Henry Hill: Frost’s call for joined-up UK crisis response highlights split on Union strategy

24 Feb

Wales Online has picked up on comments by David Frost calling for the Government to resume overall control of the UK’s response to crises such as the pandemic.

In a column for the Daily Telegraph, he says the Government must “rebuild the UK nation state as a collective endeavour for everyone within it”. He goes on:

“We should put an end to “devolve and forget” in Scotland and Wales. Local decision-making is fine, but it should come within a sensible national framework. The pandemic made clear the nonsense of having four different travel and public health policies.”

Naturally, being Wales Online, the paper follows up Frost’s comments with a strong shot of devocrat orthodoxy:

“In 1999 the people of Wales voted narrowly in a referendum to start directly managing many of their own affairs. In 2011, a far larger percentage of Wales voted to extend these powers to the Welsh Parliament (then called the Assembly). In last year’s Welsh Parliamentary elections anti devolution parties were wiped out and Labour won a working majority on a massively pro devolution agenda.”

So let’s provide a bit of context: in 1997 (yes, they got the year wrong), the people of Wales voted for devolution by the narrowest of margins, after New Labour deliberately held the vote a week after the Scottish one and a campaign which was later strongly criticised by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which said:

“We were disturbed, in particular, by the evidence we heard in Cardiff to the effect that the referendum campaign in Wales in 1997 was very one-sided, with the last-minute No organisation seriously under-funded and having to rely for financial support essentially on a single wealthy donor. The outcome of the Welsh referendum was extremely close, and a fairer campaign might well have resulted in a different outcome.”

After that, just 35 per cent of voters turned out in the referendum on further powers in 2011, and then the devocrats demanded tax powers (which weren’t covered by the 2011 proposals) without a further referendum, because they didn’t think Welsh people would vote for them. Turnout for devolved elections has yet to top 50 per cent (and devosceptic voters don’t vote), and abolition continues to outpoll independence (not that you’d know from the media coverage).

It’s always important to remember that even in Scotland, more voters turn out for Westminster than devolved elections, and there was no public backlash when the Government passed the UK Internal Market Act. Voters are not nearly as invested in the prerogatives of the devocrat class as that class would like people to believe.

This means there is a lot of scope for the Government to pick and win lots of important battles on constitutional detail, such as control of the census, without the public perceiving the sort of head-on ‘assault on devolution’ that might actually spur a wave of sympathy for the administrations in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay.

Unfortunately, according to Whitehall sources senior people setting the Government’s pro-Union strategy are transfixed by polling which shows voters prefer, in the abstract, cooperation between Westminster and the devolved administrations rather than confrontation. Hence the clashes over things such as legislative consent motions which I reported last month.

Ministers need to be smarter than that. Headline “people prefer nice things to nasty things” polling must always be weighed against how likely voters are to care about, or even notice, a particular detailed issue. The alternative is letting the devocrats, always ready to be outraged, lead the constitution by the nose.

Adrian Mason: Wales needs real devolution. Not Cardiff Bay giving orders.

27 May

Adrian Mason is a lawyer and a former Deputy Chair Political of the North Wales Conservatives.

Congratulations to the Conservative candidates in Wales who have secured the most seats ever for the party in the Welsh Senedd – and an all-time high in the number of votes cast since devolution began in 1999.

However, the very real possibility is that these very respectable results may turn out to be the high-water mark for the Conservatives in Wales.

So, the plain question has to be asked: where has it got us?

Despite the immense hard work put into the Conservative election campaign, Wales is still trapped in a socialist orbit. Nothing has changed, and we now face another five years of Labour government. That is the way it has been since devolution was implemented 22 years ago, and unless something extraordinary happens, it is likely to be the position forever. That is the reality we face.

The Welsh Labour Party has its power base in the South Wales valleys. There are 25 constituencies confined within a small geographical area in south east Wales, broadly contained in the boundaries of the old county of Glamorgan. They are former mining and steel communities. No crumbling ‘red wall’ there, and any chance that they can be turned blue in our lifetimes is for the birds. All a party needs to achieve a majority in the Senedd is 31 seats, a mountain as high as Snowdon for the Conservatives to climb. So far, we are halfway up – but the path may have run out!

