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Politics

Start of Term Report: Labour in Wales

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PROFESSOR Roger Awan-Scully writes:
I have used this point in the political calendar – the return after the summer recess – to assess the current electoral standing of the main parties in Wales.

Over the next couple of weeks, I intend to revive this custom, and address a single, simple question: with just a few months until the Senedd election, where do each of the main parties stand?

I begin this series of pieces with an assessment of the position of Wales’ long-dominant party, Labour.
A good place to start assessing the immediate prospects for a party is to review its immediate past. For Labour that recent past has been problematic. The December 2019 general election saw the party once again come first in Wales in both votes and seats – for the 27th general election in a row. But such an outcome has rarely felt less victorious.

Across the UK, Labour suffered their worst post-war general election defeat. Even in its ultimate bastion of Wales, Labour lost six parliamentary seats, thus achieving their lowest number of Welsh MPs since the debacle of 1983; the party also saw its vote share drop by a full eight percentage points on 2017 – a decline that was actually slightly worse than their Britain-wide average.

The closer you looked at the general election result for Welsh Labour, the worse it got.

Labour’s vote share fell in 39 of the forty Welsh seats (with exception being Montgomeryshire, where they were never remotely in the running).

In north Wales, only Mark Tami hanging on by a whisker in Alyn and Deeside prevented a complete Labour wipeout, and even seats like Wrexham that had been Labour for decades were lost.

Yet while north Wales was where the map changed colour most obviously, in other places Labour’s decline was even starker.

There were seven seats, all in south Wales, where the fall in Labour vote share was greater than in any of the six seats that were lost. Even in many places where the electoral map remained red, Labour was in significant retreat.

And the December disaster was not a one-off.

In the unplanned for European election earlier in 2019, Welsh Labour accrued their lowest vote share at any Wales-wide election since before World War I, and finished behind Plaid Cymru in such a contest for the first time ever.

The months that followed saw Welsh Labour’s opinion poll ratings, for both Westminster and the Senedd, reach the lowest levels ever recorded; they also saw the Labour candidate barely saving his deposit in the Brecon and Radnor by-election.

Since the general election, of course, an enormous amount has changed. One thing that will surely be of long-term importance is that the UK party is now led by Sir Keir Starmer, not Jeremy Corbyn.

While the circumstances of recent months have limited Starmer’s ability to reach out to the British public, the polling evidence already indicates him doing better with them than his predecessor ever managed. But those circumstances – the Covid-19 pandemic and its manifold implications – have become the defining political reality of the present.

In Wales, as across Britain as a whole, Labour’s poll ratings have largely been driven by public evaluations of the Conservative UK government’s handling of Covid. In the first few weeks of the crisis (as was seen in the April Welsh Political Barometer poll), the public largely ‘rallied to the flag’; these tendencies were reinforced for a while by personal sympathy extended to a severely unwell Prime Minister Johnson. As public evaluations of the UK government’s handling of Covid-19 have subsequently worsened, the electoral position of Labour has improved.

It has long been the case that Welsh devolved elections are influenced by the Britain-wide political context. But to an even greater extent than usual, Welsh Labour’s electoral prospects for May 2021 are likely to be shaped by factors wholly out of its control.

The most obvious of these factors is Covid – the development of the disease and treatments for it, the manifold social and economic implications of the crisis, and public evaluations of how the UK government addresses these problems. But another important issue will likely be Brexit, a project that is, of course, very closely identified with Prime Minister Johnson.

Having formally left the EU at the end of January 2020, the UK is due to depart the union’s economic space by the end of this calendar year; how smoothly that occurs will do much to shape public reactions to the Conservatives and, in consequence, the political fortunes of Labour.

One Britain-wide factor that is surely positive for Welsh Labour is that they are no longer shackled to the electoral corpse of Corbynism. Yet even that positive may be limited in value: in Wales, as across Britain, it is likely to take some time for damage done to the Labour brand to be repaired.

When you have been publicly punching yourself in the face for nearly five years, it takes a while for voters to forget.

Having said all that, Welsh Labour can still shape its own electoral fate.

