As we start the new year, I wanted to draw first on the words of the Wales Governance Centre’s Professor Laura McAllister last November. Referring to Wales she said, “We’re very nervous about challenge and we’ve created a much too comfortable, cosy political environment which doesn’t serve the people well.”
I don’t and never will claim to have all the answers to Wales’ ills, and certainly don’t want to succumb to ‘hubris syndrome’ – that title once bestowed by Lord David Owen on some political leaders. I come to the table with a strong sense that politicians merely bring together and hopefully show leadership to those who have solutions at hand and can form a movement for change. But I hope that, in a spirit of constructive opposition, I’m able to pose some pressing questions and explain my thinking on how we need to try to think in a different way.
Focusing the mind
When I was first elected, I was determined to define myself very much as a newcomer. Yes, I’d reported on and commented on politics as a journalist for nearly two decades, but I had no political experience myself. And it’s the same with leadership. Yes, I’d had a decade of representing Ynys Môn and taking on some significant briefs – including the economy and finance, and health through the Covid years – but leading is another steep learning curve I was starting at the bottom of.
Taking on a leadership role in politics undoubtedly focuses the mind. The tension between addressing today’s often fast-moving challenges and focusing on the needs of tomorrow creates quite a juxtaposition. It’s true for anyone in politics of course, but particularly for a new leader who finds themselves instinctively in a hurry, looking for those opportunities to leap forward, when the right course of action may often be to take a step back.
And by that I don’t mean a backward step, but rather a shift to take in a broader, wide-angled view of what’s working and what isn’t, the foundational remedies required, and with time created to develop a sound basis for the arguments which underpin change. My contention is that, for too long, Wales has allowed ‘short-termism’ to pervade its decision-making – entrenching inequality, stifling economic prosperity, and allowing corrective rather than genuinely productive measures to become the default policy option.
Getting Wales moving
Followers of political slogans will have noticed that fairness and ambition are central not only to my thinking but to the way I see Wales. Prescribing a label to my politics has never been a motivation of mine. What drives me is getting Wales moving and working better: where background is no impediment to success; where ill health is not defined by postcode; and where I see no arbitrary boundaries to what we can achieve both as individuals and collectively, as communities and as a nation.
And those two words – fairness and ambition – really are intertwined in my political thinking. Creating a fair society should be an ambition for all of us. Collectively. And we shouldn’t rest until we can look around our communities and see that no one is being left behind.
But ambition in its wider sense is something I want Wales to embrace. A go-getting Wales, with an ambition to succeed. Not to tread water or get by. But to prosper. And to do so precisely because it’s for the common good, using that prosperity to further entrench the fairness we seek. That’s what I wish to explore this evening.
Let me begin with some introspection. Falling political participation rates – and by that I mean active participation, through party membership or campaigning – are a challenging backdrop for political parties who wish to be vehicles for change. If the paid-up critical mass, across the political divide, is falling, the ability to critically challenge internal and external forces will diminish too.
I’d argue that the mechanisms of 21st-century political discourse have also aided, abetted, and legitimised ‘short-termism’. The age of the tweet, Instagram posts and TikTok, and a pressure to quench the thirst of the 24-hour news cycle, have eroded the importance of much beyond the here and now.
And arguably the biggest obstacle put in the way of legislators is the election cycle itself. Whilst free and fair elections are inarguably the bedrock of a healthy democracy, the spectre of facing the electorate injects the notion of instant gratification into the veins of voters and politicians alike, thus perpetuating the focus on sticking-plaster solutions as opposed to long-term answers.
This is in no way a criticism of the people who put us in office. I understand and share their desire for better outcomes – right now! We all want to arrive at the destination as quickly as possible. But it is an important context which qualifies, even if it doesn’t justify, much of current political thinking.
This year marks a quarter of a century since the first Welsh general election in 1999. The ushering in of a new wave of optimism and expectation – an opportunity to do things differently and to do things better. I remember how excited I was, living ‘Cool Cymru’ through music and nation-building alike.
But whilst being given the ability to diverge from Westminster in key areas such as health, education, and the environment was vital and should be something we all still embrace – and is something that should never be taken for granted – I can’t with real sincerity say that I feel the potential of that devolution dividend has been realised in full.
