Complicit in Confusion

Daran Hill argues election campaigns have deliberately muddled devolution

Daran Hill is MD of Positif

Cast your mind back a month to a Friday morning at the end of April when the General Election had just been called. Jeremy Corbyn was on his way to Cardiff to address a crowd on Whitchurch common. It was the first high profile political visit to Wales since Theresa May had been for a walk in Snowdonia. But that morning the story Labour was pumping out via their UK press operation wasn’t greeted warmly in Wales even by Labour people. Social media and mainstream media here soon became caught up in lambasting a central political flaw: Jeremy Corbyn was coming to Wales to talk about education policy – in England.

Of course, after a bit of arm twisting, the substance of his speech was changed and he did the education bit in the west country not the western country. But it showed a lack of maturity and lack of appreciation of devolution that London trainee spin doctors had even made such a basic schoolboy error. However, since that point, the only thing that has changed is that parties have just changed the direction of the deliberate misinformation. It has now been mainstreamed into the process and the main parties are all playing the same game where devolution is an inconvenience, an after thought, or an annoyance.

Last weekend’s wobble by the Conservatives over winter fuel payments and social care was a case in point. When Mrs May set out the boundaries for the shambolic policy it was completely unclear her policies were specifically targeted at England. Within twenty four hours the Scottish Conservatives were asserting a different set of policies. Then when she came to Wrexham on Monday to launch the Welsh manifesto, the focus was on redefining – or repairing – the social care debacle. At that time it was finally made clear also that the social care elements would not apply in Wales, despite the fact the Prime Minister had chosen Wales as the location for the clarification. Which is of course exactly the same sin that Corbyn almost committed a month earlier and was vilified for. Of course, there were other aspects of confusion that made the whole thing an omnishambles, but it is very telling that the big UK parties are making the same deliberate mistakes time and time again. They are feeding the confusion by not using a simple phrase appropriately and consistently: “in England.”

Labour is no different. Look at the headline pledges in their Welsh manifesto where three out of the five relate to fully devolved services – health, education and housing. They claim they have done this to contrast the record between governments in England and in Wales. Yet these are headline pledges.

Plaid has played exactly the same game too. One of their recent good news stories was that their policy of recruiting a thousand more doctors was the most popular General Election pledge in Wales. Leanne Wood also called for a new medical school in Wales amongst other things during her TV leader debates. Quite how these policies have anything directly to do with the Westminster parliament or UK Government is more than debatable.

And most of the parties are also deliberately using a policy for TV debates where they are fielding people who aren’t actually standing for election. In the recent ITV one Leanne Wood was joined by Carwyn Jones and Andrew RT Davies in a panel containing 60% of people for whom not a single person in Wales could vote for. Mark Williams was the only one with the prospect of getting elected, while Neil Hamilton marked out a new curiosity in Welsh politics: an Assembly group leader who is so underemployed he could double job as a Member of Parliament too.

Of course, there are good reasons that the parties choose to field the candidates that they do for such debates. But the fact that they can choose to repeatedly send on people who aren’t even seeking to enter the institution being elected at that time is of course going to add to the confusion amongst the electorate. It is part of a conscious effort – dare I suggest conspiracy -to over play devolution at the expense of Westminster. The political parties are the ones who’ve led on this, and it’s corrupting the quality of democracy. If you think I’m talking nonsense, just imagine if parties sent MPs on to panel debates in Assembly elections and imagine the uproar and outcry. But send AMs on to panels for Westminster elections and nobody says a word.

The bottom line is this. The electorate is often accused or excused for not understanding what is devolved and what is not. Part of that lack of knowledge is being directly and deliberately fed by political parties who know what messages and issues are needed to resonate with voters, regardless of the ability to deliver them in the context of the election they are fighting. It is a shared agenda to obfuscate. Things are not getting better, or sharper, or more delineated. They are deliberately being made more opaque. This is arguably the worst ever General Election for respecting devolution settlements and all the parties are complicit in that confusion.

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