How the Welsh Government has handled Covid within Wales will surely be subject to extensive scrutiny over the next few months. The outcome to the Senedd election will also affected by the effectiveness of campaigning and leadership within Wales. In these respects, things are looking rather better for Labour than they were. Mark Drakeford’s first year as Welsh Labour leader could scarcely have gone much worse: not only were there the election and polling results for the party discussed above, but public evaluations of him personally were similarly dreadful. Large proportions of Welsh voters didn’t know who he was, and those who did were generally unimpressed.

But the Covid crisis has substantially enhanced the First Minister’s public visibility, and the seriousness of the crisis has played to his strengths. Mark Drakeford will never be a natural at ‘retail politics’, but the most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll suggested, for the first time ever, that he could become an electoral asset for his party next May rather a significant liability.

The electoral battleground onto which Welsh Labour and their opponents will march is one defined by the 2016 result. That constituted an overwhelmingly successful rearguard action by Welsh Labour: against a difficult UK-wide context their vote share fell substantially on 2011, yet the party lost only one seat.
Many seats that Labour had won very comfortably in 2011 became significantly more marginal in 2016, whereas seats they had come close to gaining five years previously now receded from view. Thus, the results from 2016 show that there are nine Labour-held constituencies that could fall on a lower swing than would needed for Labour to gain their most marginal target seat of Aberconwy (where Labour would need a 3.35 percent swing to gain the seat, coming from third place).

While some of the apparently marginal seats from 2016 (such as Cardiff West and Blaenau Gwent) may present a misleading picture due to specific local circumstances, the overall picture suggested by the above statistic is surely correct: Welsh Labour in 2021 have much more potential to lose seats than to gain them.

Some geographical nuance is needed, however. In the North Wales electoral region, two Labour seats – Vale of Clwyd and Wrexham – are obviously marginal. However, on a difficult night for Labour where they lost both to the Conservatives, they might well gain a list seat in partial compensation, limiting their overall losses to one.

In Mid and West Wales, Labour’s potential losses are probably also capped at one seat: if Lee Waters were to be defeated in perennially-marginal Llanelli that would solidify even further the party’s two regional list seats.

It is in south Wales were the potential action lies.

Labour’s continued dominance of the Senedd is based on their grip over the constituency seats in the three southern electoral regions. The majority of these seats have been uninterruptedly Labour for the entire lifetime of the Senedd; indeed in South Wales West the total number of constituency contests Labour have ever lost is zero.

The limited number of regional list seats here is wholly insufficient to compensate the other parties proportionally for Labour’s constituency dominance. The converse of this is that any Labour losses here would be pure losses: the party would need to sustain multiple constituency defeats in any one region before it became likely to gain any list seats in compensation.

If the non-Labour forces in the Senedd are ever to crack Labour’s dominance of the chamber (at least under the current electoral system) then they have to make serious inroads into the south Wales constituencies: there is simply no alternative.

The next Welsh Political Barometer poll (coming soon!) will provide the latest evidence on how Labour and their opponents are currently doing.

But no party has yet finished within ten seats of Labour at a Senedd election. It would take a brave or foolhardy person to bet against their dominance of devolved politics ending in May 2021.

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Politics

Dowson dissents on new CEO

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A PEMBROKESHIRE county councillor has come forward to oppose the appointment of the authority’s new Chief Executive despite not voting against it when an Extraordinary Meeting of the Council considered.

Controversial Pembroke Dock Central county councillor Paul Dowson issued a press release in which he said that the new CEO had ‘no track record’ in the role.
Last Wednesday (March 31) Pembrokeshire County Council overwhelmingly voted in favour of Major-General Will Bramble’s appointment.

Councillors voted 48 votes for with two abstentions and one against.

Milford Central councillor Stephen Joseph’s was the sole vote against the appointment.

Cllr Joseph is a noted booster of former CEO Ian Westley, whose departure with a £95,000 pay-off caused controversy.

An Audit Wales investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr Westley’s pay-off is due to report within a few weeks.

Major-General Bramble is currently the Senior British Officer in Italy and Deputy Commander of the NATO Corps in Italy.