Whilst culturally a new sense of nationhood has developed and there’s been a growing political understanding of the powers that reside in Wales, especially after our Covid experience, there remains a persistent underperformance on many metrics. Including, crucially, economic underperformance, a 25-year Achilles heel which requires addressing and strengthening.
If we fail in this endeavour, we will fail in our mission to secure a fairer, more ambitious Wales. Fairness and ambition are not mutually exclusive: on the contrary, they are intrinsically linked. Believing in the redistribution of wealth and a supportive state while simultaneously advocating for successful enterprise is not an either/or. Both have people at their heart, and the people of Wales are its greatest asset.
Ambition, economy, fairness, and strategy
I want to focus on four broad themes:
- Strategy, or its lack;
- The economic context, as bleak as it is;
- Inter-UK and intra-Wales economic fairness;
- And finally, unlocking ambition.
Let’s begin with something we’re rather good at in Wales – the art of platitudes and buzz words. And we certainly tend to see it in the approach to economic strategy. The headline-grabbing soundbite is somehow seen as superior to what lies underneath. The economy can’t be run through press releases. Wales has been crying out for economic salvation, not sloganeering. The more we prioritise the latter over the former, the deeper our inequality becomes, and the longer we’ll wait for that ‘open for business’ sign to truly glow brightly.
Many of you here will be active readers of the magazine Barn, one of Wales’ leading current affairs publications. Here I’ll pay tribute to its co-editor of many years, Vaughan Hughes, who passed away at the weekend after many decades as an influential figure in Welsh journalism and current affairs. Our thoughts are with his family, especially his daughter, our friend the Senedd Member Heledd Fychan.
In the May edition of Barn its regular columnist, Richard Wyn Jones, compared and contrasted Wales’ innovation strategy with that of Ireland. His key takeaways are salient, and I’d encourage you to read his analysis. Ireland has made many of its own mistakes, I know, but in terms of ambition our neighbour shows the way in so many ways.
I’d like to offer an argument of my own. I’ve held the economy brief for nearly all my time as an elected member. In all that time, it was never really clear to me where the Welsh economy was heading, how it was going to get there, and what the measure of success would be.
Proposal one: a new economic vision
We need to have a clear picture of the Mission. The Direction. The Delivery. I may be old-fashioned, but I like a strategy which goes beyond the abstract, with a clear aim and meaningful evaluation. I guess it’s about the kind of pragmatism that’s at the heart of the way I think about politics. It’s the only way I can do politics.
If we truly believe that this isn’t as good as it gets for Wales, and I think that every day, then we must raise the bar and lean in on the priorities. A long wishlist in disparate fields does not constitute a whole, neither does setting a target to be dropped later when the going gets tough.
My first proposal of the evening: embed into a new vision of the economy targets which meet our ambitious outlook. This sounds an obvious call, but few make it.
During the first term of the Welsh Government (1999–2003) an explicit target for closing the gap in Welsh Gross Value Added (GVA) per head of population was set. It is regrettable that the target to increase GVA to 90% of the UK figure has disappeared from our government’s lexicon – a worrying trend which has also seen targets to eradicate child poverty and shorten waiting times in the NHS dropped or diluted. We should be more understanding and supportive of those who keep trying than those who move the goalposts.
GVA is not the only measure of economic success, that much is true, and we must always be mindful of ‘jobless growth’. But it is an important indicator of the regional employment hinterland at the very least, and we should measure ourselves against it. And of course we need to develop the means to deliver that.
Proposal two: a new development agency
Establish a development agency fit for the 21st century. In fact, I’ve referred to that in the past, so perhaps as we’re heading deeper into this century without achieving the outcomes we need, I should say an agency fit for the 2050s and beyond. Because it has to be forward-thinking in its approach, tapped into the world of innovation, understanding of Wales’ needs, and agile enough to respond to changing landscapes.
This isn’t about nostalgia or romanticising about the WDA. Yes, it had many strengths, but also many weaknesses we wouldn’t want to replicate. This is about being honest that there’s only so much a government can do directly. Yes, it has considerable reach across many areas of policy. But without expert intelligence and a sector-led approach it will fail to fully realise its strategic aims.
