Sometimes people try to tell me that politicians are all the same, that they don’t feel they can make an informed choice or that the old distinctions between left and right have blurred, writes Russell George MS.
Well, that’s certainly not the case from where I sit in the Welsh Parliament chamber, week after week holding Labour Ministers to account for their economic failings.
Even though there have been times in this pandemic when we have worked with the Welsh Government when it has done the right thing, more often than not we have disagreed with their decisions. The chasm between the government and its main opposition party has rarely been wider than it is today.
Mark Drakeford – one of the first senior politicians to declare his support for Jeremy Corbyn – has approached running the Welsh economy as any good Marxist would. Labour believe that government knows best and that the state has both the right and responsibility to control public behaviour, presumably because people cannot be trusted to think for themselves.
As Conservatives we inherently see the world through a very different prism. We believe in the primacy of the individual, personal freedoms and responsibilities and the belief that there should be no limit to how far in life your talents and hard work can take you.
When Boris Johnson has talked about opening up the economy in England he’s faced accusations from Labour of simply wanting to support friends in big business rather than prioritising lives. But this is a complete fallacy because 99% of all businesses are SMEs and their health has a direct impact on their workers’ standard of living, their mental health and their ability to provide for their family. Some of the decisions made by Labour Ministers during this pandemic, despite being made cautiously and with the best of intentions, have caused greater harm to the Welsh economy and the livelihoods they are supposed to help protect.
This Corbynista Labour government has been in power in Wales for nearly 22 years. Ministers like Jane Hutt who were sat around the cabinet table 20 years ago give former Eastern European dictators a run for their money in terms of longevity. The opportunity to make Wales a more prosperous nation during this past generation has been missed, despite the considerable powers and economic levers under Welsh Government control, including taxation.
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on Wales’ underlying economic weaknesses, which 20 years of Labour government have failed to address. Wales has the highest high street vacancy rate in the UK. Wales’ business rates regime is the most onerous in the UK, meaning many small businesses were already on the brink before the Covid-19 lockdowns. 20 years after Labour targets to raise the level of prosperity per capita, Wales remains the poorest nation in the UK.
Our national transport infrastructure is creaking through both a lack of investment and a failure to take difficult decisions in the national interest. On our roads, chronic congestion acts as a deterrent to potential investors, particularly along the South Wales corridor west of Newport. In North, Mid and West Wales, vital infrastructure projects have yet to be given the green light while the delays hold back the economy. We have a state-owned national airport, which is rinsing through public money but still not delivering on the ambition of a successful, modern international gateway to Wales. While our rail network is creaking with antiquated rolling stock and an operator which has to date failed to deliver on the promise of a better service to passengers.
Together, these underlying weaknesses in the Welsh economy meant that Wales went into this pandemic poorer and less resilient than other UK nations. The impact of these longstanding problems has been exacerbated by the decisions of Labour Ministers to impose tougher restrictions than in other parts of the UK, which have hit the tourist and hospitality industries especially hard.
Welsh Conservatives have a plan to get Wales back on track, rebuild our economy and ensure a clean break from the failings and indecision of the past 20 years. Our recovery plan will deliver more jobs, better hospitals, first class schools and help families not just to get through the pandemic but out the other side firing on all cylinders. We will work in partnership with the UK Government to maximise the benefits for the Welsh economy and our public services.
We will level up the economy by scrapping business rates for all small businesses, giving a shot in the arm for small firms and helping our high streets to recover. As a business-friendly government, we will work to create the conditions in which entrepreneurship can flourish, alongside our ambition to cut taxes for working people, so they can spend more of their own hard-earned money. We will fire up the construction industry with major investment in an integrated modern transport network, including building the M4 relief road and upgrading the A55 across North Wales. We want to unleash the potential of the green economy by exploring innovative energy solutions and investing in a network of electric vehicle charging points.
The people of Wales want both their governments to work together. With a new approach and a change of government, we will work with the UK Government to build a more dynamic and enterprising economy, where business, success and profit are no longer seen as dirty words by Ministers in Cardiff Bay.
Labour Ministers have conceded that they don’t really know what they’re doing on the economy and another five years would simply mean more of the same. Doesn’t Wales deserve better? We have a bold vision for a green, dynamic and enterprising economy, secured by enabling everyone to fulfil their potential. Our challenge now is to sell our vision to the public and offer that clear choice so we can get our nation back on track and deliver on our recovery plan for Wales.
Russell George is the Shadow Minister for Business, Economy and Infrastructure, and Mid Wales and the Member of the Senedd for Montgomeryshire.