Charlie Evans, Deputy Chairman of the Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire Conservative Association
Just 23 years ago, not one person in Wales was represented by a Conservative MP, as Wales was swept up as part of the 1997 Blair landslide win.
Two years later, they didn’t fare much better in Wales’ inaugural Assembly election. The Tories won only one constituency in Monmouthshire, despite facing the unpopular Alun Michael as Welsh Labour leader.
For a hundred years Labour have dominated this country. And in the 21 years of devolution, Labour have been a permanent feature in government, either alone or in a coalition.
Given this unprecedented electoral domination, you would think Wales lives in a land of unparalleled wealth, schools are centres of excellence within the United Kingdom and its hospitals are unrivalled in terms of their care.
However, the reality couldn’t be more different. Wales has the highest percentage of relative income poverty in the UK, at nearly a quarter. In education, Wales is the worst country of the UK for reading, maths and science. In health, 28% of patients don’t get seen within a four-hour target time in Accident and Emergency. Ambulance waiting times are getting worse with 27% of patients in life-threatening circumstances not being seen within the eight-minute target. More than half of Welsh adults are obese or overweight.
Wales as a nation is also the unhappiest in the UK and nearly a third of the people of Wales binge drinks. From a Covid-19 perspective, we can only just about manage a thousand tests a day whilst England teeters around the 100,000 mark.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Wales doesn’t have to be the poor man of the UK anymore. Wales is a naturally conservative country. We, the Welsh, value family and local communities in the form of the rugby club, the pub, the village hall, the church. We value rural life, the heartbeat of this great nation. We love the arts and beauty, from the artisan streets of Portmeirion to the poetry of Dylan Thomas.
We value our rich history and culture, with our language thriving despite attempts to curb it. We are a country of the unique customs seen in our Eisteddfods. We are a nation known for its great religious revivals where Nonconformism spread, where church and family life were at the heart of the human experience. Our natural conservatism is what makes Wales special.
Yet we are no rural idyll. We also know we can also be at the heart of global innovation, as we were when the Industrial Revolution brought wealth and jobs to Wales. And despite a minority in Wales believing that we live in an English Empire, nostalgic about an age gone before, we are proud partners with our friends in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland forming the great family of nations – the United Kingdom.
So Wales should be natural Tory territory – patriotic and conservative in nature. But Wales has been patronised and taken advantage of by the Labour Party, keeping her on a drug of dependency. They have become complacent, knowing that Wales will vote them back in however little effort they put into solving our problems.
Wales is certainly not Plaid Cymru territory. They are a party who seek to use the power of the state to enforce their version of Wales on everyone else. Conservatives believe that Wales, her values, and her culture are strong enough to survive through the skill of persuasion and argument.
Some are concerned by what they see as a devo-scepticism within the Conservative party. But this is caused by frustration at an institution that was created by Labour in order to assert Labour control over Wales. The Labour Party wanted devolution for Wales because they knew they would be elected repeatedly – that was always the plan back in 1997.
And the reason is that the Welsh electorate is very uninformed as to where decisions are made, due to a virtually non-existent Welsh media, a UK media that doesn’t report properly on Wales and a Labour Government who sing and champion its own virtues when things go well and shy away from any responsibility or accountability when the going gets tough.
In the Covid-19 crisis, Welsh eyes seem to have finally been opened and they have realised that, actually, there is a Welsh Government that has quite serious powers. The Welsh Government may be basking in that attention at the moment but this heightened perception of who is in charge in Wales will not go away with the coronavirus pandemic. People will now know at whose feet the blame lies for Wales’ present condition.
So what do the Welsh Conservatives need to do to win next year’s Senedd election?
First of all, respect devolution. It is here to stay, and it is good – power taken closer to the hands of local people, a nice via media between Westminster centralisation of power and Welsh independence, a model to keep Wales as a strong distinctive voice within the strongest Union of nations in world history.
It is why I voted for Brexit – to take power back closer to the people. It is something that the Conservatives support naturally, and once we loosen Labour’s one-party grip on power in Wales our natural frustration at Welsh devolution will go with it. Polls show that the people of Wales very much support devolution too. So if we want to taste electoral success at the ballot box next year, we must respect the institution of the Welsh Parliament as the people of Wales do.
We also need to commit to capital investment in Wales. This country lags behind like other parts of the United Kingdom. Mid and West Wales’ rail infrastructure is significantly behind the pace. Towns like Aberystwyth are connected to the Midlands but not its neighbours to the south. Bus services are irregular outside the Valleys and the cities in the south. Private sector involvement in north and mid-Wales is limited, with a high dependency on jobs in the public sector. We need Wales to become a desirable place to live and work, not just to retire to at the end of a career.
But this is a problem which Boris Johnson encouragingly seems to want to address – levelling up areas outside the economic centre in London and the south-east. A Welsh Conservative Government would put Wales in a fantastic position to go into tough negotiations with Westminster and get our share of the funding we need. We would be the driver of our own success, rather than blaming Westminster at every hurdle.
Thirdly, a commitment to reform public services. There is this myth perpetuated by the political left that the more money public services have, the better they will operate. Where we can find the money to fund these things, let’s do so. But we have to address the massive mismanagement of the NHS, our schools and other vital public services.
We also need to address the social problems that blight this country. Often we have adopted the laissez-faire approach, the lift yourselves up by the bootstraps, the rags to riches stories to inspire. Whilst encouraging personal and family responsibility and encouraging everyone to achieve their potential, we need to level Wales up, aspiring to give her the same opportunities as London and the South-East.
But we cannot lambast the Labour government for its record without having compelling ideas and solutions ourselves to tackle alcohol addiction, substance abuse, crime, homelessness and financial insecurity.
Back in 1999, I am not sure how many people in Wales would have believed that just two decades later in 2019’s snap winter General Election, that the Conservatives would win 14 seats, 36% of the popular vote just 4% lower than the Labour Party, a party who has won the popular vote in every Welsh General or Assembly Election since 1922.
99 years later, we have the opportunity to end our miserable run by electing a Conservative administration in 2021. The latest Welsh Barometer Poll shows us polling higher than Labour. We were also the only party to respect Wales’ mandate to leave the European Union whilst Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems undermined it at every stage.
We are in a strong position but nothing is guaranteed. In 2021, the political landscape, in the aftermath of Covid-19, will be very different. Taking this election for granted isn’t an option – anything less than a comprehensive win will give Wales another Labour government, in partnership with Plaid Cymru, for another five years.
The opportunity is here. We can truly prosper as a unique, distinct power within the family of the United Kingdom. We can do this. We must do this. And if we do, the next chapters of the Story of Wales could be our best yet.