2Sisters in my constituency, Zimmer Biotech in Bridgend, Nexperia in Newport, TATA in Port Talbot. Too many communities have faced the shuddering news of mass job losses at the height of a cost-of-living crisis, news that seemingly takes our government by surprise. We somehow have to be more proactive in our attempts to achieve a different outcome. Supporting Welsh business should be seen as a priority if we are to reverse our economic fortunes.
At the top of the list is supporting those small- and medium-sized homegrown businesses, helping them to flourish. But we mustn’t be shy about talking about inward investment either. And again here’s where learning from some of the WDA’s mistakes is important. Never again should Wales be sold as a low-wage investment destination. A new, ethical approach to promoting Wales as a place to do business can help give a home to the skilled workforce of the future, drive up productivity, and revive the economic buoyancy of our communities.
Turning the page
Wales has deep-rooted issues, consequences of actions attributable to UK governments, which in part explains why we have one of the weakest economies in these islands. That’s an entirely different lecture! But in our size, in the strength of our local knowledge, in our capacity to be innovative and to develop an economy reflective of regional needs, we in Wales had the opportunity to do things differently, and we still do.
A new year always brings with it optimism, a turning of the page and even resolutions. So if we resolve to do one thing, let’s believe in ourselves and our people. Value them, invest in them, and understand that they are the key to unlocking Wales’s potential. But of course, hope is tempered by the reality of economic conditions old and new, resulting in significant headwinds we cannot ignore. That’s certainly true when reflecting on the state of the Welsh economy.
Losing ourselves in statistics isn’t always enlightening and can corrupt the mind into thinking there’s little salvation. After all, the often-peddled line of Wales being at the bottom of economic league tables is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as some sort of permanent reality. But allow me to cite three statistics which set the scene.
As of 2021, Wales was ranked 11th out of 12 UK countries and regions in terms of GVA per head – just 74.1% of the UK average. This has been the case for the entirety of the devolution era, with Wales consistently having either the lowest or second-lowest productivity rates of all UK nations and regions. As of last year, the median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees in Wales was 93.5% of the UK average. And December’s Welsh adjusted experimental employment rate was 72.5% – again, well below the UK figure.
No party makes the case more vociferously than mine that the Welsh economy is hamstrung by Westminster’s grip on the most significant fiscal levers. But I am far from persuaded that a Labour Welsh Government with 25 years in power under its belt has maximised the potential of the power it does have at its disposal.
I do, however, remain sanguine about our ability to level the playing field – between Wales and the component parts of the United Kingdom and within Wales too. Inter-UK and Intra-Wales economic fairness, both lacking as guiding principles of governments red and blue, would kick start our pan-Wales programme of investment. In our transport system, for example, which if I were to be charitable, I would describe as creaking in many parts of our country.
In our digital infrastructure to get to grips with being ranked the lowest of the four nations in the Digital Connectivity Readiness Index. Our universities, the incubator of new ideas – crying out for a sustainable funding model. And in our apprentice programmes, hailed as an economic mission by the Economy Minister (and now aspiring First Minister) one week, but let down by his government’s budget cuts the next.
Fairness in investment
Fault lines lie elsewhere too. Wales has become conditioned to economic tremors which are a direct result of decisions taken by governments whose world views barely stretch beyond the M25, let alone down the M4. Where there has been some positive-sounding rhetoric, it’s rarely been matched by reality.
In a UK Treasury paper in 2001, the Blair government talked of “levelling up not levelling down” – yes, what goes around comes around! Yet as Professor Kevin Morgan has argued previously, in practice that government’s initiative represented just a limited focus on regional development to improve productivity.
From the outset, there was one glaring tension – that of a domineering reserved-powers model which put England and its South East in pole position, set against the UK government’s 1997 White Paper, the explicit aim of which was to create a Welsh Assembly to boost our economic fortunes.
Let me correct any misapprehension that I’m anti-investment in England. On the contrary. Even in London I understand its importance. Every time I travel on the new Elizabeth Line, I marvel at the feat of engineering, and have no issue with upgrading vital infrastructure. Similarly, I’m not opposed in principle to HS2 – a significant investment in improving public transport. In England.