This leaves the whole of Wales subject to a socialist government that has little interest in anything other than in bolstering its own position with its core voters.

‘Devolution’ is defined by Oxford Languages as:

‘”The transfer or delegation of power to a lower level, especially by central government to a local or regional administration.”

Whilst power has been ceded by Westminster to Cardiff Bay in specific areas under the Government of Wales Act 2006, that is where devolution stops. For it to be true and effective devolution, powers should be further delegated to local authority level, allowing local decision-making in much the same way as is developing in England.

We have seven Conservative Members of the Westminster Parliament in North Wales, but their influence compared to English colleagues is diminished in such important areas as health, education, and social care, where they have no vote. Our elected Members in the Senedd, though increased in number, are still in a significant minority, and with the best will in the world, their voices will remain mute for all practical purposes.

As a member of Boris Johnson’s leadership election team in Wales, I organised an event for the now Prime Minister to address the faithful here in the North. He was left in no doubt about the strength of feeling by local people that devolution is not working for us. The people who attended that meeting will be watching carefully, expecting their voices to have been heard. In that regards, there are some positive signs.

The decision of the UK Government to facilitate the direct funding of new infrastructure developments within the devolved nations and regions is commendable. It means that, for the first time since devolution started, local authorities will receive money directly from Westminster in the form of the Levelling Up Fund, to invest £4.8 billion in high-value local infrastructure.

This money is available to all areas of the UK and its prospectus states that it is:

“Designed to help local areas select genuine local priorities for investment by putting local stakeholder support, including the local MP where they want to be involved, at the heart of its mission.”

As a consequence, Sarah Atherton, the Conservative MP for Wrexham, has been working on bids with Wrexham County Borough Council with its ‘Wrexham Gateway Project’. She is also engaging with a number of community groups to apply for the Community Ownership Fund. Former Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones of Clwyd West, is also actively involved with his local authorities formulating bids. The story is the same with all our Conservative Members across the region.

By facilitating direct bids to the Treasury, the scheme allows local people headed by our Conservative MPs to prioritise money for local issues. That is real devolution. It is great news for North Wales.

In another positive development, Westminster will be able to fund projects under the Shared Prosperity Fund to be launched in 2022. This source of funding has been designed to replace the EU Structural Fund.

There are, however, important differences. Firstly, taxpayers will receive all the funding, not having it ‘top-sliced’ by the EU and, crucially, it will be available directly from Westminster. Again, this is excellent news for local interests here in North Wales. It will allow local authorities to select their own priorities without having it blocked for political reasons by the Welsh Labour Government.

Although the political outlook in Wales remains discouraging for Conservatives, notwithstanding the good results last week, initiatives such as the Levelling Up Fund and Shared Prosperity Fund gives those of us in the North some independence from Cardiff Bay and allow our elected MPs to influence the direction of travel.

Despite the howls of objections raised by Labour politicians in Cardiff, funding by Westminster is not a threat to devolution; it actually enhances it through the principle of local decision-making. Opposition by the Welsh Government to direct funding by Westminster is more to do with politics than economics. If they really believed in disseminating powers to local level, rather than hoarding them for themselves, then they would be supporting and encouraging of these initiatives. Alas, this is not their modus operandi – as the last 22 years has aptly demonstrated.

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.

Ant Pickles: Why a coalition between the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru isn’t going to happen

30 Mar

Ant Pickles is co-author of State of the Union and a trustee of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

With little over five weeks to go until elections in Wales, the possible result is far from clear given the tightest polls since devolution began.

Welsh Labour’s political dominance over Wales has lasted over a hundred years, and might be beginning to slip. A recent poll showed that they could fall well short of a majority, and some have suggested this could be an opportunity for the Welsh Conservatives (projected to get a possible 19 seats) to form a coalition with Plaid Cymru.

That’s simply not going to happen. For a start, both sides have ruled it out in very stark terms.

The closest deal done between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives was in 2007, but that also included the Lib Dems, who at the time dashed the proposal with their conference failing to back it.

That deal was about pursuing a non-Labour option for Wales. But today the political culture, atmosphere, and rhetoric is a world away. Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru has said there are ‘no circumstances’ under which he would consider a coalition.

