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.

Robert Halfon: This time round, let’s keep the schools open – and not risk an epidemic of education poverty

4 Nov

Now is the time to back Boris Johnson

However reluctantly, we need to back Boris on the lockdown.

Regular readers of my column will know that I have been no shrinking violet when it comes to recommending changes to Government policy. But on Covid, I think we have no option but to support the Prime Minister.

When the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), the Chief Scientific Adviser, Public Health England and independent modelling all suggest a huge rise in deaths and an overwhelmed NHS on the current national trajectory, what Government wouldn’t listen to that advice?

As we learned from the comfort of our sofas on Saturday evening, we could see, without action, up to twice as many deaths over the winter as we saw in the first wave – exceeding as many as 4,000 deaths per day.

In September, critics hounded Sir Patrick Vallance for saying that there could be 200 deaths a day from Covid by mid-November. In fact, we reached that figure much sooner, in late October, rising to 326 by 31 October.

Even if some predictions seem wildly high, would the leader of our country really be willing to risk it? Death cannot be reversed.

For those who question the statistics, read my colleague Neil O’Brien’s article on this site and his numerous tweets, explaining the data behind the decisions that are being made.

Of course, there are differing views about the science from the professionals involved – there always will be. But, at the end of the day, if you ignore advice from the top medical and science advisers appointed by the State to look after our health, what is the point in having such appointments in the first place?

Moreover, it is not as if Britain is unique in all this. Belgium, Italy, France and Germany faced a similar fate and have imposed tougher restrictions and lockdowns. Are the Government’s medical advisers in these countries, who are also dealing with a second wave, all wrong?

I just don’t think as a country we can afford to take the view that this is just the sniffles, as the Brazillian President has suggested. As for the comparisons with flu, we have an annual vaccine and significant herd immunity.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have preferred to keep the traffic light tier system as a compromise. I still think we should return to this system in a months’ time. There is real demand for the Government to publish much more data behind its decisions to close certain venues, alongside the impact of lockdown on the economy, livelihoods, poverty, mental and physical health. Apparent anomalies like not allowing pubs to serve takeaway drinks need to be answered.

In press conferences, the Government should do more to emphasise understanding of the devastation these decisions are causing small business owners, their employees and their families, and then set out (in good time) policies to mitigate against these consequences. The Prime Minister’s statement in the Commons on Monday, announcing additional support for businesses and the self-employed through November, was enormously welcome.

However, given that I am not a scientist nor an epidemiologist, if the CMO says that the situation is rapidly becoming much worse, and urgent action is needed, who am I to argue? I certainly don’t think I am an idiot for listening to what they have to say.

So we need to back Johnson at this time. The Government is walking a tightrope between destitution and death. Opposition to what the Prime Minister is doing in a national emergency sows confusion in the eyes of the public. It gives succour to political enemies – who can shout the loudest, without having to take life or death decisions.

Keep the schools open

Of course, more than ever, schools need to be safe for teachers, support staff, children and parents. It is absolutely right that teachers and support staff who are at risk – those who are vulnerable, or need to self-isolate – should be able to stay at home.

However, thank goodness the Chief Medical Officer and others have said that, even with the new restrictions, it is safe to keep schools open and vital for children, pupils and students.

Pointing to the “extensive evidence”, the Chief and Deputy Medical Officers across the UK reached the consensus that “there is an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19” – with the fatality rate being lower than seasonal flu. In their joint statement, they noted schools are also “not a common route of transmission”. Data from the ONS also suggests teachers are not at increased risk of dying from Covid-19 compared to the general working-age population.

During the last lockdown, around 2.3 million children did no home learning (or less than one hour per day), according to the UCL Institute of Education.

The Education Endowment Foundation estimated that the disadvantage attainment gap could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to school closures.

And just last week, a study reported in Schools Week found that Year Seven pupils are 22 months behind expectations in their writing ability. Disadvantaged students have inevitably suffered the greatest.

Scientific research has shown that it is safe to keep the schools open and that closing them would exacerbate issues relating to children’s mental health and wellbeing, safeguarding and academic attainment.

Throughout this pandemic, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has been a powerful advocate for keeping children in school – not only for their education, but mental health and safeguarding. In advance of the lockdown announcement she tweeted, “We’ve always said that schools should be the last to shut and first to open. It would be a disaster for children’s well-being and education if they were to close”. I doubt that the Children’s Commissioner would make such a statement if she thought there was significant risk to those in schools.

Even the Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, told Andrew Marr on Sunday that schools should remain open as we go into a second national lockdown, recognising that, “the harm caused to children by not being in school is huge”.

The Head of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, issued a response to the Prime Minister’s statement, saying: “It is right that keeping schools open should be the priority in the new national lockdown… Children only get one chance at education, and we have to do everything possible to provide continuity of learning.”

As Serge Cefai, Headteacher of the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Camberwell, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One on Monday: “Good schools and good teachers will always prioritise the needs of the children. And, of course, it’s a balancing act, but we need to understand that the harm in keeping children at home is huge… The idea that sending children home will stop the transmission is absolute nonsense”.

Daniel Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation – London’s biggest academy chain of 50 schools – said: “Young people have already lost a large chunk of their education and disadvantaged children have been damaged most. Aside from the loss of education, there is rising evidence of mental health and child protection issues under lockdown. The closure of schools would inflict more, probably irreparable, damage to those who can afford it least”.

So many heads, teachers and support staff are working day and night to keep our schools open. I’ve seen the extraordinary work they do in my own constituency of Harlow.

Other European countries imposing lockdowns have also decided to keep schools and colleges open. In Germany, for example, a conference of Ministers in October stressed that children’s right to an education is best served in the classroom, arguing: “This must take highest priority in making all decisions about restrictive measures that need to be taken”.

The Prime Minister has said that the Government is ramping up testing. Capacity is now at close to 520,000 tests per day. Schools have access to the Department for Education and Public Health England for sound advice and guidance.

To put it mildly, it is disappointing that the National Education Union would rather risk an epidemic of education poverty, rather than doing everything possible to keep our children learning.