My real grievance is when investment is not shared – when Wales isn’t getting its fair share. And HS2 crystallises that unfairness.
Proposal three: goodbye to Barnett
Consign the outdated Barnett Formula to the history books. Again, not a revolutionary idea as Joel Barnett himself considered it only a temporary solution for determining funding allocations between the UK’s nations. Yet it remains in place 45 years later.
By enshrining into law an Economic Fairness (Wales) Bill we would rebalance the wealth of the UK, ensuring that Wales gets what it’s owed and critically what it needs in public investment. It would take us away from the hypocrisy of the argument that most parts of the UK must live under the iron fist of fiscal responsibility, while others benefit from the trappings of more spending as a pre-election sweetener.
Without fairness at the heart of economic decision-making, Wales will always be hindered in its desire to be the ambitious and prosperous nation it strives to be. Had an Economic Fairness Bill underpinned by an independent arms-length arbitration body been on the statute book, the statistical roll-call of shame which highlights Wales’ underfunding would look very different.
Between 2001 and 2029, the Welsh Government estimates, Wales will have lost out to the tune of between £2.9bn and £8bn of rail investment alone. It further calculates that the Levelling Up Fund and Shared Prosperity Fund leave us over a billion pounds worse off.
These are significant numbers. And losing that kind of investment makes a big difference. So do we just beg with puppy eyes?
An obedient child
In 2014, after the Scottish referendum, the late Rhodri Morgan remarked that Wales should be rewarded for not putting the UK “through the mincer” of a referendum on independence, and for “not having the troubles and strife that Northern Ireland has”. ‘Wales is a very obedient child! Please reward us.’ I agree wholeheartedly with Morgan’s call for fairness, but to this day find that argument perplexing. And a little bit embarrassing to be honest!
Fairness shouldn’t be about good behaviour … or toeing the line! Fairness for Wales to drive our ambitions shouldn’t be seen through the lens of others at all. Crucially, it is our fairness, ours to demand and ours to own. And it will come as no surprise to you that I believe the only way to secure real fairness for Wales is by not having to depend on the whims of others to grant it to us.
Intra-Wales fairness is also in short supply. Regional inequality touches too many communities and, without action, it threatens to become an indelible mark. Being seen as a party wanting to govern for all of Wales will always be a guiding principle for Plaid Cymru. Which brings us to …
Proposal four: equal investment
Bring forward legislation in Wales that ensures an equal share of public spending for all regions. Not only would it inject life into economic deserts, but it would also reconnect its people with the seat of power, from which many feel detached.
That’s not to say that significant investment in Cardiff is not welcomed. I say that as the Senedd member representing the constituency furthest away from our capital, who often hears complaints that ‘everything goes to Cardiff’ or ‘everything goes down south’.
If the South Wales Metro delivers on its promise to open up job, leisure, business, and other opportunities, transforming Wales’ wider future economic prospects, that’s something we should all welcome. But if we don’t invest elsewhere, can we in all honesty claim to be any different in our approach than the UK government – the greatest proponents of overheating one part of England while keeping others in the cold?
Announcing plans for a North Wales Metro prior to the 2016 Senedd election – a metro that only went as far west as Rhyl and can best be described as a cobbled-together map – only feeds the cynicism that a south-of-Merthyr or Cardiff-centric investment mindset exists. The justification at the time was that the North West needed ‘rural solutions’. But with cuts to bus services and plans for a third Menai crossing scrapped, can anyone point to what those solutions have been?
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has concluded that: “The significant differential experience of Greater Cardiff and the rest of Wales compounds some historians’ scepticism about the development of a distinct Welsh economy.” That view, which I share, re-enforces the argument that, while we can rightly lay claim to being underfunded by Westminster, we can also do more to realise an even distribution of investment within Wales.
Brexit and investment
At this juncture it would be remiss of me not to mention Brexit and its direct consequences on investment. Tighter rules on accessing European Investment Bank (EIB) finance as a result of the referendum significantly impacted the UK’s investing power. The four UK development banks have only replaced a third of the lost investment. And which country, when investment was calculated per capita, saw some of the highest levels of investment from the EIB? Yes, it was Wales.