Humour the idea of any coalition and the terms would be undesirable to Welsh Tories to say the least. For a start Price, who has an almost deity-like following amongst his most hardcore fans, simply couldn’t tarnish his own credentials by supporting a Welsh Conservative first minister.

Secondly, the Conservatives are now the only full throated pro-unionist party left in Wales as Welsh Labour flirts with ‘home rule’ and even independence, so the idea that a referendum or moves in that direction could be accepted by beef-farming Andrew RT Davies is about as likely as him becoming a vegan.

However, let’s say the shock result happens. Labour are left well short of a majority, and Plaid Cymru decide that it simply can’t abide by a further five years of Labour rule. What would a programme for government be? Plaid Cymru wants another referendum on the EU, many want drugs legalised, they are against nuclear power and want the Senedd to have a ‘veto’ on foreign policy.

Just about the only issues of agreement are the idea of a development bank and an agency for inward investment. The makings of a programme for government, it isn’t.

The other reality is Welsh Labour will most likely be the biggest party, even were this poll to become a reality. They might try and govern as a minority, but they’d have to achieve confidence and supply through other parties – and the most obvious is Plaid Cymru. When Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, said last month that ‘the United Kingdom is over’ it almost felt like coalition talks had already begun in open forum. His own ministers have spoken of ‘welcoming the debate on independence’ and that the ‘Union fails Wales’.

But could the condition for a Plaid-Lab deal be calls for a referendum? Yesterday Drakeford said for a referendum to happen, Plaid would need to win a majority, but with support within Welsh Labour growing in the direction of independence, it might well be their price worth paying. That would be a big wake up call for not only Labour HQ but Whitehall too.

The Welsh Conservatives meanwhile can see that there’s a gap that’s been vacated by Welsh Labour on core values of identity as the online culture wars have swayed many on the left. Being Welsh and British, tapping into region investment inequality, and campaigning in plain language are all issues that have made some voters ponder their vote for the first time.

Add to this the most important point: the pandemic has created unprecedented focus on devolution and who makes decisions and where. This election is the first test of voters’ feelings about the pandemic, and surprise polls could be just the start of things to come.

But should the poll published this week come to fruition, don’t expect a Plaid-Tory coalition, it simply isn’t happening.

Even by Welsh Labour’s standards, Drakeford’s decision to slow the vaccine rollout is abysmal

19 Jan

Ever since efforts to maintain a ‘four-nation’ approach to Covid-19 first broke down over the summer, the pandemic has been a crash course in devolution for those who hadn’t been following the constitutional debate.

Although Scotland tends to get more attention, both because the stakes are higher and because of the extraordinary drama playing out between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, Wales has provided plenty of eye-opening examples of devocrat governance in action.

Early in the pandemic, Conservatives attacked the Welsh Government after it opted out of Westminster’s initiatives to ensure food deliveries to high-priority individuals and recruit and coordinate volunteers via the ‘GoodSAM’ app. Later the nation was treated to the absurd sight of Welsh supermarkets having to fence off isles of ‘non-essential’ goods in order to avoid “unfair competition” with other shops.

Yet none of that is as bizarre as Mark Drakeford’s decision to deliberately slow the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine in the Principality. This will leave vulnerable people needlessly unprotected – just to make sure that his vaccinators aren’t left with nothing to do until the next shipment comes in.

The First Minister faces a fierce backlash, and rightly so. Even Plaid Cymru, who have until now been generally supportive of the Welsh Government, have gone on the attack. But it remains to be seen if any of that will make a difference.

Like the SNP, Labour in Wales have yet to squander the initial ‘rally round the flag’ surge in popular goodwill from the start of the crisis, and in both Edinburgh and Cardiff the government’s popular support seems remarkably immune from day-to-day misgovernment. Whilst the most recent polls suggest a slight narrowing in their support there is nothing resembling an alternative administration to be seen, as the Welsh Conservatives are unlikely to risk striking a deal with the Nationalists for fear of turbo-charging the rise of Abolish the Assembly, who are on track for two seats.

Henry Hill: Johnson may have just broken a devolutionary spell two decades in the weaving

19 Nov

As I noted earlier this week, the clearest evidence that Boris Johnson was on to something with his remarks about devolution having been a disaster is the response of his critics – especially his Tory critics.

