between 1986 and 1996, Wales was one of the few places in the UK, and indeed Europe, to boost manufacturing employment and productivity. In 1995 manufacturing productivity rates in Wales were better than any part of the UK, save South East of England which was only fractionally ahead.

Those years also witnessed what has been described a “golden age” of inward investment into Wales. In 1996-1997 the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) was credited with creating 18,000 new jobs, 15,000 through inward investment. By contrast, in 2019-2020, the Welsh Government boasted creating just 2,738 jobs by inward investment.

At a lecture I helped organise in 2016, a former Director General of Economic Development from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul expressed shock at the low levels of inward investment between South Korea and Wales. In all this we were not helped by Labour’s decision to abolish the Welsh Development Agency, absorbing its function into the Welsh Government in a move that Brian Morgan, (one the authors of the 1998 National Assembly Agenda) said: “will probably go down in history as the worst policy decision made in Wales in living memory”.

Indeed, while economic development is devolved, the most successful framework for it in Wales has actually been provided by the UK Conservative Government’s City Deal programme, which has resulted in the creation of the Cardiff Capital Region City Deal, the Swansea Bay City Deal, the North Wales Growth Deal and the Mid Wales Growth Deal. Meanwhile, under Welsh Labour business rates in Wales are now the highest of any part of the UK.

Welsh Labour has been given twenty-four years to transform the Welsh economy and failed. May 6, 2021 will be a key day in our history. We cannot afford what would be getting on for 30 years of uninterrupted Labour government. What makes this change particularly critical now is Brexit. Having failed so transparently to deliver in a context they passionately believed in, EU membership and massive EU regional aid, it does not bear thinking about how they will fare in a context about which they clearly remain deeply uncomfortable, notwithstanding the fact that the people of Wales voted for Brexit by a majority more than nine times greater than that to create the Welsh Assembly.

We now urgently need a Welsh Conservative administration in Cardiff Bay to work with the UK Government to drive up productivity and living standards and make the most of Brexit trade deals for all parts of the Welsh economy.