It is to the Development Bank of Wales’ credit that it surpassed its £80mn investment target in 2021–2022. But as a report by UK In A Changing Europe makes clear, it cannot replace the substantial sums invested by the EIB. This is a real-world example of actions having consequences.
Around the margins, the Welsh Government could build in greater fiscal flexibility. A lifting of the cap to draw down more government reserves currently set at a paltry £125mn and £50mn for resource and capital spend respectively per year – though not a vehicle for generating more money in itself – would at least mitigate the worst effects of the rainy days. And there are plenty of those, as evidenced by a total of £1.4bn being taken out of the Welsh Government’s budget in this year and the next.
The Wales Act of 2014 has allowed our government to vary income tax, but the limitations set on those tax-varying powers have been an impediment to effective policy-making in Wales, particularly the ability to respond to the current cost-of-inequality crisis and crises facing our public services. What we have only takes us so far. And it is somewhat perverse that the only meaningful way of increasing the Welsh Government’s budget through taxation is by asking those who have the least to pay more in tax.
Proposal five: Wales’ own band and rates
If Wales had the ability to set its own bands and rates, we could better tackle the crisis in pay and morale facing our public services and tailor solutions to the challenges in our communities. And let us be in no doubt how significant those challenges are.
As the title of my remarks this evening makes clear, fairness has to be both economic and social. It should shame us all that 102 ‘less resilient communities’ have been identified in Wales, and a further 27 as ‘other deprived areas’. In Gurnos, Trefechan, and in Pontsticill, ranked number one in the Wales Community Resilience Index, they will rightly be asking: how have our lives improved? Where is the hope of a better future and who is advocating on our behalf?
Look at the tragedy of inequality in these less resilient areas. They have the highest percentage of young people. But unemployment is higher, life expectancy is lower, and educational attainment is markedly below the Welsh average. They will be the living embodiment of short-termism – communities which are the recipients of a million here or a million there and made to feel grateful that there’s yet another plan to manage poverty rather than eradicate it altogether.
Governing is about priorities and in Wales we need a more honest conversation about what those priorities are. If we truly believe that everyone deserves the same chance in life, a cornerstone of my politics, we cannot take money away from the avenues that allow that to happen.
A moral compass with ambition
In the past three months alone we’ve seen a £40mn in-year cut to the education budget for 2023–2024, and the announcement of a further £56mn in cuts as part of the Welsh Government’s spending plans for 2024–2025. There’s also been a £17.5mn cut to the apprenticeship budget: a short-sighted tax on hope and incongruous in the context of the latest PISA results.
In the same way as I want to be on the side of business for its role in letting us fulfil our ambitions, I want our moral compass to point in the direction of those whose skills will allow us to fulfil that ambition. The so-called efficiency savings in the apprenticeship budget were somehow spun as a good news story because the take up was low. This is an incomprehensible argument when employers tell me that the problem they face more often than not is a shortage of skills.
We face the most rapid decline in training opportunities since devolution at the very time we should be investing in our young people, developing their skills to meet the challenge of climate change and the digital revolution. Priority area 2 in the Welsh Government’s recently published Economy Strategy is labelled ‘Platform for Young People, fair work skills and success’, and yet the rhetoric is drowned out by the reality of there being an estimated 10,000 fewer apprenticeship starts in 2024–2025 – a reduction of 50%.
This is a volte face of epic proportions. And it only goes to underline my earlier point that the carrot of communicating a strategy through soundbites is too often let down by the stick contained within the spreadsheet.
Benchmarks of success
Higher Education is also walking a financial tightrope, and there’s strong evidence that we have passed the point of having a meaningful equilibrium between supporting students and maintaining learning centres of excellence. In this year’s budget, there’s a real-terms cut to HE allocations, yet in England there was an uplift to the Quality Related Research funding.
Apart from its people, Wales’ size is arguably one of our biggest assets. Small enough to share knowledge quickly and big enough to create an economy based on what we learn – the very reason to rail against spending per head on research and development in Wales being half that of the East of England.