Nowhere to be found were any paeans to devolution actually being a success. Instead, the new devolutionary defence is to claim that the problem isn’t the constitutional settlement itself, but merely the people currently in charge of it. If only the Conservatives could take over the reins then all would be well.

This is what the young people call a ‘cope’, and not just because the odds of the Tories taking office in either Edinburgh or Cardiff are currently very long indeed. It also overlooks the fact that devolution has managed to deliver the same toxic combination of bad governance and diminished Britishness in three very different sets of political distance: the intended hegemony of a ‘unionist’ Labour Party in Wales; the unexpected dominance by separatists in Scotland; and mandatory deadlock in Northern Ireland.

Of course, the Prime Minister has immediately rowed back from his remarks and tried to take the ‘blame the SNP’ line. But one suspects that this is a grenade he won’t be able to un-throw.

An undercurrent of devosceptic sentiment has been bubbling up inside unionism for some time now. Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, felt compelled to hit out at colleagues who think devolution has opened a ‘Pandora’s Box’ before Johnson dropped his bombshell. In Wales, where the Tories face a challenge from an explicitly anti-devolution party which looks set to enter the Senedd next year, the issue is fuelling what could become a proper rift between the grassroots and the leadership.

Whilst there hasn’t yet been any proper study of this change in attitudes, two possible drivers suggest themselves.

First, devolution hasn’t ‘worked’ as a pro-UK strategy. There are plenty of people who support it for its own sake, but the whole project was sold to sceptical unionists on the promise that it would “kill nationalism stone dead”. It obviously didn’t, and every subsequent one-more-heave concession of powers has sapped the credibility of devolutionary unionism as the separatists have got stronger and stronger.

Second, more unionists are waking up to the fact that there is more to their beliefs than merely the continued existence of anything calling itself ‘the UK’. They are unenthused, to put it mildly, at the prospect of going into another referendum defending a ‘radical’ or ‘federalist’ blueprint which turns the country into a ramshackle confederation, squeezing out what remains of the British political community in favour of horse trading between the Home Nations.

The pro-devolution consensus on the pro-UK side is broad, but fragile. It is to a great extent the product of preference falsification, wherein people with a dissident view pretend not to hold it and thus reinforce the illusion that they’re on their own (a good explanation of the dynamic is in this piece). Few of the activists and none of the politicians who have ever agreed in private with the arguments I’ve advanced in this column over the years (and there are enough) have aired such views in public. Enduring anti-devolution sentiment amongst the electorate is actually pretty remarkable when one considers that for the most part this attitude has been unrepresented in politics, think-tanks, or the media since the 1990s.

Which is why I said that the Prime Minister has just “has broken a spell more than two decades in the weaving”. Retracted or not, his comments will embolden people who share his view. And if they start speaking out, they will realise that they are less alone than they supposed. They may even think that if they organise, and start actually making the devosceptic case, it isn’t impossible that it might have an impact on public opinion (the same way pro-independence campaigning does).

All of this will horrify those drawing up plans to fight an imminent re-run of the 2014 referendum, and rightly so. It is quite possible to be very unhelpfully right, and if winning a vote in the near future requires selling the promise of a pseudo-federal dreamland then the very last thing needed is Johnson absent-mindedly prescribing constitutional red pills.

But if that is what it takes to win a near-future referendum, that is simply strong grounds for not holding one. It is all very well for the Prime Minister to have set up a new ‘Union task force’ to make the “social and cultural case for the UK”, but he must recognise that such policies will need the generational breathing-space unionism won in 2014 to have time to work. The case for the Union rests on utility and identity. Neither can be fixed overnight.

James Evans: Welsh Conservatives need candidates who aren’t the “usual suspects” – we need genuine diversity

23 Oct

Cllr James Evans is the Cabinet Member for Economy, Housing and Regulatory Services on Powys County Council.

As we go into the 2021 Senedd elections, the Welsh Conservative Party has what is possibly its best opportunity to date to gain seats in places we have never thought possible and to form the first Welsh Conservative Government.

Paul Davies has set out a vision that a Welsh Conservative Government will create a devolution revolution and, as Boris put it, “clear out the nostrils of the Welsh dragon”. With new & fresh vibrant policies that are Wales-centred and which will change Wales for the better, ending over 20 years of Welsh Labour and Liberal Democrat neglect of our country.

