Andy Hughes reviews the performances from a recent party leaders debate.
Almost 25 years on the words of Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville rung true once again last week as the Welsh party leaders congregated in Wrexham for the FSB Leaders Debate. The debate, conducted in the sizable shadow cast by TATA’s announcement that it plans to sell off its UK steel assets, would prove to be a suitable opening salvo in the election battle.
The economy, to some, may simply be numbers on a page or screen, difficult equations conducted in classrooms of office blocks or simply the vehicle to earn money and seek prosperity. However, what the leaders debate served to show last week was that the economy in Wales is a complex web of interdependent policy areas – each of which can be manipulated to either improve or complicate people’s daily lives. Job creation, small business support, skills provision improvements in infrastructure, transport, social security, housing and many other policy areas are symbiotically linked with ‘the economy’. Last week’s debate served to confirm this.
So who performed well? Who were the winners? And who were the losers?
On reflection, this is not a difficult question to answer. Quite simply put, there were no bad performances. Edwina Hart, standing in for the First Minister, went about her work in the well informed, forceful manner which has characterised her tenure as the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport. Andrew RT Davies, though largely kept out of the debate for the first half, was well-reasoned and faultless in the delivery of one of his party’s key policy planks. Leanne Wood and Kirsty Williams both used their speaking opportunities effectively and Mark Reckless of UKIP contributed in a constructive manner – a manner which many of us hope will be taken to the Assembly benches by any and all of his colleagues who are returned after May the 5th.
Much of the early discussion rightly focussed on TATA’s announcement and the Welsh Government’s response. Many questioned how the business rates regime, European markets and energy prices could and would be altered in order to revitalise this strategically important industry. The panel, again quite rightly, formed a political rainbow of support for the steel industry, its workers and the wider supply chain and reinforced that Wales must speak with one voice if it is to emerge from this crisis with this vitally important heavy industry intact.
However, as the unusually warm Wrexham evening wore on the debate diverged and the party political cracks began to appear. The spectre of the M4 relief road emerged, and whilst there was little division over the need for such a project, there was little consensus about any potential route, the cost or the timescale of its development. Harmony once again returned to the panel as discussion moved on to support for small businesses, with all parties saying that more needed to be done to support these lifeblood enterprises of Wales.
It should not be a shock to say that the economy will be a major policy battleground during the election. But it is not a battleground which should be seen in isolation – a perspective reinforced by the debate last week.