I don’t want lecture theatres and laboratories to be the only benchmark of success. But a strong university sector is so important to Wales’ economic future, and our higher education institutions are among our most important beacons of aspiration to everyone, whatever their backgrounds.
I will say this, however. When Tony Blair set a target that 50% of all young people should be progressing to higher education – a figure he recently updated to 70% – I think his ambition was somewhat misguided. To me it should be about ensuring the door is open to all, not necessarily increasing the traffic through it. Blair talked about increasing numbers. I think we should talk about increasing opportunity. Blair’s seemingly arbitrary target did a disservice to prospective students whose hopes were pinned on the hollow promise of a guaranteed high-paid job, regardless of their degree choice.
Skills and sustainability
What we’ve seen in reality is a proliferation of the courses available to students with too little consideration of how this satisfies the learner’s needs, both in terms of career prospects and the impact of the debt incurred, and the needs of our economy. University isn’t for everyone. We shouldn’t be afraid to say that. In fact, I think we should encourage an honest conversation about supply and demand in the skills market.
Carpentry, plumbing, heating engineering – all highly-skilled careers whose workforces keep our society ticking over week in and week out. That is why I feel so passionately about apprenticeships and the opportunities they offer, not only in terms of upskilling the workforce in new industries, but in going some way to right the wrongs of decades of deindustrialisation.
But when university is the right choice, and it absolutely is for so many of our young people – including through degree apprenticeships of course – let’s make sure that, whilst we should always support people in choosing their own path or following their dreams, we should also highlight areas where labour is in short supply. Where skills are acutely needed for the sake of our economy and society. Get people on the right courses. And make the resulting careers – in Wales – sustainable and enticing.
An act of self-sabotage
Take nursing as an example. In the UK, the average salary of a nurse who has been qualified for five years is around £36,000. In Canada – an English-speaking nation with universal healthcare – that figure is roughly £20,000 higher. We cannot be surprised when young people choose to go and live and work abroad when the offer is so much more attractive.
There are more than 2,000 nursing vacancies in Wales, with the NHS spending £325mn on agency nursing during 2022; a £53mn increase in the figure reported in 2021. Meanwhile, between 2021 and 2022, Wales saw the biggest drop in student numbers, with a 22% fall in students joining nursing courses. Data released in December shows that this trend is continuing, with a 16% drop in applicants for 2023 – again the highest rate of all the UK nations. These statistics represent a staggering failure to apply joined-up thinking to tackle one of the major challenges facing our NHS: the recruitment and retention crisis.
Similarly, medicine suffers just as acutely when it comes to meeting the growing demands of patient care. Until relatively recently, the aspiring doctors of tomorrow could only study at one university in Wales – here in Cardiff. Even then, the 2022 workforce report by the General Medical Council found that half of doctors who graduate in Wales leave to practise somewhere else, with 46% relocating to England due to more attractive career prospects. Only 43% of the 9,153 GMC-registered doctors who originally trained in Wales had remained here as of February 2023.
Our best and brightest
Losing our best and brightest when we should be incentivising them to stay here in Wales to study, work, and live is an act of economic and social self-sabotage. I’m acutely aware that there is an inbuilt tension. On one hand, we don’t want to stand in the way of our young people, and we want their eyes opened as widely as possible to a world of opportunities. But on the other hand, we want to build our Welsh Universities into centres of pioneering research and foster a stronger connection between the place of study, and the place of future work.
For reasons known only to itself, the Welsh Government doesn’t routinely publish the total level of support for Welsh-domiciled students studying at Universities in England. However, according to the 2021–2022 budget there was a predicted spend of £96mn on student grants to those studying outside Wales, increasing to £97mn in 2022–2023. Regrettably, a similar breakdown was not provided in the 2023–2024 budget paper provided to the Children, Young People, and Education Committee but we can safely say the figure will be not too dissimilar.
It would be hypocritical of me, particularly in the context of this lecture, to in any way stifle a young person’s ambition. But it is a legitimate question to ask whether it’s right that the system we currently have in place takes money out of Wales without any guarantee, or in fact without even an endeavour to ensure that in any way it will pay a Welsh dividend down the line.