In the 2019 General Election, we saw people in their droves voting for us for the first time. Undoubtedly, Brexit and the Corbyn effect helped us gain the 80 seat majority. The Boris influence was a factor and that will no doubt also impact on the 2021 elections.

If we want to win a majority in the Senedd, we need to relate to voters and that means picking candidates who aren’t necessarily the “usual Tories”.

We made some of the biggest gains in 2019 in constituencies with candidates with strong local connections, or candidates from a blue collar/business background who related to voters. Candidates who offer something different, real life experiences. For example, Sarah Atherton who was a social worker and served in our armed forces. Dr James Davies, who still works in the NHS and Virginia Crosbie, who worked in banking and then retrained into teaching Maths. These candidates have real life experience and can relate to voters and this is something we need to build on going forward.

If we want to win enough seats to deliver our policy platform in 2021, associations must select from a wide range of candidates who are ‘real’ and can relate to people, who have life experiences and skills to bring to their communities and the Senedd. In my honest opinion, in recent times we have moved too far away from the working / middle class ordinary business owner candidate and have been too focussed on ex-special adviser or lobbyist candidates who have spent most of their working life in politics or lobbying politicians and have little experience outside the political bubble. Candidates should be selected on ability and merit and not as a reward for services to the party or to fill a quota or based on who they have previously worked for.

I am not suggesting for one minute that those candidates shouldn’t be considered or that they do not have something to bring to the table. Their experience of negotiating political issues and their experience of political workings is a bonus. However, we need, as a party, to encourage more diverse candidates; we need to ensure those who don’t come from those backgrounds feel they have an equal chance of selection and are equally worthy. Selecting those with less career political experience and encouraging and selecting more of those with a proven private sector or front line experience should be a priority for the party if we want to govern in Wales.

When I attended my Parliamentary Assessment Board and my Welsh Assembly Assessment, I was amazed by the amount of ex special advisers, lobbyists and graduates who were attending and there was only a small handful of people who come from private business, blue collar jobs, or people who did not attend higher education, or, as I see it, people who have experience in the real world outside of politics.

When I speak to other candidates from the private sector, from business or blue collar backgrounds who haven’t ‘grown up’ in the political bubble, they feel sometimes not as good as others who have a politics degree or have the experience of working in Westminster and Cardiff. The failure to select people with skills and abilities outside of the bubble simply weakens us, at a time when we should be at our strongest.

What I want in a candidate is someone who can walk into a hospital, small businesses, building site, or a livestock market, and communicate with people, empathise and have a genuine understanding of their needs, the work they do, and understand the issues they face on a day to day basis. I don’t believe having a degree or a political background makes you a better candidate. For me its someone who can have the down to earth honest conversation that people and members want and actually support their community and resolve issues instead of talking the good talk during a selection meeting and using the old buzz words of I will “fight” “strain every sinew”; then get selected and don’t follow through on their promises.

2021 is the best chance the Welsh Conservatives have to secure a working government in Cardiff Bay in more than 20 years. To achieve that, we need a strong group of candidates who aren’t the ‘usual suspects’ and made up from a wide variety of people from different backgrounds and experiences – to ensure that the best policies are developed that work for all the people of Wales. These are the people who broke the red wall in 2019.

Roger Evans: Wales could be a land of opportunity for prospective Conservative politicians

25 Sep

Roger Evans is a former barrister and Deputy Mayor of London under Boris Johnson.  A much-in-demand public speaking coach, he has unrivalled experience in candidate coaching and mentoring.

It isn’t just the keen eyed reader of the property sections who should be looking west to Wales. The Principality provides an unrivalled opportunity for Conservative candidates too.

The last 20 years has been turbulent for the Welsh Conservatives. Back in 1997 the party effectively ceased to exist at Westminster, having suffered a complete wipe-out in the polls. Since then, Welsh Conservatism has rebounded with remarkable strength. Keen observers of the last general election will have spotted how the once insurmountable bastion of Welsh Labour has started to crack.

