By Dr Dafydd Trystan Davies
As the dust settles on the 2015 General Election and parties start to move beyond the shock of the election of a Conservative majority Government committed to imposing further cuts and renewed austerity, the time has come to look forward to the pivotal National Assembly elections in 2016.
The 2015 election throws up challenges and opportunities for all parties but in Plaid’s case the scales are very much tilted towards the opportunities as we look towards 2016. Let us consider for a moment the parties in Wales. Labour, having secured one of their worst General Election results in many years, face a protracted period of soul searching and renewed internal battles between centre left and the right. For the Tories in Wales, the further damaging cuts being imposed by a Westminster Tory Government is not a good backdrop for a mid-term election campaign. And if things are bad for Labour (and potentially also for the Tories), adjectives cannot properly convey the crisis facing the dying embers of the Liberal Democrats. UKIP are in a somewhat different position having made some progress in terms of votes but they did not make any breakthroughs. They clearly benefitted from protest votes and an anti-politics mood but those voters may well be ready for something more substantial in 2016.
But what of Plaid Cymru and our progress? Our results across Wales were solid (a 10% increase in the number of voters is a good result by any measure), very good in parts and excellent in some parts but, more importantly, the party’s profile has increased in a manner unprecedented in our history. This increased profile was recognised in every independent analysis of the election. Leanne Wood arrived as a national statesperson during this election and as someone whom the electors can quite easily see as the First Minister of Wales. Leanne is well liked across all shades of political opinion and I have little doubt that her vastly increased profile (and personal ratings) will stand the party in excellent stead for 2016. It is the solid foundation upon which Leanne and the party can build our success over the next nine months.
But we must acknowledge that the positive feelings towards Plaid Cymru as a party did not translate into hundreds of thousands of extra votes in 2015. For me, there lies the challenge and the opportunity. There is a large section of the Welsh electorate who are positively disposed towards Plaid Cymru and will seriously consider giving us their support in 2016, but they need persuading.
The crucial challenge is articulating a positive vision of the kind of Wales we would like to see – and the kind of Wales a Plaid Government could deliver – within a decade. And to contrast this vision with the ‘business as usual’ / managed decline approach of the Welsh Labour Government.
Building an ambitious programme of Government is a major task, but it strikes me that there are four key policy fields we have to tackle to build a more successful, prosperous and sustainable Wales:
• The Economy, where our GVA (Gross Value Added) per head is some £7,000 less than in England;
• Education, where our schools ranking 36th, 38th and 43rd in Science, Reading and Maths respectively in the international benchmark PISA tests;
• Health, where people in our poorer counties can expect to live for four years less than in other areas;
• The Environment, where almost 70% of journeys are still made by car.
These challenges are the legacy of many years of public policy neglect in Wales.
If we are to give those thousands of voters who considered lending Plaid their votes in 2015 but ultimately chose Labour, UKIP or the Conservatives the hope for a better Government in 2016, we need that credible and visionary programme of government.
In each of these areas we need to identify ideas that help transform Wales to a modern successful northern European country. For Plaid the detailed work will take place over the next few months but here are some ideas – or development of ideas – that could make a real difference:
• On the Economy: to make Wales a Living Wage Country, beginning with the public sector, moving on through those who service the public sector and supporting private businesses who adopt the Living Wage with tax incentives, and investing in growth sectors in the economy, particularly technology and renewable energy (solar and tidal);
• On Education: to provide greater support for students studying in Wales and more resources for our universities to deliver world leading teaching and research and to tackle underperformance in our schools with targeted support in education action zones;
• On Health: to prioritise investment in public health, tackle the obesity crisis and provide greater support for those in need of personal care, prioritising those suffering from dementia and their carers;
• On the Environment: to cut spending on roads and invest in public and sustainable transport – the days of seeing new road building as the answer to our transport problems are long gone – and to invest in green homes, adopting solar technology or green roofs for all new homes and, in due course, to invest in retrofitting the current housing stock.
These are a few ideas to contribute to the debate. It is essential that Plaid puts forward a credible programme to lead a National Government of Wales. I hope to play my part over the next months in the debate and in campaigning across our communities because the prize of a more confident, more prosperous and less dependent Wales is within our grasp. We are slowly but surely embarking on a journey towards a more independent Wales, where we take more of our own decisions and shape our own destiny. The 2016 election offers to Plaid both that challenge and opportunity.
Dr Dafydd Trystan Davies is National Chair of Plaid Cymru and a candidate for selection to Plaid’s South Wales Central Regional list. He has previously served as Plaid’s National Treasurer. He was the Party’s Chief Executive when the Plaid secured electoral success in 2007 and formed the One Wales Government.