Next year’s Welsh Parliamentary elections can still be a turning point in Wales’ devolved politics, argues Matt Smith.
Media talking heads often succumb to the ‘now next illusion’ – the mistake of thinking that the next exciting headline reveals a ‘new normal’ or a conclusive hinge moment.
Yet politics reverts back to its prior trend, the excited predictions discarded and forgotten. The punditry following Welsh political barometers is a classic example.
Eleven months out from the next devolved elections we cannot not know whether the ‘new normal’ of Welsh politics is rising Welsh Conservatism or what Andrew Marr in the New Statesman called ‘The Great Moving Left Show’ consolidating support for Welsh Labour.
There are three reasons why 2021 may yet be a turning point in Welsh devolution. Firstly, a transition of power is still within the realms of possibility. Secondly, the Llangollen conference saw a distinctive Conservative agenda for Welsh Government. And thirdly, the elections may determine the constitutional future of Welsh devolution.
Firstly, Paul Davies’ Welsh Conservatives are the only viable change agent in Welsh politics. In December Welsh conservatism secured its best vote share since 1900. It was only in April the Welsh Political Barometer projected thirty five per cent for the party, winning 22 Senedd seats to Welsh Labour’s 24.
The more challenging June Welsh Political Barometer projects 19 seats (up from 11). The party’s polling in Wales is still strong by historic standards and only slightly behind its vote share in December’s General Election.
If there is a Great Moving Left Show, Marr believes it is driven by government intervention during the pandemic. Yet recent consolidation in Welsh Labour support stems from the vicissitudes of pandemic management that bear more heavily against the UK Government.
Cardiff University journalism school found that half of people believe Westminster is responsible for pandemic management. The crisis has also given First Minister Mark Drakeford (not normally one to set the heather alight) a unique platform.
Wales is now firmly in the shadow of the Welsh Government’s slower lockdown exit. Voters have yet to pass judgement on this. A petition to scrap the five-mile rule has already attracted over 10,000 signatures. Public Health Wales’ survey found most want non-essential employees to resume work.
More (32%) believe devolution has made the Welsh NHS worse than improved it (18%).
The next 11 months in Welsh Government will be about reconstruction, the telling of unalloyed truths and the taking of tough decisions. Reviving Wales’ private sector will require leaders whose sympathies are instinctively more in favour of enterprise than the statist politicians in Cathays Park.
Secondly, Davies skilfully used his party’s Llangollen conference to spell out an agenda for government that will resonate with an electorate yearning to unlock Wales. He will channel the one nation, levelling-up conservatism that turned seven seats blue in December to get infrastructure projects moving.
A Welsh Conservative government would get Wales out of neutral gear by upgrading the A55 North Wales Expressway, going ahead with the scandalously cancelled M4 relief road and push forwards the delayed Heads of Valleys Road.
Transport for Wales will be placed back on the rails. The Welsh Government-owned and blank cheque eating Cardiff Airport will be made commercially viable. And they will spread opportunity through Market Towns and Seaside Towns funds.
This complements the UK Government’s commitment to spreading prosperity. The ‘Whole of Wales’ City and Growth Deal programme, a Welsh Freeport and boosting north-south connectivity highlights how a Conservative First Minister and Prime Minister would together unblock the nostrils of the Welsh dragon.
In recent days Welsh Conservatives have called for a £250 million recovering fund to address the “public economic crisis” faced by areas of Wales identified by the Centre for Towns as hit hardest by Covid and a safe and sensible lifting of lockdown restrictions to help avert the calamity of higher economic inactivity then elsewhere it the UK.
And thirdly, the May 2021 election will be a watershed moment for Welsh devolution. As the Welsh Government enters its third decade, Welsh Labour incumbency has run down devolution in the eyes of many.
This is partly due to Welsh Labour’s long-term inability to establish ‘output legitimacy’. The Wales Governance Centre ‘Devolution at Twenty’ poll found more (22%) believe devolution has coincided with a decline in education rather than improved it (18%). More (32%) believe devolution has made the Welsh NHS worse than improved it (18%).
Many voters also feel that remote elites in Cardiff Bay, just as in Brussels, are detached from the surface reality of daily life. The Cardiff-centric political geography of the Welsh Government leaves many communities across Wales behind. During the Cardiff leadership hustings even Labour’s Lisa Nandy said that north Wales feels ‘shut out’ from the Cardiff Bay system.
Disillusionment is also driven by the perception that devolution is an elitist and partisan project. YouGov’s poll for S4C’s Y Byd yn ei Le (2-5 April 2019) found that 43% think the Senedd too Labour dominated, 53% too Cardiff-centric and 44% too expensive. Only 34% say it scrutinises government better than the Welsh Office.
The infrastructure of incumbency this elite has built has rendered it out of touch. The ‘Revoke and Woke’ politics of the Cardiff Bay bubble – hard Remain, votes for prisoners and cosying up to Vietnam’s communist government – reflects a group think that is oblivious to the people’s priorities.
Davies has responded well to public sentiment telling delegates in Llangollen he will “listen more” to those who want to scrap the “Assembly gravy train”. He will roll back the elitism that is undermining devolution with politics-shrinking, cost cutting and stronger accountability.
He would freeze the budget of the Assembly Commission, block steps to increase the number of AMs, cut the Welsh Government from 14 ministers to 7, freeze civil service hiring, refuse new taxes and lower them where possible. Welsh Conservatives will burst the Cardiff Bay bubble. In 2016 they pledged to cancel the fleet of Welsh Government ministerial limousines, cut ministerial pay and make special advisors subject to greater scrutiny.
Wales needs a decisive break with the Cardiff Bay consensus. A Welsh Labour Government limping into a sixth term, ineffectually buttressed by Plaid Cymru, would sink devolution into irrelevance.
In the days of peak New Labour, Peter Mandelson said “The people of south Wales will always vote Labour because they have nowhere else to go”. Welsh Conservatives disproved this conceit in 2019 and must do so again in 2021.
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