This week has seen yet another Welsh Barometer opinion poll putting the conservatives in strong contention for next year’s Welsh Parliament elections. On this poll and the others before it, the Conservatives are set to make substantial gains across Wales. However, the Welsh Conservatives have so far selected very few candidates – even sitting Welsh Parliament members have yet to be re-adopted.

The Welsh Party review, Building on Success, Strengthening the Welsh Conservative Party, makes it clear that the candidate’s process is going to re-start with a new Welsh Candidates list. CCHQ in London is taking over the process of candidate approval, with a view to making the Welsh Conservatives more diverse and the candidate process more similar to that used for Westminster. With the elections looming, the Covid-paused candidate selection process is set to be re-opened ahead of Christmas.

The review stresses that they are keen to have candidates with a strong Welsh link. For those with such a connection over the border in England, Wales could be a land of opportunity. With no equivalent elections in 2021 save for Scotland and London, it will be a long wait until the next General Election.

Welsh Parliament seats largely follow the boundaries of their Westminster counterparts, and the crown jewels of Welsh opportunities are all still up for grabs, including such Westminster-held seats as Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire to the Vale of Glamorgan. Many of these seats saw a huge rise in the Conservative vote in 2019.  Added to this, there are the six seats the Conservatives took in North Wales at Westminster last year up for grabs too.

The even better news for aspiring candidates is that the Welsh Parliament uses the additional member system, meaning that there are even more opportunities on the top-up list. The polls currently indicate that the Welsh Conservatives will make strong gains here.

As the London Assembly has demonstrated, a career started in regional government is increasingly a pathway to senior ministerial office. The London Assembly has cultivated Ministers including Kemi Badenoch, James Cleverly, and Kit Malthouse. Wales’ Cardiff Bay Parliament boasts far greater powers than the London Assembly has.  Huge swathes of public policy are now dealt with in Cardiff, from health to planning.

Moreover, at their present rate of growth it is only a matter of time before the Conservatives lead a Welsh Government. Could this be the election where we see Paul Davies as Welsh First Minister?  We’ll know by early May next year. One thing is for sure, candidates at this Welsh Parliament election may well go on to serve in a Welsh Government.

If you are interested in discussing your political career, then contact me.

Adrian Mason: Welsh disillusionment with devolution gives the Conservatives an opportunity

19 Aug

Adrian Mason is the Deputy Chairman (Political) of the North Wales Conservatives.

Imagine forming a new single-issue political party. In the first election, you field no constituency candidates and you do not produce any election material to promote your cause. Would it surprise you to then receive a quarter of the votes in some regions in the first election you enter? Of course, it would, but that is exactly what happened in North Wales during the Assembly Campaign in 2016. The Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party did just that, picking up 44,286 votes overall, not that far behind the Liberal Democrats! Incredible, well yes, but not if you put matters in perspective. Devolution in Wales has never been as popular a concept as in Scotland. In fact, anecdotal evidence from the doorsteps in the 2019 General Election campaign showed that even after 20 years of devolved Welsh Government, many people were not aware that the Welsh Assembly (now grandly renamed ‘Parliament’) is responsible for health, education, and other important areas affecting daily life.

Then along came Covid 19 and everything should now have changed.

The pandemic has opened the eyes of many here in Wales with regard to devolution and the powers conferred upon the Welsh Labour Government to diverge from Westminster. Over recent months the public has seen Wales taking a different path out of lockdown, often – seemingly deliberately – lagging behind England. It has left people feeling bewildered. Whilst many people in Wales looked to the Prime Minister’s guidance, it has come as a wake-up call to learn that even though many voted Conservative in the General Election – on a significantly larger turnout than at any Assembly election – and we have a Conservative UK Government with 14 Welsh Conservative MPs; vital decisions affecting our everyday lives now reside in Cardiff with a Labour administration.

The public indifference to the Welsh Parliament shown by many just last December has now hopefully evaporated. It should be crystal clear that devolution in Wales has made a seismic difference to how we are governed. This then presents an opportunity for the Conservative Party in Wales at next year’s Welsh Parliament elections.

