Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Welsh Labour Government must bring greater balance to its economic strategy

It’s been a busy week back at the Assembly, during which I have been getting my teeth stuck in to my new brief as Shadow Minister for Business, Enterprise & Technology.
I am very pleased to have taken on this role. During the election campaign there appeared to be a clear consensus amongst the voters that I met on the doorstep that the Welsh economy needs to start making money!
I was rather disappointed that the First Minister chose, in announcing his cabinet, to spread the levers of business and the economy across different portfolios; in spite of the vocal protestations of many business leaders in their election manifestos. However, it will be my duty to work with the brief as it stands and provide constructive, albeit robust, scrutiny of the Minister’s performance.
I will be seeking to engage with all sectors in my endeavour to help build a prosperous Wales and ensure that during the 4th Assembly we do not see a continuation of previous years of Labour-led neglect.
In figures we released yesterday, I was particularly concerned to see that the Welsh Labour Government has been using the lion’s share of its European Funded Convergence grants to subsidise its own projects; giving just 1% of grants awarded to private sector sponsors. This reliance upon public sector projects in part explains the failure of the economy in Wales to grow.
Wales needs a balanced approach to delivering its economic strategies and this must include a greater involvement of business in developing projects such as these; at the expense of civil servants who, with the greatest will in the world, are the last people who will fully understand the needs of the private sector.
On a more positive not, it was excellent to see that the UK Government’s strategy is starting to pay dividends – with a drop in the number of unemployed people in Wales. A simultaneous decline in the number of economically inactive people is also encouraging, not least for those who have found employment. It is a personal tragedy for anyone who loses their job and it is heartening to observe this upward trend.
It is incumbent upon the Welsh Labour Government to make this area an absolute priority and to ensure that, in spite of having scattered the critical levers of economic growth across the cabinet table, they are able to work with efficiency.
They could start by publishing their manufacturing strategy at the earliest opportunity!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Reflecting on a fascinating campaign…

It’s certainly a relief to be back in the Assembly proper, and not solely in electoral terms – it’s only when you are out and about every day that you realise the value of reliable IT! It’s been a fascinating campaign that has thrown up some extraordinary results and has led to a fairly extensive reworking of the party groupings. It has also been great to meet people across the region on a daily basis.
Personally, I had the privilege to feed into eight constituency campaigns across my region; being a list candidate certainly gives one a unique perspective, as you are able to integrate into various local campaigns whilst getting a sense of the bigger picture. Indeed I was hugely enthused to be reminded just how dedicated and keen our activists and supporters are across the South Wales Central (SWC) region. What was really telling though was the changing age profile of activists; Just how dynamic, young and motivated they are…

Campaign Issues:
Despite Labour’s best efforts to turn the election into a referendum on the first 12 months of the Coalition at Westminster, I genuinely felt that it was issues firmly within the sphere of Assembly competence that led our campaign. However, it is certainly difficult to steer the agenda entirely away from Westminster given the sheer size of the ‘London’ media.
In my experience of door-knocking, concerns about education, heightened no doubt by the recent Pisa report, were raised with me on many occasions. On the economy, a huge number of constituents were concerned at the lack of progress made by the previous Assembly Government in fostering a more competitive economy here in Wales; not to mention Wales' continued deterioration vis a vis the other parts of the UK. What also astounded me at the time was the lack of any enthusiasm for a change to AV; with voters appearing to be pretty comprehensively informed, even if it wasn’t an issue of great significance during canvassing sessions. This was later confirmed by an overwhelming victory for the NO! campaign in the referendum, and I am delighted to have been able to play such an active part in the campaign, even launching its Cardiff leg.
Our policy to protect the NHS budget from Labour’s swingeing cuts resonated across the board, although voters were understandably keen to be reassured that the maths stacked up. People genuinely value the NHS in Wales and are rightly proud of what it stands for and what it does – but there seemed to be a trend of people wanting to see a more responsive health service; with a focus on improving the convenience of access to healthcare provision.

The Future:
One sobering aspect of the campaign was the fact that there still remains a large part of the Welsh population who are either disinterested in the workings of the Assembly, or who don’t fully understand how integral it is now in people’s everyday lives here. Whether people like it or not, the Assembly has a vital role in Wales, not only in terms of public service provision, but in the health and education of the populace and in developing the Welsh economy.
It is incumbent upon AM’s of every political hue to fully embrace this task and to communicate more effectively what our job involves. Just a week before polling day Peter Hain was predicting the highest turnout yet in an Assembly election – in the event turnout was just 42.2%. Compared to 65.1% at the UK General Election 12 months before, we really can see the scale of the challenge we all face to get voters to engage with this institution!  

Whilst being pleased personally to have been returned as an AM alongside my colleague David Melding, I was disappointed for Angela Jones-Evans in the Vale of Glamorgan, who fought a fantastic and positive campaign; she will make an excellent AM and I have no doubts that her time will come.
It was a huge blow to lose Jonathan Morgan in Cardiff North. Not only will he be missed amongst the group, we should acknowledge the wealth of political and legislative experience that is being lost to the institution. His achievements as an Assembly member will be remembered; not least in securing the power to legislate here in the field of mental health.
It was notable that Labour relied heavily on its Westminster ‘big-guns’ and shadow cabinet faces in Cardiff North, including the likes of Ed Balls and Jack Straw. Whilst this concerted strategy to impose a Westminster agenda in to a Welsh Assembly election may have paid dividends here in Wales it is interesting to see that it failed miserably in Scotland. Indeed, overall, this was a very disappointing election for Ed Milliband, whose personal contribution appeared to be to bring defeat to any constituency he personally visited!
On the other hand, here in Wales the Welsh Conservatives have every reason to be proud of our performance. It was a cruel twist of fate that saw Nick Bourne lose his seat; directly a victim of his own success. However, his legacy has been secured following a result that saw the Welsh Conservatives restored as the second party in Wales.
Our gains in both Mid and West Wales, and in North Wales, at both regional and constituency level, have demonstrated that we are a party that truly resonates across the country. Nick’s work in moulding the Welsh Conservative ‘brand’ as one that is pro-devolution has been instrumental in that. It is therefore vital that we continue on this course and make every effort to reach out beyond our core.