At time of writing, there are just four days to go until polling day for the 2016 Welsh Assembly elections, and you would be forgiven if you were surprised at that information. With the timing of the EU referendum, we were always concerned in Wales that our key national elections would be lost in a sea of barely relevant political coverage, and so it has been the case. Frankly, Wales and devolved politics in Wales, has been treated with criminal disregard by the power makers of Westminster, and this should not be forgotten in this, or future elections. That being said, we are where we are, and that is on the doorstep of potentially the most forgettable set of national elections Wales has ever seen – but they might yet be among the most important.
Voter turn-out for and general awareness of Welsh Assembly elections is poor, and it is not a situation helped by things like the EU referendum. 2016 looks set to be one of the lowest voter turn-outs in many years, if not on record. This, categorically, is a terrible situation, and makes a mockery of generation’s worth of sacrifice and toil made in the name of democracy. It is also an opportunity, namely for the likes of Plaid Cymru, to make a real surge this year. Where voter turn-out is low, it is the establishment that suffers. The support base for Labour, the Tories and indeed UKIP (relatively new, but oh so establishment in their composition) is fickle, and a turn in the weather is as likely to motivate them to stay home on polling day, as the opportunity to confront injustice and social inequality is to get them to go out and vote. The Plaid vote, however, remains pretty consistent – they will vote regardless of circumstance.
This creates an opportunity to force a change in the governance of Wales. Having researched the political framework in Wales following devolution (albeit focused on the culture sector) I am confident making the assertion that devolution works when Labour is forced into coalition. Phrased another way, devolution in Wales fails when Labour have a majority government. This has to change, and will do. Labour has had an opportunity to inspire in Wales, and instead they have stagnated. Important policy changes and changes to the legal framework of Wales have been made – but has anything truly exciting or transformative happened in Wales (for the better) during their administrations? It’s hard to answer that positively. The Labour hegemony in Wales is flagging, and is due some severe shocks to the system this week. I won’t advocate a coalition government, nor necessarily want one, but I do want to see a break from Labour dominance, and this wish, if nothing else, will almost certainly be granted once the results are collated.
This then leaves the question of “who”? Who steps up, either as a coalition partner, minority government or, who knows, a new majority government (possible, though unlikely)? From where I’m sitting, Plaid can be seen as the only legitimate choice. In terms of policy and personality, Plaid is striking a rich balance between ideas and charisma, the likes of which the other parties cannot offer. The exception to this would be the Welsh Liberal Democrats. Undoubtedly, the most talented and forthright politician in the Welsh political community today is Kirsty Williams. Having met Kirsty several times, I say from personal experience how warm she is as an individual, but how determined she is in her political considerations. There is much to be admired here. Sadly, her party in Wales has been unfairly tainted by the Con/Lib-Dem coalition in Westminster. The hangover from that failed experiment still looms large, and with UKIP pressuring an already crowded community, it’s difficult to see where the Lib Dems can hope to muster enough support to be relevant. I’m sure this will change come the next Assembly elections, but for 2016, the toxins of coalition remain in the system.
For the Tories and UKIP, two parties which I’m inclined to refuse to treat as separate entities, I still see parties which are far more concerned with what is happening across the border, than they are with the day to day of governance in Wales. Andrew R T Davies leadership has provided a welcome touch of the bulldog to proceedings. He might not be pretty to look at (in terms of his political style) but he does offer a much needed sledge hammer to the day to day of the Assembly activities. However, and I write this as someone increasingly involved in my local farming community, to see a Welsh Conservative leader, from an agricultural background, arguing vehemently for an exit from the EU (something which I can only see as being catastrophic for the farming sector in Wales) feels like an agenda led betrayal. I cannot conceive how this man has the best interests of his constituency or country at heart when making such arguments.