In votes gone by, many Welsh electors have simply blamed Westminster for the ills of the Welsh NHS, where, in 2018, 3.4 per cent of patients waited more than 12 hours in A&E compared to 1.3 per cent in England, despite receiving more per head funding. Then we have the bottom of the class education system. Recent PISA statistics published in December 2019 show Wales still lags behind the other UK nations in maths, literacy, and science. These statistics provide an open goal for the Conservative Party. Welsh Labour have been content to allow the electorate to believe that their own failings were the failings of the Conservatives, and even in the 2019 General Election campaign some of their candidates were being disingenuous about this.

It is not just health and education that the Welsh Labour Government controls in Wales. They also have the power to vary the basic rate of income tax, given to them under provisions of the Wales Act 2017, wrong-headedly amending the Wales Act 2014 which provided that a referendum was required before tax varying powers could be granted. Sadly, this amendment to the devolution settlement, denying the people of Wales a vote on such an important issue, was enacted by a Conservative Government.

So, what do you get if you give a socialist government tax-raising powers? You get higher taxes, and this is exactly what will happen here in Wales. Taxpayers will be paying a premium to sustain Welsh Labour’s profligate spending and inferior public services. It will hold little value either for many parts of Wales as Labour looks to satisfy its core voters in the south-east.

The Conservative Party in Wales not only has to overcome voter apathy, it needs to make a positive case for devolution. The latter may be the solution to the former, but unfortunately, neither objective is in sight. A recent Survation poll carried out by the Centre for Welsh Studies saw the Conservatives in Wales trailing Labour by 14 per cent. In order to win power, the Conservatives need to provide a clear vision of how much better life would be in Wales under a Conservative Government.

It is not just a case of attacking Labour’s atrocious record over the last 20 years. The Party needs to set out exactly why life will be improved under a Conservative administration. You would expect such things as rolling back the State, a low tax, business-minded environment, encouraging international companies to set up base here. We need policies that promote excellence in health and education and investment in our agricultural sector, to promote our tourist industry and taking advantage of the fantastic opportunities that await us outside the EU. We need to set out a clear blue divide between the Wales of today and the Wales of tomorrow.

Only by painting an optimistic picture will the Conservative Party be able to win over the voters of Wales. Even those who voted Conservative in the General Election are more hesitant to vote for the Conservatives in Welsh Parliament elections. People though are genuinely tired of Welsh Labour and are looking for an alternative. They won’t find it with the nationalist Plaid Cymru with its narrow view of the world and they will not find it with a Party wishing to abolish the Welsh Parliament, which, like it or not, it is here to stay. The Conservatives are the only realistic alternative. However, unless something changes dramatically and quickly, we are likely to see another five years of Labour. This would be a tragedy for Wales.

The Conservative Party in Wales needs to analyse why so many people voted to abolish the Assembly last time around. A vote to abolish is a damning rejection of the status quo. These voters have been alienated and see the whole devolution project as not fit for purpose. The Conservatives need to promote policies that will give these people back hope that devolution, in sensible hands, can be a force of good. That is now the challenge for our Party in Wales. Failure to do so will see more people deserting the Conservative cause in Wales and either abstaining in next year’s election or lending further support to the abolitionists.

Laura Anne Jones: Wales’ 20 year devolution process must be parked

14 Aug

Laura Anne Jones is a Member of the Welsh Parliament for South Wales East

Eisenhower famously warned of the dangers of the extremes in an argument on both left and right. His comments related to social security and employment protections for workers rather than the constitutional intricacies of Welsh devolution, but it remains a point well made about the appeal of movements on the political fringes in difficult times.

We now know officially that we are in a recession of unprecedented severity. If we thought the 2008 crash cast a long shadow in terms of economic repair and austerity, the economic recovery from Covid-19 is on another level. Past global recessions have resulted in a rise in popularism on both the left and right, seeking to take advantage of a crisis, comparing luscious green grass to the malaise of the status quo.

The latest Welsh Barometer Poll registered a rise in support for the abolition of the Assembly by five per cent to 22 per cent and a rise of two per cent in support for independence to 16 per cent – still one of the least popular options behind an enhanced Senedd (20 per cent) and the most popular outcome, the status quo at 24 per cent.

The Coronavirus pandemic has put relations between the UK and devolved governments under strain, but also exposed the desire of devolved administrations to assert their authority by taking a different approach or timeline. Even when the devolved administrations make the same decisions, they have to be given a different name. Just like England, Wales has bubbles, but they can’t be called bubbles and instead are known as extended households.

