The Welsh Conservatives face a unique challenge next year. Not only are we seeking to break the chains of decades of one-party rule from Welsh Labour, but also a threat to the very existence of the Welsh Parliament writes Sam Hall.
To win, we must not only highlight the failures of Welsh Labour, but also speak to the disaffected voters who feel that devolution has not worked for them and cannot. After the deep divisions caused by Brexit, Wales does not need another ongoing constitutional debate regarding the very future of its Parliament created less than a generation ago. If the Scottish Parliament is any precedent to use, debates around constitutional issues will shroud the very successes and failures of the Parliament. In an era when Welsh Labour have again and again snubbed their voters by taking them for granted, we cannot afford to let such a question be used as another smoke screen. Together a better Wales is possible.
Coming from a right-of centre perspective, it is easy to understand the frustrations of those who want to get rid of the Senedd and are angry at devolution more generally. So far, we have failed to install anything other than a Welsh Labour Government in the Welsh Parliament. But I would caution against any rash action to abolish it. This cuts down to the core purposes of what devolution should be all about. It gives the people of Wales another option to look at what kind of government policies come from Westminster and choose a Welsh government that accepts those policies or tries to mitigate the impacts of them. I might not like the fact that so far, the Welsh Conservatives have yet to form a government in Cardiff- but that’s democracy! As much as we might debate what policies a specifically Welsh government might pursue, it should be a non-issue that there should be a Welsh government in the first place. In a similar way, we might debate what the impacts of Brexit might be for Wales but we cannot argue that Wales will not leave because Wales that’s what Wales voted for. I should also add that as all government have their day, just as Welsh Labour will one-day in Cardiff, so too might the Conservatives have theirs in Westminster. Provisionally there might be a future where it is Labour policy from central government that is handed to Wales that we would then have a chance to mitigate it and offer something different. I would allege then, that in the event of a centre-right government in Wales, right-of-centre arguments against devolution might mysteriously disappear. Whatever comes next, we should be reassured that we will have a second chance to mitigate it or accept it. That having been said, in the same spirit as the EU referendum, the Welsh Conservatives must be open to hearing how the views of the people of Wales have changed over a generation. Both the EU referendum and the referendum to establish the Senedd, however marginal, were indeed a once in a generation event. The Welsh Parliament has not had its generation to judge it by. We cannot choose which referendums we respect and which ones we do not. For the time being, the Welsh Parliament is here to stay. The grievances that people might have against it are often conflated with the failures of Welsh Labour to deliver better services than Westminster could otherwise provide.
Welsh Labour have so far been the only custodians of the comparatively new Welsh Parliament and at a basic level, that meant that one of their main jobs has been to legitimise it in the eyes of the people it serves. In a recent poll, 14% support abolishing it all together. How have Welsh Labour managed to fall so short of the mark? As early as 2002, the then Plaid Cymru leader accused Welsh Labour of running the Assembly (as it was then called) ‘like a county council’. This has had some very worrying implications for health. The Guardian notes than ‘A Welsh patient waited 100 days longer on average for a hip operation than an English or Scottish patient in 2012-13.”. Let us remind ourselves that this is more than a decade after the Welsh Parliament began. More recent failures have highlighted how out of touch Welsh Labour are with the people of Wales. In a recent article, the Deputy Chairman of the Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire Conservative Association, Charlie Evans, pointed out that 5 mile rule meant that hypothetically you could drive 20 miles to purchase a wheelbarrow…but not visit your parents for a cup of tea if they lived 6 miles away. The cruel 5-mile rule was feasible in the built-up areas in the South, but in rural parts of North and Mid Wales…not so much. Having failed to legitimise the Senedd, having failed to deliver a healthier Wales, and having failed to understand our rural communities, its understandable why many are thinking of giving up on the project all together. However, I still believe there is a strong case to be made for the continuation of the Senedd Cymru as a means of giving Wales a well-deserved voice, respecting its existence as a separate entity within the United Kingdom, and allowing its people to mitigate or accept central government policy. It is easy to see why Welsh Labour and its failures are so synonymous with what many perceive to be the failures of the entire project. But to those who would rather abolish than persevere, rather give up than give it a chance, I implore you to give us a chance. If the Welsh Conservatives cannot deliver after decades of lacklustre under-delivery from Welsh Labour, then serious consideration to the argument for Abolish may be given. What then, could a Welsh Conservative government do differently? How could we unlock the potential of Wales? Below, I suggest some key measures.