It is a shame in a sense, because the Monmouthshire incumbent, Nick Ramsay, is standing along in east Wales, as a Conservative voice in favour of remaining within the EU. This surprised me, mainly as a bold statement from Ramsay, a politician who has long been in the shadow of his Westminster comparative, David Davies. He has flown in the face of local leadership and national (Welsh) leadership, and this is to be commended, though not to the extent of actually voting for him.
I am yet to be convinced by the merits of anything UKIP have to offer Wales. What tolerable policies they do propose are largely recycled, or just brazenly stolen from established parties in Wales, while their list of intolerable policies are too numerous to cover here. What particularly galls me though, is the parachute politics performed during the selection of candidates. I am a firm believer that any elected candidate should have a continuity with their community. For anyone to be dropped in, regardless of nationality, is very poor. I resent this about other parties as well, with the dropping in of Kinnock MarkII into a safe Labour ward for the last general election, being the most onerous example I can think of. Oh, and the fact that UKIP refused to remove a clear racist from its list of regional candidates in Cardiff, that’s pretty heinous as well. Meanwhile Nathan Gill, party leader, is such an insidious character that even his own membership in Wales seem set against him. I’m not convinced that Tim Price, the Gloucester business man standing as a “local” candidate, has even been to Monmouthshire during the campaign period…
As for Labour, the actual candidate in Monmouthshire is quite promising. I’ve seen Catherine Fookes speak a couple of times, and there seems to be plenty to like from what little I have been exposed to. Yet that age old issue of giving support to a stagnant Welsh Labour party, supersedes considerations of candidate quality when it comes to their party. I simply cannot justify giving any support to the party solely responsible for the terminal decline of the Welsh devolution project.
A word as well for independent candidate Debby Blakebrough. I can’t comment on her personally, but I’ve worked through her pledges. Again, lots to like, with some positive ideas on education and healthcare. However, and I get the impression Blakebrough would not thanks me for suggesting this, there is little to her policies which are not replicated and better delivered by Plaid Cymru anyway.
*While the Greens are standing in Monmouthshire, I have received no literature or communication from their candidate whatsoever – which is pretty much an automatic veto of support in my book. As much as I despise UKIP, at least they got in touch…
Who I can talk about from personal experience is Plaid candidate Jonathan Clark. I worked with Jonathan back in the old days of the Caerleon Campus and a stand-alone University of Wales, Newport (just one of the casualties of a Labour government) and in a broader sense, enjoyed his company on several archaeological excavations. Of course, I’m biased, but I have a lot of time for archaeologists, they have a patience for learning and a desire to understand before moving forward and making a decision. All valuable traits for an elected representative. A dedicated professional, Jonathan has been fighting the Plaid cause, frequently in isolation, in Monmouthshire for years and has shown limitless dedication to his party. This is not a career politician, but a talented individual with a strong sense of public service. I can say that of all the candidates, this is the one I have the greatest confidence in as an individual.
Plaid will be getting both of my votes this year. I don’t anticipate Jonathan winning his seat, but I believe that vote share sends an important message. There is a strong prospect of Plaid returning one, or potentially two regional candidates, which would be a great return. Helping to stop “too drunk to attend Parliamentary votes” Mark Reckless take a seat in Cardiff Bay should also be motivation enough for anyone in south east Wales to vote in any direction away from UKIP (and based on party reactions to his selection, that may well go for many UKIP supporters as well).
2016 will be a year of change. The Labour government will fall, UKIP will take seats in the Welsh Assembly. Beyond those certainties, everything is up for grabs. I firmly believe that a strong surge of support for Plaid, in the face of apathy elsewhere, can force a transformative change in the future governance of Wales. If you are not a fan of independence, ask yourself this – are you in favour of Wales being represented and governed by a party which prioritises Wales, and the people living within this country, above all others? If you are inclined to agree with that notion, Plaid Cymru is the only legitimate option. This is not about independence or breaking the Union, this is about putting a positive party in a position of responsibility, to make Wales better, and not let it rot for yet another term of government.