Checking in with the neighbours: What can election hustings in Scotland and England tell us about Welsh politics?
One advantage of election hustings now being held over Zoom is that it allows us to ‘attend’ election hustings across the UK without leaving our own homes.
And for those of us focused on the Senedd election on May 6 the similarities – and differences – between the political debate here and elsewhere can tell us a lot about Wales, too.
Having logged onto five Senedd election hustings over recent months, I, therefore, opted for some variety last week and virtually attended one Scottish hustings, one for the Bristol city mayoralty and one for the West of England metro mayoralty (in practice ‘Greater Bristol’ – just don’t call it that if you are talking to someone from Bath).
Of course, in many ways there were similarities between hustings. The Conservative candidate appeared contractually required to reference ‘levelling-up’, as if it was a phrase that has been in common parlance for decades, and the Lib Dem will inform you that the item they would most like to put first is recovery.
Frustrating as such sloganeering is to those of us who watch politics closely, one grudgingly concedes that such repetition tactics do have a role to play in a core message reaching the less engaged electorate.
A further similarity with Wales is that on the whole, video seems to have taken the edge off the more confrontational aspect that sometimes emerges at hustings. To some, this might be a disappointment, but I think it allowed the candidates who might not typically favour more abrasive politics to use this to their advantage to set out more complex thinking on a matter.
A good example of this came from Marvin Rees, the current Mayor of Bristol, in answering a question on airport expansion. While the campaign playbook might have advised a clear and concise answer, he went into some detail and talked about how simply seeing constraints of airport expansion as a solution was a mistake and that the real aim was to cut emissions.
He cited the risk that if Bristol could not offer a flight, it could lead to more people driving to the South East, and beyond that he noted there are large numbers of planes circling the South East awaiting a landing spot but existing capacity at Bristol which could be used more efficiently.
While I’m sure a few viewers had a sharp intake of breath at the thought of more flights over Bristol, it is hard to argue with the Mayor’s wider logic. He received some criticism for his lengthy answer from his opponents, but I think that was unwarranted. We should expect thoughtful responses from our elected officials. Whatever view one takes on the issue of airport expansion, the way in which Rees went about his explanation was refreshing in the context of our current politics.
Scotland was different again. There was a courteous and calm tone to proceedings, but it felt as though this was being maintained in spite of the simmering constitutional ramifications of the vote ahead.
It is a sensible strategy for opponents to tackle the SNP over their shortcomings in government. The difficulty for them is that the SNP are fighting an entirely different campaign in which the opposition is not the Scottish Conservatives or Scottish Labour, but instead ‘Westminster’ – which is to be blamed at every juncture.
In previous elections, Wales has largely avoided this dynamic and elections have been fought among the parties in Wales, albeit in quite a low-key manner as a result. In 2021, the profile of the election is higher but so too is the narrative of Mark Drakeford’s leadership versus that of Boris Johnson.
I fear that Wales is on the brink of following the path we have seen in Scotland. There we see an electoral narrative based on Holyrood versus Westminster, rather than a debate about which Scottish party has the best policies to govern Scotland.
A mayoral contest should rise a little above the normal partisan bickering and I think in both West of England and Bristol contests this was apparent and to the credit of the candidates. Both hustings included a focus on economic growth and the future of work, which I think has been lacking a bit in the Welsh debates to date.
There was discussion about how the strong economy of Bristol could further grow but also how the proceeds of that success could be reinvested in tackling poverty in the city. It felt like a very grown-up discussion.
However, one thing that has not featured to a significant extent in hustings either side of the border is the need for greater policy interaction between nations and regions.
While there was much talk about the Bristol city and West of England region looking outwards and being interdependent, there was no reference to the devolved nation just over the bridge.
This is a missed opportunity. I feel there is a need for greater policy interaction between Wales and the nearby devolved city regions. The First Minister after the election would do well to book in meetings with the metro mayors of Bristol and Liverpool at an early stage to further develop engagement. This is especially important at a time when the UK Government appears to be pushing a form of top-down ‘muscular unionism’.
One final thing in common between Wales and Bristol was that they had their own version of ‘Abolish’. Both the Lib Dem and Conservative candidates are calling for the city mayoral role to be scrapped. I think their argument is flawed but it is nonetheless an interesting dynamic to compare with our own Senedd-sceptics.
While much of what is seen in one husting is recognisable in another, the nuanced differences are interesting. Realistically, the constitutional debate in Wales is going to be influenced by the election in Scotland and the economy of the most populous part of Wales is going to be influenced by the election outcomes in neighbouring West of England city region.
While I found watching these hustings interesting, I hope too that the debate in Wales is at least somewhere on the radar outside our borders too. It is in our mutual interests for it to be the case.