Firstly, we should be more vocal about protecting local businesses and local high streets. Local means it has not been shipped from the far side of the earth at a detriment to our planet. Local means that you know who specifically you are supporting to help put food on the table. Local means arresting the decline of our high street. A great step towards this would be to limit the spread of larger physical businesses premises into our towns and villages. In Aberystwyth for example, we have not just a large Tesco but also an M&S food hall, a Lidl, an Iceland and a large Morrisons store a little way out of town. Not to mention the ‘little’ Tesco and the two Spars at different ends of the main street. In this context it seems unnecessary to add an Aldi to the mix- but that is exactly what is happening. Nearby to the other German discount store no less. I am all for a mix of businesses that offer affordability at one end of the spectrum as well as premium at the other. But I cannot help but think that this will be another nail in the coffin for our high street in Aberystwyth, turning it into a resemblance of many up and down the UK. Under the Wales Act 2017, the Senedd Cymru does have the power to set business rates. Favourable business rates for smaller, locally owned companies would be a welcome break as their ability to pay them is considerably less than the larger chains. Applying business rates to online sales would be another, further step that a Welsh Conservative Government could take to avoid our local highstreets going the same as any other.
Secondly, we should upgrade and invest in our transport infrastructure. Nowhere is this more apparent that the Aberystwyth to Carmarthen line which has been shut since 1965. A recent study found that it would cost £775 million to build but as a result a currently 6-hour journey would be cut to just 90 minutes. There are politicians representing English constituencies up in arms about the billions being spent on HS2. Meanwhile after decades of the Welsh Parliament, we apparently cannot find less than £1 billion. Let’s get it built and break the Cardiff Bay bubble. This comes in the context of the wider debate of environmental policy. The cut off date for new petrol diesel, and hybrid cars is 2035. Back in 2018, Peter Shuttleworth , writing for BBC Wales News, said that although Wales was ahead of the UK average for electric and hybrid car sales growth, Wales also had fewer charge points per capita than the other UK nations. In fact, according to the latest data from zap map, a website that helps people find charging points near them, Wales had some of the lowest numbers of charging points in the UK. Clearly if we are to help people who currently rely on their cars to navigate Wales, particularly those areas without good rail or bus services, we must upgrade and invest in our infrastructure for a cleaner and cost-effective future.
Thirdly we must protect and advance Welsh culture and language. Perhaps one of our flaws is that some may see us as simply the Welsh wing of what they perceive to be a very English party. To be clear, we must vocalise and demonstrate that as proud Unionists, there is no contradiction of being both proudly Welsh and proudly British. This means we must be seen to be backing all things that make this part of the Union so unique- whether it is banning the changing of Welsh place names uniquely into English to make them easier to pronounce- or continuing to support the revival of the Welsh language in the long term by making it a compulsory language at GCSE, helping to move Wales towards a bilingual future where both Welsh and English have equal provision. After all, we aren’t the English Conservative Party in Wales- we are the Welsh Conservatives!
These are just some of the suggestions that can help propel Wales and the Welsh Conservatives- forward and into the future. It is my view as a Unionist that Abolish, and Plaid are two sides of the same coin. They want a divided Wales where either the British or the Welsh (or indeed people who see themselves as both) are stripped of their voice. Democracy means that although we may not agree with the result of an election or a referendum, we respect its result as valid. Going into next year our message must be crystal clear- devolution is not failing Wales. Welsh Labour are. They have eroded public trust in the institutions that serve us by the general mismanagement with the gifts of devolution entrusted to them by the Welsh people. It is clear to them that Wales is not anything special; just a large county to be run exactly like any another county council. To succeed next year, the Welsh Conservatives must offer a brighter future beyond one-party rule, one that offers an alternative vision instead of just criticising Welsh Labour. Preserving our local communities, our unique language and culture, as well as joining it all up with decent transport options- these policies, amongst others, will help not just the Wales that Welsh Labour disregard, but also our party’s fortunes as well. It is our Wales. It is our future.
Sam Hall is the Events Secretary for Aberystwyth University Conservative Association and a Coordinator in Wales for the British Conservation Alliance.