Article Written by Darren Millar MS – Welsh Conservative Chief Whip and Shadow Minister for External Affairs and International Relations:
The events of last week have reinforced in us all the importance of respect for democracy. It has reminded us all how precious the right to vote is, and how important it is that the results of ballots are respected.
The left often seem to pretend that they are the only ones who really care about the democratic system and seek to portray those on the right as cartoon villains who do not want to trust the people, but the last five years clearly demonstrate that is not the case. In both 2017 and 2019, Conservative UK Governments dissolved Parliament to give the British people a say on the impasse of Brexit. So compelling was my Party’s desire to trust the people that most of the Labour Party felt compelled to join my Westminster colleagues in the same voting lobby.
Trusting the people – and accepting their choices – is what we Conservatives do. That is why in 1997 we accepted the Welsh devolution referendum result and is why we have worked constructively for over twenty years to try and make devolution work.
As Conservatives we are instinctively a democratic party and our contribution to embedding the democratic principle in Britain is one of our most fundamental political contributions. It was a Conservative Government under Disraeli a hundred and fifty years ago that extended the franchise to working men with property. A hundred years ago it was a predominantly Conservative coalition (albeit led by the Liberal Lloyd George) that reformed the entire system to give all men and older women the vote. A decade later it was the Conservatives, under Stanley Baldwin that equalised the rights of men and women to vote at the same age. The Labour Party, in contrast, can’t even deliver one member, one vote, for its own leadership.
Until recently I thought every party in the Welsh Parliament was as committed to the same democratic principles. But there are clear signs that both Labour and Plaid Cymru are not as wedded to democratic choice as we are in the Welsh Conservatives. For the last six months they have been flying kites about possibly postponing the next Welsh General Election due at the start of May. When they began doing this, I thought they were just testing the water. Now I think they are minded to attempt to divert the flow of the river.
It is not often I agree with Mark Drakeford but when he said “The Senedd badly needs an election”, I almost applauded him.
But his actions have not matched his words. For the whole of the same six month period, the First Minister has been focused on what other people are doing and not what on he should be doing. We saw this over the Christmas period with the Senedd recalled to discuss a Brexit deal, over which it has no power, with a statement on Covid regulations, over which it has considerable power, tagged on to the agenda only because we Welsh Conservatives pushed for it.
The Welsh Government’s approach has all been wrong. The fundamental principle should have been this: there is a Welsh Parliament Election in May 2021 and so how do we make sure it happens on that date, with maximum participation, while minimising the risks to public health.
Instead the Welsh Labour approach has been: there are far too many risks to health from committing to an election to definitely happen, so we will put all our energy into plans to defer it, rather than to plan to hold it safely in May.
Contrast that with the USA. Or France. Or Croatia. Or Poland. Or Singapore. Or Serbia. Or South Korea. In each of those countries, elections have been held since the start of the pandemic without a spike in Covid cases. In each of those countries, preparations were made which balanced democratic and health concerns. In each of those countries, there was a Government that actually wanted – really wanted elections to go ahead.
The cynic in me thinks this is about way more than public health – it is about public opinion too – and specifically the growing anger of the Welsh public with the way the Welsh Labour Government has dealt with the pandemic.
Let’s look at the numbers. Our Covid death rates are the higher than any other part of the UK. Our economic downturn is sharper and deeper than any other part of the UK. And for Mark Drakeford himself his own popularity ratings have nose dived in the last three months. From October onwards The Welsh Labour Government has dispensed with the myth that Covid regulations in Wales were based on science, and instead produced increasingly random or intrusive new rules. Every time he has done this he has not only confused the public in Wales more, he had lost another chunk of their support.
On top of this, there is the swing to the Conservatives in recent UK opinion polls. The public are both relieved and happy we have got Brexit done. That’s what they voted for in 2019 not just in England but in record numbers in Wales too.
When Labour Ministers tell us again there is a strong case for postponing May’s elections because of the Covid infection figures I am absolutely convinced that although they have one eye on the health numbers, they have their other eye on their own polling numbers.
So First Minister, if you genuinely believe – absolutely genuinely believe – that Wales badly needs an election then stop focusing on postponing and start focusing on making it actually happen.