His track record was not enough to impress Cllr Dowson, however.

Cllr Dowson said:  “He has no experience in a local authority having spent his career entirely in the military.

“I felt that the massive responsibility that comes with this role and the salary level requires more than just one candidate at final stages.

“Cllrs Josh Beynon and Di Clements both stated, ‘give him a chance”.

“I’m afraid at this level you don’t give someone a chance,especially one with no track record in the job.

“He was a very good candidate but I’m not prepared to make a decision on an option already chosen by the senior staff committee and presented to the full council for approval.

“The candidate was strong but the post should have been readvertised and he should have been put forward for the final round when others were competing for the job too.”

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Politics

Criticism of Labour’s water pollution policy grow

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JANET FINCH-SAUNDERS MS – the Shadow Environment and Rural Affairs Minister – has backed a call from rural economy agency Country Land and Business Association (CLA) Cymru for a targeted response to water pollution in Wales.
Last week, a motion to annul the regulations narrowly failed to pass after Labour used its bloc vote.
Labour has twice voted against rescinding the Welsh Government’s NVZ policy and used a procedural ruse to ram the legislation through without scrutiny.
Among those aiding and abetting Labour was the outgoing MS for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Dafydd Elis Thomas. He was joined by Caroline Jones, formerly of UKIP, who is odds-on to lose her regional seat at May’s election. Education Minister Kirsty Williams, the Senedd’s sole Liberal Democrat MS, did not vote at all, not even to abstain.
Despite notionally representing a rural area of Wales, Eluned Morgan and Joyce Watson backed the controversial rules, which could drive Pembrokeshire’s small local dairy farmers out of business.

RIGHT OBJECTIVE WRONG METHOD

Fraser McAuley, CLA Policy Advisor, said: “The Government’s laudable objectives can be better met by an approach which focuses attention where it’s most needed. Where a problem doesn’t exist, we should not be imposing unnecessary costs on a hard-pressed sector in a future of uncertainty.

“The crude closed-periods for nutrient-spreading will do everything to encourage more intense spreading in the open-periods. This limits farmers’ capacity to choose the right ground-conditions to add nutrient. In some instances, this could make matters worse!”
Mr McAuley continued: “We really don’t believe the Welsh Government has allocated sufficient resource to do the job. We will be pressing-hard for more capital support through the Farm Business and Sustainable Production Grants. Penalising hard-stretched farmers will lead to more departures from the business by small operators. The livelihood of many small family farms is at-stake.
“We’ve got a great opportunity to get this right in the White Paper on Agriculture. Here, we can create a solution that fits into the big picture: creating a prosperous farming sector based on sustainable land management principles. This is the real goal.”

WG HASN’T LISTENED TO THE SCIENCE

Janet Finch-Saunder said: “CLA Cymru is bang on the money here over Labour’s unfair stance on nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZ).

“As Welsh Conservatives have repeatedly said, a blanket NVZ policy discriminates against farmers who are abiding by the regulations. A targeted approach focused on where it’s most needed means resources can be better and more efficiently applied.
“Unlike Labour, which is peddling a myth that the voluntary approach has failed, I would look to back the Blue Flag Farming approach. We should pursue the Water Standard and work to deliver on the 45 recommendations by the Wales Land Management Forum Sub-Group on agricultural pollution., They have been entirely ignored by the Welsh Government.
“The pandemic hasn’t helped, but farmers in Wales have had a tough time under Labour. Imposing unnecessary costs on this vital sector of the Welsh economy helps no-one and won’t solve the problem.”
Preseli Pembrokeshire MS Paul Davies said: “These excessive and disproportionate proposals will have a massive impact on the viability of many farms across Wales. Even then, Natural Resources Wales has warned that the proposed new rules will have the perverse outcome of making water quality worse.
“The regulations will threaten the sustainability of many farms in Pembrokeshire and have a serious impact on farmers’ mental health. And they will do this while there is still no clear evidence that this action will actually deliver the improvements in water quality that they have set out to achieve.”

