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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Welsh campaign crawls to the starting line

If the only thing to write about each day is the General Election then even I will start to get bored. Fortunately, the Welsh Assembly resumes sittings next week. No doubt Plenary Sessions will be even more lively than usual as the various parties seek to use the opportunity it presents to campaign and try to gain electoral advantage. At least things will be more straightforward for the Welsh Liberal Democrats this time around. In 2001 we were still shackled to Labour in the Partnership Government and spent most of our time agonising about what we could and could not do and say in the Chamber.

Starting with the cheap shot, I notice that Tony Blair has warned of a "rather nasty rightwing campaign". I know that he means the Tories but surely his policies, particularly on law and order and asylum, and the way that he has competed with Michael Howard to reach the moral low ground must be a contributory factor to this outcome.

The Western Mail leads on a challenge to the political parties and their candidates to demand real change for the NHS. They publish a pledge card, which they ask their readers to insist that political candidates sign. The pledge card carries three promises: to reduce waiting times to match England's by 2006; to create NHS walk-in centres in towns and cities in Wales; and to ensure that every patient can see a dentist in their community.

In their enthusiasm the Western Mail has fallen into an old trap. People are fed up of politicians making promises that they cannot or do not keep. Much of the reason for this is that many of the promises are unrealistic or unachieveable. That is why all the parties now seek to produce properly costed manifestos and spend a considerable amount of campaigning time defending the deliverability of their pledges.

Placed against this yardstick the last two points on the Western Mail pledge card are most probably achievable but reducing waiting times to match England's by 2006 is a very tall order indeed and, given the current capacity problems of the NHS, as well as the place where we are starting from, beyond the capacity of any party by that date. I am sure that we can win votes by promising to do it, but do we really want to sign up to something that we cannot deliver? If anybody believes that it can be done then please let me have your detailed plan with costings as soon as possible.

The paper also carries a very useful round-up of the key battlegrounds by Kirsty Buchanan. She starts off with a stark warning for New Labour:

Despite Labour's rather facile election slogan, Forward not Back, the electorate is neither willing to forget nor forgive the blundering invasion of Iraq based on a bogus threat of weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq, according to Mr Hain, is still the elephant lurking in the electorate's living room.

While the war itself will not be the determining factor for voters, (this will still be a standard tax and spend and public services battle), it is colouring the credibility of Labour's election message.

The floating voters behind two landslide Labour victories have faded away, disillusioned by the slow pace of public sector reform and increasingly mistrustful of the party's promises, while core supporters still nurse a sense of betrayal over Iraq, top-up fees and creeping hospital privatisation.

On the Welsh Liberal Democrats top target seat of Cardiff Central she writes:

But there is one seat which, if lost, would give Labour cause for legitimate long-term concern - Cardiff Central.

In an election where tactical voting could play as significant a role as in 1997, the strategic support of the Conservatives could combine with the disillusionment of former Labour supporters to hand this jewel to the Liberal Democrats, one year after the party captured the council.

It is metropolitan, university cities like Cardiff where Labour can expect to see the biggest swings away from the party.

Fury over top-up fees, frustration over the slow pace of public sector reform, a loss of trust in the Prime Minister and the ill-fated case for war will almost certainly translate into lost seats.
And in Cardiff Central it requires a swing away from Labour of just 1% to hand victory to the Lib-Dem candidate Jenny Willott.

Kirsty also drives home the way that devolution has changed the political landscape. She points out that Welsh voters now effectively have a general election every two years and that what happens on May 5th could have a major impact on the Assembly elections in 2007. In particular, the debate on the Assembly's powers will come to a head in the next Parliament. Whoever enters Gwydyr House as the new Secretary of State for Wales will have significant influence over the resources available to the Assembly and how they are able to use Primary legislation to take forward their agenda. He or she will also play a key role in liasing with the Welsh Assembly Government on how to translate UK initiatives into a Welsh context. She concludes:

With Assembly elections in 2007, a warning shot fired at New Labour now could sink Welsh Labour in just two years' time.

Unless a third-term Labour Government makes good on promises from this campaign, it faces the ironic prospect of losing more power in Cardiff Bay at the very point at which the National Assembly becomes a body even more worth holding on to.

AMs are not to be sidelined to allow Parliamentary Candidates to seize the moment after all. Not only is the campaign in Wales to be different because of devolution but the outcome could well settle the future of the Welsh Assembly for decades to come.
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