The Welsh Conservatives need a radical shakeup to make the party fit for the 21st Century
Luke Evetts, Chairman of the Ceredigion Conservative Association
The resignation of Andrew RT Davies as leader of the Welsh Conservative Group in the Senedd is another indication that things need to change in the Party in Wales.
There are two types of politician in my experience of party politics; the self-promoting, ex-party employee/SPAD career politician, and the individual who is driven to put themselves in the firing line because they want to make things better for their community and country. Andrew falls into the latter camp.
While some in Wales may disagree with his opinions, Andrew has been motivated by making things better and has worked harder than anybody to hold the Labour administration in Cardiff Bay, and the Conservative administration in Westminster, to account. While you may disagree with his politics, you should not question his commitment.
He isn’t a slick, smooth talking, headline grabber; he is a grounded and thoroughly decent, normal person. What you see is what you get. If he mixes up breakfast and Brexit, he laughs it off.
He doesn’t take himself too seriously and that is a hugely important skill from which so many of our politicians could learn.
The manner of his departure is a wake-up call for the Party in Wales. Over the past few years, Andrew has been systematically undermined at both ends of the M4.
The London-centric element of the Conservative Party has little time for the Welsh Assembly, let alone its Leader of the Opposition.
In Wales, Andrew’s openness and frankness in standing up for what he believes, made him unpopular with some senior members of the Welsh Tory hierarchy who preferred to operate quietly and not upset the central Party too much.
While the difficulties started earlier, the conduct of the 2017 General Election exacerbated these issues. It was clear from the centrally printed literature posted out from London during that election that the central Party hadn’t got a clue about devolution.
The imposition of candidates on Associations in parts of Wales demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of Welsh constituencies. The convoluted structure of the party in Wales allowed for the buck to be passed around instead of those responsible actually taking responsibility for the poor campaign.
Meanwhile, Andrew was heavily rumoured to have been subjected to strong-arm (and some have suggested, bullying) tactics by Number 10 for his willingness to point out some of the problems with the campaign.
If anything, these issues, combined with the debacle over whether Andrew or Alun Cairns should speak during the Welsh leaders debate, showed that there needs to be a single Leader of the Party in Wales.
In Scotland, Ruth Davidson was able to run an effective campaign based on local and national issues; in Wales we were given no say in how the campaign should be run at all, other than a small cabal selecting like-minded friends to stand in target constituencies.
The structure of the Welsh Party is based around four pillars. The voluntary party (lead by the Chairman of the Welsh Conservatives), the professional party (lead by the Director of the Welsh Party), the MP’s (represented by the Secretary of State for Wales), and the AM’s (lead by Leader of the Assembly Group).
The Welsh Party board is then made up from the above along with representatives from regional areas, local government, our MEP and other officers. There is no single, accountable individual.
It has therefore been easy for decision-makers to hide behind each other, or the party in London, and avoid taking the heat for poor decisions.
The Secretary of State is appointed by the Prime Minister. The Chairman is voted for on a very limited electoral college system. The Director is an employee appointed by the Board.
Out of the main Welsh Conservative players, Andrew was the only person who won a vote of the whole membership; a fact seemingly forgotten by the Party centrally.
I have made repeated calls for an independent review into the structure of the party in Wales and its relationship with the central Party based in London. The Welsh Conservatives need a radical shakeup to make the party fit for the 21st Century.
If the party were a business, it would have ceased trading years ago. Its structure is unwieldy, it’s decision makers largely unaccountable and its workers underappreciated.
It is not as if I am calling for anything unprecedented. In 2010, the Sanderson Commission published their findings of a review into the Scottish Conservatives calling:
- For the election of “a Scottish leader to have overall responsibility for the Party’s performance in Scotland”
- To “replace the weak leadership and governance framework with a streamlined, transparent and accountable structure”
- To “overhaul candidate selection and development” amongst other recommendations.
The Party in Wales would benefit from a carefully considered review and analysis of how it needs to modernise, and, given that there aren’t scheduled elections taking place in Wales until 2020, now is the best time to do it.
I have no doubt that the current Chairman of the Welsh Conservatives is seeking to change things for the better. My concern is the pace of change and the continued lack of transparency from many of those around him.
Instead of trying to turn an enormous, outdated tanker around without attracting too much attention, we need to build a new structure based on transparency and fairness, with clear lines of accountability.
Most importantly, there needs to be greater control of the Party wresting here in Wales alongside the appointment of a designated Leader of the Party in Wales. Unless the Welsh Conservatives are willing to change, the Party will never make inroads in Wales.
Luke Evetts is a commercial lawyer by profession and is the Managing Director of Evetts Legal Ltd. He was the Welsh Conservative candidate for Ceredigion in the 2010 General Election and the 2011 Assembly Election.