The scale of the resulting economic devastation from Coronavirus remains unclear, but polls are already detecting movement towards the extremes in the constitutional argument – abolition and independence.

I don’t believe either option will ever win the support of a majority of the electorate. In fact, polling consistently demonstrates strong support for devolution but that support is not blind or unquestioning. While there have been positive changes delivered in the past 20 years such as presumed consent, the carrier bag levy, free bus passes and the 50:50 gender balance in 2003 in which I was proud to play a part.

However, in 20 years, the public would rightly expect more. Welsh Government Ministers have accepted that they failed to deliver what the public really want which is a more dynamic and prosperous economy and higher standards in public services. Successive ministers have conceded they ‘took their eye off the ball’ on education for at least the first decade and 20 years into devolution admitted they ‘don’t really know what they’re doing on the economy’.

While these are Labour’s failings and not those of the institution, it does make it harder to make the case to maintain the current devolution settlement. The institution is still young and must continually prove its relevance and the difference it can make to people’s lives. Paul Davies put it very succinctly in his speech to the Welsh Conservative Party conference earlier this year:

“We have the powers, we have the funding, it’s time to stop marking the pitch and actually start playing the game.”

While I make the case for the preservation of devolution in Wales, it’s a fact that I voted No in the referendum on further powers in 2011. I hadn’t been heavily involved in the referendum – one of the very few public ballots that I hadn’t put my heart into in the last 25 years. My firstborn was just turning one, but more than that the referendum just didn’t inspire me. The referendum was an obscure choice between two different means of primary law-making for the National Assembly, with both outcomes, Yes and No, resulting in more powers being devolved to Cardiff Bay. It was the ultimate establishment stitch-up. A far more meaningful referendum would have been on whether the Assembly gained tax-varying powers – it was a sufficiently important distinction for Scotland to have a referendum question on it. Except the establishment knew such a referendum would not be won, so instead the people of Wales were given an obscure question with two choices, which eventually would have the same outcome – more powers for the Assembly.

Now, albeit without a mandate from the people, the Welsh Parliament does have quite significant tax-varying powers. These are additional levers that can be used to make the Welsh economy more competitive and dynamic – as long as they’re pulled the right way. With primary law-making powers across a wide range of policy areas and key taxation levers, there’s now very little scope to blame Westminster governments for not giving the Welsh Government enough money. The levers and the accountability lie here. There are no more excuses for a failure to deliver.

Last month saw Plaid Cymru initiate the first-ever debate in the Senedd about Welsh independence, although it feels like Welsh politics has debated little other than the constitution in the last 20 years. While I was returned to the Senedd in the most tragic of circumstances, I want to make a contribution in policy areas that are important to the people I represent – the NHS, schools, the environment, agriculture and poverty – and I’m afraid the constitution ranks pretty lowly. I hope the current devolution settlement can bed in over the next five years so Senedd Members can focus on how to use those powers to improve the economy and public services rather than demanding more. I don’t want to see any more powers devolved to Cardiff Bay in the next few years, not because of any opposition to devolution, but because devolution needs to mature and make better use of the considerable tools at its disposal. We need to end our obsession with constitutional tinkering and stop using the constitution as an excuse for failure and mediocrity.

I know Ron Davies described devolution as a process not an event, but it’s a process which sometimes feels never-ending and which consumes so much time and energy, there’s little left for the things that really matter, like schools, hospitals and the economy.

There is a very real risk that the third decade of devolution could be consumed by more constitutional debates and detract attention away from the monumental task of making Wales a wealthier nation – something the first two decades of devolution have completely failed to achieve.

I passionately want to see that healthier, wealthier and more aspirational nation. I believe we can only achieve those goals with change – and Wales desperately needs radical change. A Welsh Conservative Government led by Paul Davies could deliver that change – a revolution in devolution, transforming government in Wales as opposed to five more years of the same. But whoever is in power from 2021, the opportunities for real change in our society can only be secured if depart from the constant constitutional tinkering. Now is not the time to lurch in the direction of either extreme, be it independence or abolition. Now is the time to steady the ship and embark on more ambitious destinations. Because that’s our best chance at securing change.