‘CULTURE WAR’

Carmarthen East & Dinefwr’s MP, Jonathan Edwards, went further and accused the Welsh Government of stoking a ‘culture war’ between farmers and the environmental lobby for electoral advantage.

Mr Edwards said: “There is nothing new surrounding issues of slurry management. I am, therefore, baffled as to why the Labour Government are so intent on bringing forward this poorly thought out measure a month before an election.
“Creating an all-Wales NVZ seems completely ham-fisted.  A more subtle policy would have concentrated on problematic geographical areas instead of a blanket all-Wales policy.
“The Labour Government have also failed to consider the emergence of innovative slurry management technology.
“Coleg Sir Gar Gelli Aur campus has been working on a dewatering and purification system for slurry resulting in zero waste.   The Labour Government should be using its environmental budget to help the industry make the transition to the use of new technology.”
Jonathan Edwards concluded: “Unfortunately, the Labour Government have decided to engage in the politics of culture war. Its creating division between farmers and the environmental lobby instead of working collaboratively on areas of mutual interest.
“Instead of using farmers as a political football, the Labour Government should be working with our agricultural sector. Its members are already having to contend with the huge challenges created by the Tory British Government’s Brexit policy.”

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Plaid Cymru’s candidate for Preseli Pembrokeshire, Cris Tomos, said: “It is concerning that the Labour Welsh Government continues to ignore farmers and the farming unions.
“These regulations could be detrimental to the farming community, especially to the Welsh family farm.

“The Labour Welsh Government should be making every effort to work with farmers.”
Cris Tomos added: “It is also concerning that, on the one hand, Labour has pledged to fulfil its ‘One Million Welsh Speakers’ promise, and on the other, it continues to betray the industry with one of the highest rates of Welsh speakers.”

A TIGHT TIMETABLE

If Labour intends to plough on with its legislation, it really has to get its skates on.

The Senedd term ends soon. After that point, Labour will not be able to lay its new regulations.
It has not even published them yet. And that leaves farmers in limbo.
Farmers will not know the detail of the divisive and costly new rules until days before they are due to come into force.
How the Welsh Government can ask a regulator to enforce those rules without a lengthy lead-in is something the Welsh Government has not set out. It has also provided no extra funding to its environment watchdog, NRW, to deal with the rules’ impact and enforcement.

‘GREEN’ CREDENTIALS

Having promised a Clean Air Act for Wales in its 2016 manifesto, it is nowhere near bringing any such legislation forward. It appears it’s more in the presentation and consultation than in the statute book.

Labour Senedd members and ministers who have been remarkably silent on agriculture for the last five years now express a deep and abiding interest in the topic.
As Jonathan Edwards notes above: you’d think there was an election coming.
In contrast to its green branding, Labour withdrew business rates support from small hydropower businesses. It claimed the cost of rates relief to them could not be afforded due to the Covid pandemic. It saved under £1m.
Regardless of when the Welsh Government publishes its regulations, it faces a potential legal challenge from NFU-Cymru. NFU-Cymru says the Welsh Government failed to follow its own rules on the rules’ impact before forcing them through the Senedd.
Labour ministers pressed on without knowing what would happen in practice or, worse, simply turned a blind eye to the consequences. They also ignored the Impact Assessment of the Welsh Government’s own regulator.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths, broke repeated promises made to the Senedd and farming unions about the regulations’ introduction during the pandemic.
Unfunded, unenforceable rules of unknown impact are unlikely to achieve their aim: that’s not a compelling legislative legacy.
Suppose Labour cannot form a majority government propped up by votes from individuals like Dafydd Elis Thomas. In that case, it will need to haggle over its future plans or face legislative deadlock.
Anyone would think there was an election coming.
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Education

