The Welsh Labour Conference was held in Swansea last weekend, not that you’d have heard much about it of course. As far as many in the London based media are concerned, the Welsh people have a bit of an annoying habit of voting Labour and passionately wanting to remain part of the Union. “Move on, nothing to see here”, is the call of the press pack, “let’s find out what Alex Salmond had for breakfast”.
Never mind that much of the debate that will frame the general election is already playing out in Wales, where a Labour government is challenging the Tory mantra of a 19th-century laissez-faire redux and showing what a difference an active administration can make – even when facing swingeing budget cuts.
Although to be fair, when David Cameron launches a salvo against Wales we do sometimes get a rare mention, nothing like the PM slagging off his own country to boost audience figures. In fact, over the last year there’s been an almost constant stream of apocalyptic tales of woe directed at Wales, as part of a concerted Tory campaign to paint a picture of our country as a virtually crumbling failed state. Most shamefully the Prime Minister described the border between Wales and England as a “line between life and death”. While just a few weeks ago Stephen Crabb, supposedly our voice in the cabinet, described Welsh education as “worse than Eastern Europe” – who needs enemies, with representatives like these?
In reality, David Cameron and Stephen Crabb know their claims are nonsense. Wales is actually moving forward in education as record numbers last year got 5 good GCSEs, at the same time England is slipping backwards, with the GCSE attainment gap increasing by 7 per cent in the last 12 months alone. While last year the Nuffield Trust produced an independent authoritative report comparing health systems across the UK, they found that while each of the four systems have particular strengths and weaknesses “no country [is] consistently ahead of, or lagging behind, the others”.
Yet the truth won’t stop these attacks from coming, because they are not about rational debate. These are politicised attacks, as part of a Tory War on Wales – designed to run down a nation, in a bid to attack Labour by proxy. If nurses, teachers and our public services are denigrated in the crossfire, so be it – for the Tories, the groundless slating of Wales’s reputation is a small price to pay, in a desperate bid to win votes in England.
Yet as the election draws nearer I’m more certain than ever that the cynical ploy of trashing Wales will fail.
This is the message I was determined to get across at our Welsh conference in Swansea last weekend. In fact, I was so passionate about the changes we are seeing in Wales that I ripped up my conference speech and decided to speak directly from the heart.
The reason for this passion is that when you look past the patronising Tory snubs, you can see evidence in Wales of what can be achieved when government actively gets involved to serve the interests of the people. It’s a vision that rightly worries the Tories, because they rely on fear, division and pessimism to win – which makes hope a dangerous commodity. And that sense of hope was palpable at Welsh Labour conference this weekend.
This wasn’t based on a naive blind optimism, we know there are huge challenges ahead and difficult financial decision to make. Nevertheless we can also see around us – in virtually every community in Wales – the difference Labour makes, even in the toughest of times.
Take the work underway to build a brand new, world leading, University campus in Swansea, the city where we held our conference. The scale of the project is staggering – across 65 acres, the new campus is bringing academia together with world leading companies, like Rolls-Royce and Tata Steel, to help fill gaps in science and technology research in the UK. This will enable students (paying a fraction of the fees students face in England, thanks to the Welsh Labour government) to work in some of the key sectors vital to our economic future, like advanced engineering, life sciences, the digital economy and low carbon. The new campus will be a shining example of what government and the private sector can achieve by working in partnership.
When students start arriving later this year we will see yet another generation of young women and men in Wales joining the cutting edge of the world economy. Adding another example to the list of world leading enterprises based in Wales, joining ventures like the Anglesey Energy Island Programme, which again brings the public and private sector together at the forefront of international energy research and development. The Anglesey project alone could contribute over £11bn to the UK economy over the next 15 years by harnessing the power of nuclear, wind, tidal, biomass and solar technology. While yet another ambitious project is taking shape in Swansea to deliver the first tidal lagoon, which has the potential to help establish Wales as a leading centre in a renewal energy.
This public and private partnership working doesn’t stop there, programmes like Jobs Growth Wales have generated nearly 17,000 job opportunities for young people and a stunning 82 per cent of the people who completed a full opportunity in the private sector move into employment, an apprenticeship or further learning. Again government, the private sector and young people working together – each benefiting and boosting our economy.
These transformative projects simply wouldn’t have been possible without a Welsh Labour government – and these aren’t isolated incidents. Last year, Wales secured 79 large scale foreign direct inward investment projects, creating and safeguarding 10,441 jobs. The jobs represent around 10 per cent of the figure for the whole UK, twice the proportion of the Welsh population. This was an increase of 40 per cent on the previous year, while the UK trend was 35 per cent down and the Welsh Labour government was directly involved in 89 per cent of all recorded projects.
Time and again Wales punching above our weight, because the Labour party understands that in the modern economy it’s partnership, not divisive politics and laissez-faire economics, that delivers progress.
Welsh Labour is showing that aspiration for a country and its people – especially the young – must be brought to life in deeds and not just words, that is why we kept the education maintenance allowance in Wales and are ploughing ahead with a new school building project, while one of the Tories first acts in 2010 was to cancel building schools for the future.
So it’s little wonder that the Tories are scared by an optimistic vision for our country’s future, that’s why you can expect to see plenty more mud slung Wales’s way in the coming months. But we are ready for it, to Cameron and his cronies we say bring it on – Welsh Labour will stand proud.
The growing confidence in Wales isn’t just based on that fact that we have by far the most dedicated and passionate party members, campaigning tirelessly to win not for themselves, but for the people they got in to politics to help. Or that we know growing numbers are fed up of a Tory party who want us to commit to a miserable vision of the future, driven by an ideology that says government should just get out of the way and let people slug it out with the market.
Our confidence is rooted in the fact that we know how powerful hope can be, even in the face of the forces of division and despair. Over the coming months that message of hope can carry us to victory – and when it does, I heartily recommend that David Cameron take a restorative holiday in Wales, he might just learn a thing or two.
Owen Smith MP is Shadow Secretary of State for Wales