Towards the future of Wales
I did study in Wales, but joined my then-girlfriend – now my wife – in Italy, where she was studying at the University in Parma under the Erasmus Scheme. That’s yet another lecture, on the opportunity loss that we’ve seen post-Brexit. She went on to do a Masters in London. I have a daughter who studied at the London School of Economics, another studying across the border, and another who graduated from a Welsh university. I’ve lived and worked in England myself.
So yes, I know from experience that expanding horizons can be fulfilling, exciting, and financially profitable for many individuals. But surely we have to be thinking all the time how we use that investment in education, skills, and knowledge to incentivise our young people to aspire to make a contribution towards the future of Wales. In every sense.
And at the same time, let’s attract others in. Study in Wales. Make it your home and your platform for success. We’ll enjoy sharing the rewards! This is an area that I hope to speak about much more in the months ahead, working with our education lead, Heledd Fychan.
Leadership and long-term ambition
I can’t let this evening pass without mentioning the main event of Welsh politics at the moment: the contest to become the leader of the Labour party in Wales and, by default, the new First Minister. We can all hope that a change at the helm of the Welsh Government can help lead to a change of approach. A departure from that stifling short-termism which I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, and a greater discipline in terms of strategic thinking.
There is nothing inevitable about our poor economic fortunes. Nothing which cannot be improved with sustainable investment and a sound strategy (not a soundbite strategy) driven by a clear purpose in terms of what success looks like. Nothing taboo about talking about and being committed to creating real prosperity in this nation, which has so much untapped potential.
I will conclude where I began – setting out my belief in the mantra of fairness and ambition as the key to creating a Wales where background is no impediment to success and where ill health is not defined by postcode. Fairness between regions, fairness between generations, fairness between vocations. A level playing field that enables everyone to pursue their aspirations.
These are the fundamental factors that will help us tackle the economic, social, health, and educational challenges facing Wales. Greater incentives to study here mean a better chance of safeguarding the NHS workforce of the future, which in turn can tackle waiting times. Preserving the apprenticeships which guarantee a skilled workforce able to meet the needs of the labour market in well-paid, well-respected jobs. Redressing the imbalance of infrastructure investment within Wales, which hinders people’s access to basic services and facilities, often in areas where poverty is already acute.
Politics is becoming increasingly polarised. And in Wales there is no greater dividing line than between those who believe in the art of the possible and those who settle for demonstrating faux outrage at our plight.
For proponents of running our own affairs, there are rightly questions to answer, but nobody can accuse us of lacking ambition. Independence for me has never been about pulling up the drawbridge and retreating from the world. It’s not Brexit 2.0. On the contrary, it’s about having an internationalist outlook, a truly accountable government – its destination not set by others.
By now I’m amused and perplexed when asked if independence is viable. Surely in the age of austerity, with hundreds of millions wiped from the Welsh budget, when there’s apparently no money to feed hungry children, the question should be: what exactly is the case for the Union?
Wales’s problems are complex, but not insurmountable. That belief drives me every day. And any other political party’s lack of belief in our capacity to thrive as an independent nation is in itself a barrier placed on the ambition our country so desperately needs. That’s not to say it’s easy, that’s not to say there aren’t challenges to overcome, and ultimately the answer to that core constitutional question will rightly be decided by the people of Wales. But politicians are in the privileged position of having the ability to lead debate.
New and better outcomes
By resisting the urge to think in the short term, we can join the dots between the malady and the remedy and develop solutions more holistically. In the coming weeks and months, I look forward to putting this approach into practice with the publication of Luke Fletcher’s new economic strategy, expert research into the governance of the NHS in Wales, as well as my party’s submission to the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales.
When we take the time to make the connection between these issues – the landscape of the devolution settlement, the future of our health service, and our nation’s economic prospects – that’s how we get a better understanding of how to build a Wales that is fairer, greener, more ambitious, and more prosperous.
By slowing down our thinking, we can speed up our progress. At first, a contradiction in terms, but I hope that I’ve gone at least some way to persuade you otherwise. And that a new approach can spark new and better outcomes for the country we all know deserves better.
Diolch yn fawr iawn.
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