Dr Dan Boucher is a former Assembly and UK Parliamentary candidate. He lives with his family in Swansea.
The British political party that has enjoyed the longest period in government in modern times is Welsh Labour. Indeed, given that prior to devolution they governed Wales from May 1997, when the people of Wales go to the polls on May 6 this year, we will have been governed by Labour in many key areas of our lives for twenty four years! They have enjoyed an opportunity no other modern British party has had. How have they used it?
In November 1998, just months before the first Assembly elections, I attended the launch of the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ seminal book The National Assembly Agenda in Cardiff. The chapter on economic development began: “Of all the measures by which the National Assembly will be judged none will be as important as the challenge of raising the level of economic well-being…much can be achieved through more concerted and dynamic action at the Welsh level”.
In 2001 the Welsh Labour Government launched its first major economic development consultation, A Winning Wales, proposing a National Economic Development Strategy. They recognised that Welsh GDP per head was just 80 per cent of the UK average and set themselves the target of closing the gap by 10 per cent over the next ten years to 90 per cent. In engaging with this challenge, there was great excitement arising from the fact that under Labour we came to qualify (not itself an achievement) for a huge injection of EU regional aid. There was a real expectation that this would transform the Welsh economy as it had that of the Republic of Ireland. We too would become a Celtic tiger!
In the subsequent ten years, Welsh Labour failed to close the gap by one per cent let alone 10. Indeed, notwithstanding EU regional aid, Welsh GDP per head fell even further to the low 70s where it has since remained. In this context Wales went on to qualify for a second round of EU regional aid. Today we represent five per cent of the population of the UK but generate only 3.4 per cent of its wealth.
The last government to control economic development policy and preside over an increase in Welsh GDP per head was the Conservative one between 1985 and 1990. Moreover, under its stewardship, between 1986 and 1996, Wales was one of the few places in the UK, and indeed Europe, to boost manufacturing employment and productivity. In 1995 manufacturing productivity rates in Wales were better than any part of the UK, save South East of England which was only fractionally ahead.
Those years also witnessed what has been described a “golden age” of inward investment into Wales. In 1996-1997 the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) was credited with creating 18,000 new jobs, 15,000 through inward investment. By contrast, in 2019-2020, the Welsh Government boasted creating just 2,738 jobs by inward investment.
At a lecture I helped organise in 2016, a former Director General of Economic Development from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul expressed shock at the low levels of inward investment between South Korea and Wales. In all this we were not helped by Labour’s decision to abolish the Welsh Development Agency, absorbing its function into the Welsh Government in a move that Brian Morgan, (one the authors of the 1998 National Assembly Agenda) said: “will probably go down in history as the worst policy decision made in Wales in living memory”.
Indeed, while economic development is devolved, the most successful framework for it in Wales has actually been provided by the UK Conservative Government’s City Deal programme, which has resulted in the creation of the Cardiff Capital Region City Deal, the Swansea Bay City Deal, the North Wales Growth Deal and the Mid Wales Growth Deal. Meanwhile, under Welsh Labour business rates in Wales are now the highest of any part of the UK.
Welsh Labour has been given twenty-four years to transform the Welsh economy and failed. May 6, 2021 will be a key day in our history. We cannot afford what would be getting on for 30 years of uninterrupted Labour government. What makes this change particularly critical now is Brexit. Having failed so transparently to deliver in a context they passionately believed in, EU membership and massive EU regional aid, it does not bear thinking about how they will fare in a context about which they clearly remain deeply uncomfortable, notwithstanding the fact that the people of Wales voted for Brexit by a majority more than nine times greater than that to create the Welsh Assembly.
We now urgently need a Welsh Conservative administration in Cardiff Bay to work with the UK Government to drive up productivity and living standards and make the most of Brexit trade deals for all parts of the Welsh economy.