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Stephen Crabb MP: Why our Party is making progress in Wales

Stephen Crabb MP is Wales Office Minister and a Government Whip.  Follow Stephen on Twitter.

Values and identity are key to further broadening the Conservative Party’s appeal. The Party remains locked out of too many communities across Britain where support for our policies does not actually translate into Conservative votes. But the experience of the party in Wales in recent years demonstrates that this can be turned around. Wales will always be one of the more challenging areas of the UK in which to campaign and win. But, by adapting to the new realities of devolution and a deepening national consciousness, Conservatives in Wales have bounced back strongly from the disastrous 1997 election, when we lost our entire parliamentary representation and Labour declared Wales a “Tory Free Zone”.

In 2009 Welsh Conservatives topped the European elections in Wales, beating Labour into second place.  In 2010 Welsh Conservatives increased their number of MPs from three to eight, and in 2011 we became the second largest party in the Welsh Assembly. Welsh Conservatives have good reason to remain optimistic and ambitious for the future. With Wales being the only part of the UK where Labour remains in power, its leadership wants to talk up the record of Welsh Government as 2015 approaches. Ed Balls even suggested that "the UK can learn from what Carwyn Jones is doing in Wales".

If Miliband and Balls wish to present Wales as an incubator for the kind of policies that a UK Labour government would pursue, then Welsh Conservatives should gladly accept the invitation to make Labour’s record in Wales a key battle-ground. Between 1999 and 2010, when Labour ran both the UK and Welsh governments, Wales’ economic performance relative to the rest of the UK deteriorated while outcomes in key devolved public services like the NHS and Education also worsened significantly.

In 2015, voters in Wales will for the first time be able to compare and contrast directly the distinctive approaches taken to public service delivery by Conservatives in London and by Labour in Cardiff. Devolution helps to create a marketplace for policies. Failing approaches become even more apparent when better alternatives are being employed just across a border. But it is not just at the level of policy and delivery that Welsh Conservatives can campaign with confidence in 2015. Elections are also about the values we hold and communicate.

At the last Westminster and Assembly elections the Labour leadership urged voters in Wales to “come home to Labour”. Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith MP echoes this by claiming that Labour is the “true party of Wales”, which embodies the intrinsic values of Welsh people. At the heart of the Welsh Labour outlook is a sense of entitlement and absence of humility, characteristic of old-style machine politics, which takes Welsh voters for granted.

Labour’s position is buttressed by the economic structure of Wales, with its relatively high levels of state spending, greater proportion of public sector workers, and the highest density of trade union membership of any of the UK’s regions or devolved nations. But while it is true that the Welsh national experience has given its people a different outlook and set of values, it is not the case that these values are essentially social democratic and that they translate into a preference for state intervention, higher taxes and public spending.

Welsh values can instead be described as communitarian: less individualistic, borne out of strong family and community bonds, and a deep sense of history and place. Wales also enjoys a high stock of social capital with relatively high rates of volunteering and community participation. This is fertile ground for a Conservative Party which emphasises the social market, as opposed to socialism; localism and community solutions instead of centralised diktat; and values the dynamism of the voluntary sector rather than seeing it as a poor second-best to state intervention. 

Far from being intrinsically hostile, the distinctive values of Wales actually underpin much of what constitutes modern Conservatism. If communitarian does not equal socialist, neither does patriotism equal nationalism. This is another area where Welsh differences need to be properly understood if the party is to continue its growth. The starting point for Welsh Conservatism is a recognition of the growing importance of Welsh identity in our politics.

The Welsh Conservative Party has increased its representation at every tier of elected politics over the last decade because it has understood that Wales is different; because it has been comfortable putting Welsh identity at the heart of its message; and because the Party now owns a set of policies that speaks directly to the values and aspirations of Welsh families and individuals.

Although nationalism – in the sense of separatism – is a minority interest in Wales, patriotism runs very high indeed. A recent opinion poll found that the Welsh were the most likely to say they took pride in their flag and in their national sporting teams, ahead of people from Scotland and England. But patriotism is not to be confused with nationalism, and Conservatives must resist the lure of simplistically arguing for 'ever looser union' with England as an end in itself. Despite the advent of devolution providing a boost for Plaid Cymru’s vote at the start of the 2000s, there has been a steady fall in its support. Polls show that only around 10 per cent of voters are in favour of independence In short: the people of Wales value the Union.

Nevertheless they also want, more than ever before, to elect politicians who share their patriotism, who will fight for Wales, and who communicate a strong belief in the Welsh nation. This extends to support for the Welsh language, which has become a touchstone issue. Although only a minority of Welsh people speak it fluently, there is an underlying bank of good will for the language which goes far beyond those who speak Welsh. The native tongue is much more central to the national identity of Welsh people than it is for the Scots or Irish.

Welsh Conservatives understand this and have been at the forefront of calls for stronger protections for the language. The party that acted as midwife at the birth of S4C (a Welsh language TV channel) in the 1980s must never stop working to renew its reputation as a defender of the language. The Conservative Party now campaigns confidently as a distinctively Welsh Conservative Party and, more than ever before, selects Welsh activists as its candidates. For the first time there is now a Welsh-speaking Conservative Secretary of State in the Wales Office; a half of all Welsh Conservative MPs have served previously in the Welsh Assembly; and all eight MPs represent constituencies in which they have longstanding and deep roots.

There must be no reversal in this trend. In an age of localism, when voters demand authenticity and accessibility from their politicians, the party must always rely on Welsh party members and supporters for the bulk of its candidates. The Conservative renaissance in Wales demonstrates that the party has a genuine UK-wide offer. As the United Kingdom has changed over the last fifteen years, both socially and constitutionally, so the Welsh Conservative Party has adapted and matured, regaining its relevance and impact as a political force.


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