A long journey. Source: CaptainAnonymous (via. Pixabay)
Conservatism and Constitution

A long journey

There’s something about political journeys that have always fascinated me. That is not to say that I am not interested in those who have always known who they are politically, but rather that the journeys some take are often very interesting writes Daran Hill.

They can also take place within a party. Tony Benn has left diaries of his veering to the left which still stand as one of the most compelling insights of twentieth century politics, while on the right the transformation of the political philosophy of Sir Keith Joseph – and the political faith he inspired in a certain other – is a seminal moment.

My own political journey is somewhat more lethargic. Despite coming from a Labour background and being obsessed with politics from my teenage years, I waited until I went to university to become properly engaged. Ascent to the dizzying heights of Vice Chair of Cardiff University Labour Club was not a challenge. Other opportunities and offices came in quick succession. In the mid 1990s, I was elected unopposed to the position of Deputy President of NUS Wales for two years as a Welsh Labour candidate (I insisted on the word Welsh). By this time I was also on the Wales Labour Party Executive Committee as the youth rep, and effectively co-running the youth and student wing of Welsh Labour.

Then came the referendum of 1997 and I will always be grateful to Peter Hain and Leighton Andrews for the opportunity they gave me to serve a wider politics when they appointed me National Organiser of the cross party Yes for Wales campaign. I had never been a Labour purist and found it appealing to reach out to Liberals, Plaid activists and Communists amongst others in making the case for devolution. Tribal loyalties were never as important to me as the achievements that could be delivered and I soon found myself wondering why I was even in the Labour Party. When I left, some twenty years ago, I did so quietly and without seeking another political home. My sense of political belonging had been shaped by my time at Yes for Wales and also working as a lobbyist, neither of which had necessarily reinforced my faith in Labour politics.

Roll on to 2006 and I established Positif Politics, which I managed for fourteen and a half years, and grew from nothing to the dominant public affairs agency it is today. Then came an unpaid six month sabbatical with another iteration of Yes for Wales in 2011, working as National Organiser and part of a core team which delivered an emphatic referendum win. All of which demonstrated to me how much could be achieved outside a party political structure and I never, ever contemplated confining myself to the discipline and rigour of party politics again.

Indeed, when it has come to Senedd elections I have always proudly split my vote between different parties on the constituency and the list, and I’ve voted for all four major parties in Wales in the last five General Elections. I’ve rather prided myself on my unaligned status and one of the greatest compliments I ever had was being told by a politician that they respected me because I was an equally awkward pain in the rump with everyone.

Then in 2017 things changed. The death of my close friend Carl Sargeant hit me hard. Carl’s death also shone a spotlight on each and every person I knew, including those in the Labour Party, some of whom rose in my estimation and regard, while others sank. It also made me look at the behaviours of other parties too, and without a doubt it was the Welsh Conservatives who were the most steadfast in seeking the truth. Andrew RT Davies, Darren Millar and Paul Davies especially behaved with such decency and such rigour. That’s not to say there weren’t people committed to justice for Carl and his family in other parties – I know who they are and they know who they are – it just struck me the Conservatives collectively were the ones most interested in justice for a bereaved family.

Then came the wrangling over the implementation of Brexit. This was a policy I never favoured, never voted for, but could understand and empathise with. Yet the debate became so polarised and oppositional that I found myself repeatedly at the centre urging others to calm down and find a way through it. The corner stone of that way through had to be the actual implementation of Brexit. From June 2016 onward, the most important thing for me was that the referendum had to be respected. Only the Conservative Party shared that same prioritisation.

And now we have a Covid crisis in which my own political views have hardened. I’m sure from the boosts to Yes Cymru and Abolish the Assembly that I’m not the only one. But, as my friend Crispin John eloquently explained yesterday, there are very good reasons to feel unhappy and uncomfortable with the Welsh Labour Government response to Covid. Although all governments in the UK are ninety per cent united in their strategies, I am concerned that the Welsh Government repeatedly focuses on a “Wales good, England bad” message. The way people have been sucked into this amazes me. Most of the Bubble and most of the media have lapped it up, and repeatedly ignored issues where the Welsh Government needs to answer some serious questions of its own.

So, in persisting with being a pain in the rectum, I think the time has come to join a political party again after two decades in the wilderness. I am today applying to join the Conservative Party. In doing so, I want to be open and clear: my journey has brought me to this point and it seems the right thing to do. No doubt this decision will surprise some, and may diminish me in some eyes, but I have never let a friend’s politics diminish them in my eyes.

Standing down as Managing Director of Positif is not, of course, a prerequisite to party political freedom. Others in agencies in both London and Cardiff define themselves principally by their party politics, and see lobbying as a way to support and further their political ends. That’s not my way, and I will do my level best to keep the party politics and my work as a lobbyist apart. Further, I also won’t be campaigning directly in any specific seat, and certainly not against incumbent friends in other parties. Nor will I be standing myself or putting myself forward for the Welsh Conservative candidates list ahead of next year’s Senedd election.

But I have offered my services and my loyalty to Paul Davies and the team running the Welsh Conservatives in Wales. I am grateful they have treated my approach with discretion and are taking seriously how I can, in some way, help them to become the next government in Wales. Because politics is indeed in a journey. And the next step in that journey for me is changing the government of Wales and making Paul Davies our First Minister.

Daran Hill is a professional political consultant, occasional commentator and devolution revolutionary.

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