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Dan Boucher: A lesson from Wales. Labour has Co-op candidates. We should have Mutual ones.

Dan Boucher was the Welsh Conservative Candidate in Swansea East in 2011, moving the Party forward from fourth to second place. His book out this week "The Big Society in a Small Country: Wales, social capital, mutualism and self-help". The foreword is written by Brian Griffiths, Lord Griffths of Fforestfach, the Head of Mrs Thatcher’s Policy Unit from 1985 till 1990.

Screen shot 2013-04-22 at 20.46.38In 2011 I stood as the Welsh Conservative candidate in Swansea East and I was very proud of our manifesto commitment to encourage "everyone who wishes to leave their community a better place than when they found it, by sponsoring volunteering and a Welsh Big Society".

Although some have suggested that the Big Society is a quintessentially English, Tory idea, with nothing to offer Wales, The Big Society in a Small Country advances a very different thesis. The last eighty years may have been defined by Labour’s ascendency, with its commitment to the Big State, but we must not fall into the trap of settling for a very narrow view of history.

If we really want to understand Wales we must take a must longer view, and when we do so we are confronted with the characterisation of Wales as a ‘community of communities’ - a nation that is encountered primarily from the bottom-up rather than from the top down, and which actually places far more emphasis on itself as a nation than on the state, which is very much of secondary importance.

Given this ‘community of communities’ tradition, why is it that Wales is now portrayed as a nation in love with Big State Labour and Nye Bevan? To answer this question we have to go back to the inter-war period depression. Historians of the period make it plain that the level of suffering in Wales at this time was unparalleled in the UK. People became malnourished, with all its attendant problems, and a staggering 430,000 people left Wales. In this context the old decentralised solutions seemed too modest. This extraordinary problems seemed to call for an extraordinary solution and the Labour Party, which had not initially been a disciple of the Big State, became a convert and so too did many of the people of Wales.

The sad implications of that decision are still very evident today. The public sector in Wales is far bigger than the public sector in England. According to some estimates it is deemed to be as much as 70% of GDP. There is a very considerable shortfall between tax receipts and public expenditure. In this context, even the Labour Party has come out and said Wales badly needs a bigger private sector.

The Big Society in a Small Country argues that, in a very real sense, Wales’ great tragedy still is the extraordinary intensity of the inter-war depression, and the fact that this caused it (very understandably) to embrace an extraordinary solutio -, the legacy of which has been to partially disinherit Wales from key aspects of its own identity and culture. It argues that the Big Society agenda is in some ways even more important for Wales than England, both because it sets out policies that Wales, struggling in the grip of the Big State, urgently needs, but also because this agenda will actually help to renew key Welsh traditions and identity that have been squeezed during the era of the Big State.

All this presents the Welsh Conservative Party in the Welsh Assembly with the tremendous opportunity of being able to advance a package of policies that are more Welsh than those of Labour, and to thereby seize the political initiative.

The Welsh Government has a social enterprise action plan which says many of the right things, but it seems reluctant to translate their rhetoric into reality and consequently Wales is falling way behind England. As Francis Maude and Nick Hurd work to transfer public service provision from the state to public service mutuals – there are now 65 in England – the statism of Welsh Labour is such that they don’t seem able to bring themselves to take action.

Moreover, key aspects of the Localism Act do not apply to Wales. The Community Right to Challenge, according to which community groups can submit an ‘expression of interest’ in taking over an aspect of public service delivery that they think they could do better, applies in England only. Apparently, the Welsh Government didn’t want it. Then we have to consider that the co-operative economy is smaller in Wales than in any other part of Great Britain.

Perhaps as an indication that the Welsh Government are now feeling the pressure, they have somewhat belatedly established an independent Welsh Co-operative and Mutuals Commission. Whilst its terms of reference generally ask how the co-operative and mutual economy might be extended, there is no explicit mention to making the state smaller by transferring public service functions from the state to mutuals.

The Big Society in the Small Country concludes by highlighting a dilemma for Conservatives that actually emanates from my own city. In 1917, the co-operative movement gathered in Swansea for its congress and decided that in order to advance its cause it needed to create a political party. The Co-operative Party was the result. If a Conservative wants to identify with this cause, however, they face a problem. If you want to join you have to sign a declaration that states, ‘I am not a member of any political Party other than the Labour Party.’ The result, as we know, is the designation as some Labour MPs as Labour Co-op, which rather gives the impression that they own the co-operative agenda.

Moreover, the fact that they can present themselves as Labour Co-op, whilst Conservatives cannot, rather underlines the old myth that Labour is the party of social justice, whilst the Conservatives are the party of the rich. Perhaps the time has come to fight back, and establish a structure for people who are more impressed with the radical Conservative approach to mutualisation than that of Labour so that those of us Conservatives who have a particular passion for this policy area can be designated as Conservative Mutual Candidates? That would certainly help to challenge the misinformed perspective that our mission and purpose is to be the voice of the rich in British politics and lay a stronger foundation for our engagement with this fertile area of policy development.


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