William Graham AM: A changing political tide in Cardiff Bay?
May 3rd sees the third time for elections to the National Assembly for Wales. In stark contrast to the notion that since the inception of the Assembly in 1999 it is becoming an increasingly confident, capably lead nation the letter boxes of people across Wales will again be crammed with election addresses from all parties eager to highlight the deficiencies of a tired and complacent Labour Assembly Government. There is nothing unfamiliar with this scenario – insults and counter insults dressed up as policies stain every election; what sets the Welsh Conservatives apart is the agenda for real change that we offer this May.
Our recently launched manifesto is without question the most radical, ambitious and comprehensive platform for government the party has ever produced in Wales, contrasting greatly with the output of our political rivals. Tony Blair looked exhausted at Labour’s conference in Llandudno, his energy levels presumably further sapped by his Welsh colleague’s producing only tired, re-packaged versions of the policies that have, for the most part, failed to deliver for Wales. Plaid Cymru meanwhile approach the elections eager to publicise jut how buoyant they are despite having lost seats at every national election since 1999 - perhaps hoping their enthusiasm will distract voters and the media from the deep divisions that exist within their party over its future direction and a failure to coherently outline their real goal of separation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the paucity of success stories, rather than concentrating upon their record in power, the chief emphasis of Labour’s misguided strategy has been to scare voters with the prospect of the elections returning a Conservative led coalition government. While one must concede that such an approach may motivate the core Labour vote in their Valley strongholds, it is certainly no blow to our overall aspirations for a Conservative-led Assembly Government to be seen and trusted as a serious proposition this May. Labour should be careful what they wish for; national polls consistently show that we are the party the public trusts on economic competence and to run our public services. We may be justifiably confident that our robust policies would produce markedly improved results than those gained in Wales by Labour over the last eight years. Similarly to their Westminster counterparts their time in Government has been characterised by bureaucracy and inept leadership, most readily identifiable in their appalling record on health and numerous costly missed opportunities for economic development. Labour’s record on health alone gives a good indication of the need for change in Wales, with the fact that hospital waiting lists are over 40% higher today than in 1999 representing just the thin end of the wedge.
Since devolution the Labour Assembly Government has interfered and imposed upon the NHS in Wales – with targets, wasteful reorganisation and further targets. Approaching 70,000 people are on waiting lists in Wales; bed blocking remains a problem, too many scheduled operations are cancelled, MRSA infection increases, ambulances continue to fail to meet specified response times to emergency calls and Labour has ditched their flagship 2003 manifesto pledge to provide free home care for disabled people in Wales. Similarly, in my role as Education Spokesman for the Conservative Group, I have witnessed Labour’s failure to grasp the unique opportunity that devolution could have provided us with to develop a world class education system in Wales.
Indeed, far from making Wales a learning country, eight years of Labour Government has left us with some of the lowest educational standards in the United Kingdom. It is a matter of national concern that 13,500 children in Wales have left school without any qualifications since Labour took control of the Assembly in 1999. Welsh Conservatives recognise that improving standards in education is absolutely vital if Wales is to meet the challenges presented by today’s increasingly competitive global economy. Welsh Conservatives would reverse the current centralised education policies of the Welsh Assembly Government. We would strike a careful balance between local choice, core national standards and effective spending.
Despite the First Minister Rhodri Morgan’s empty rhetoric, for the vast majority of people in Wales life has not become easier under his administration. The case for change is overwhelming. The average council tax rate has doubled since the inception of the Assembly with the average rate for a band D property, for example, rising from £496 to £962. Year on year we have seen above inflation increases, with little improvement to local services. Welsh Conservatives would spend the same as Labour overall on public services, but we would spend the Assembly’s block grant more effectively. All the spending commitments our manifesto details would be financed from an investment fund generated by reallocating 1% of existing Welsh Assembly Government budgets. Under Labour voters have had to cope with rising house prices (up 160 % in 10 years) and homes which fail to meet the Welsh Housing Quality Standard imposed in 2002. This May we must get across that traditional Conservative values applied in a modern context will address the sorry state of affairs I have outlined. Alarmingly, Labour have not adequately addressed the concerns we have raised in the Assembly Chamber that it is going to revalue homes every two years in a costly council tax re-banding exercise.
The Welsh Conservatives have played an active role in the transformation the party has undergone since David Cameron assumed the leadership. The shift in focus that observers have misleadingly described as us ‘going native’ is misinformed and is merely a part of the greater scheme to become less distant and dictatorial but more relevant, approachable and in tune with people’s aspirations. Rather than being misguided, the Party’s change of outlook is thoughtful and has great potential to appeal to the thousands of voters in Wales who don’t have strong political allegiances but are worried about social trends and poor management – our failure to implement a transport infrastructure to support the sort of growth we want to see being a case in point.
Far from being dismissed as a political backwater, the Party leadership has been fully engaged in the changes sought and experienced by the Conservatives in Wales. The recent major visit of 19 of the 25 shadow cabinet members to Wales, including engagements in 23 constituencies and all five electoral regions underlined how seriously the Party are taking the wider commitment to ensure that the people are able to put their views direct to Conservative politicians so that we can support them at every level of Government. Just as the leader the Welsh Conservatives Assembly Group, Nick Bourne, has been in close consultation with David Cameron and Cheryl Gillan, the Shadow Secretary of Sate for Wales, in charting the course towards and beyond the elections, including taking the hugely significant step of accepting that the devolution arrangements are here to stay – in my role as Education spokesman I have been fortunate to have numerous similarly productive opportunities to discuss our ideas and policies for education in Wales with the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, David Willetts.
Although not widely known, with eleven Assembly Members the Party is better represented proportionately at the Assembly than are our Scottish counterparts in their Parliament and in common with the generally positive reception the Party is enjoying nationally we have reason to be optimistic about having an increased presence come May 4th. With the Government of Wales Bill bestowing new law-making powers on the Assembly there is perhaps more at stake than in 2003 and 1999, it is good timing that we put forward what is unquestionably the strongest line-up of candidates we have ever fielded for the Assembly elections. A broad survey of our candidates shows more women than ever before, more young people and more Welsh speakers– it is above all more in touch with the electorate than in the past. As Chief Whip I particularly look forward to the prospect of new additions to the Conservative Assembly team, a group that is already widely regarded as the most effective and hardest working in the Assembly, time and time again exposing Labour’s waste and hypocrisy.
In addition to our great hopes of winning of our target constituency seats, an aim the sterling efforts of individuals such as Jonathan Morgan in Cardiff North, Nick Ramsay in Monmouth and Paul Davies in Preseli Pembrokeshire will hopefully make a reality, the D’hondt formula of proportional representation used for the regional electoral list system ensures every vote really does count. No longer is a Tory vote in the areas where opposition parties enjoy even the strongest support wasted and I would appeal to even those people opposed or apathetic to devolution to be aware of having two votes. For the reasons outlined here, and there are many more besides, may I confidently state that there has never been a more compelling case for voting Conservative in Wales this May.