Senedd approves Wales’ National Curriculum

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MEMBERS of the Senedd voted to pass the National Curriculum Bill’s final text, meaning the Curriculum for Wales will now be introduced in 2022. Throughout the debate on its final stage, which took place on Tuesday (March 9), opposition members praised Wales’ Education Minister, Kirsty Williams. Members from all sides saluted her patience and diligence in guiding a significant piece of legislation onto the statute book. Even members who disagreed with the Bill’s content and opposed its passage highlighted the Minister’s personal contribution and commitment to creating Wales’ first national Curriculum. A NATIONAL MISSION The Bill was the subject of intensive scrutiny and broad consultation. Speaking in the Senedd, Mrs Williams said the Bill’s passage was ’a national mission’. “It would have been simpler to cook up plans in Cathays Park in a back office and issue a ‘take it or leave it’ offer,” the Education Minister said. She continued: “But our combined efforts with teachers, academics, parents, and many organisations here and abroad is worth so much more because of that ‘national mission’ spirit.” Kirsty Williams paid a personal tribute to Labour MS Lynn Neagle, Chair of the Children’s and Young Persons’ Committee. Under Lynn Neagle’s leadership, the Committee rigorously scrutinised the Bill and made a series of recommendations in its text. Of the Labour backbencher, Kirsty Williams said: “I conclude by thanking Lynne Neagle for her tough, astute, tenacious, sometimes bloody-mindedness in her approach to this legislation. I mean that as a compliment, Lynne. “As I said earlier, the results of the committee’s work have made this a better Bill.” She had similarly warm words for her Conservative opposite number, Suzy Davies. Mrs Williams acknowledged: “She has worked incredibly hard on this Bill, and I know that she’s been fully committed to the scrutiny process. As I said in opening my comments today, I think we have a better Bill due to the CYPE committee’s efforts. I have gone to great lengths to try and respond positively to the cross-party report that the Committee published to try and meet those aspirations.” Like Mrs Williams, Suzy Davies steps down as an MS in May. She was unable to attend the debate. CURRICULUM CONTROVERSY Despite the Minister’s warm words, the new Curriculum’s journey to the statute book has not been without controversy. Activists railed against the Curriculum’s Religion Values and Ethics element and its focus on Welsh language teaching’s importance to all of Wales’ pupils. The inclusion of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in the Curriculum provoked vituperative responses from a small group of parents. They opposed children receiving what they’ve claimed will be inappropriately explicit sexual education. Senior Policy Researcher for NSPCC Cymru/Wales, Dr Sarah Witcombe-Hayes says: “The strength of support for mandatory relationships and sexuality education to be included in the new Curriculum for Wales by leading child protection experts and charities highlights what a game-changer this is. “The changes are long overdue, but in passing this Bill Senedd members are helping to protect children and young people from abuse – making sure every child and young person in Wales can access high quality RSE that is relevant, sensitive and appropriate to their own capacities and needs. “It will help all learners understand their rights to safe, healthy and fulfilling relationships throughout their lives, and schools must now be supported and fully resourced to deliver inclusive and high quality RSE from September 2022.” Regarding Welsh Language teaching and RSE, those with genuine concerns had those worries preyed upon to grandstanding political effect by fringe political movements, such as Ukip and Abolish the Assembly (sic.) Speaking for the latter group, Gareth Bennett said: “The downgrading of English teaching in the interest of immersion in Welsh is a sinister development. It will surely disadvantage Welsh schoolchildren who are not from a background of speaking Welsh at home.” Dr Felix Aubel, a noted controversialist, said: “UKIP would divert millions of pounds by abolishing the legal requirement to forcibly impose the Welsh language on people.” Like Abolish, UKIP will campaign on a platform of abolishing Welsh parliamentary democracy. Those organisations’ concerns on Welsh language education ignore the fact Welsh is the national language of Wales. Every credible educational study underlines how children benefit from bilingual education. HISTORY TEACHING CONCERNS PLAID On Tuesday, further and concerted criticism of the new Curriculum came from Plaid Cymru. Perturbed by the absence of Welsh history’s teaching, Plaid’s Sian Gwenllian announced the party would vote against the Bill in its final stage. Plaid’s Shadow Education Minister said that, although her party supported the Bill’s direction of travel: “Plaid Cymru argued for the inclusion of two other mandatory elements that could also contribute towards creating that social, far-reaching transformation that we want to see, namely the history of Wales in all of its diversity, including black and people of colour history, and environmental education, including climate change.
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