Europe Referendum Cuts Across Welsh Election Campaign
Have the coming elections for the Welsh Government captured the public’s imagination?
As dozens of people filed in to Llandeilo Rugby Club last night (April 14) to fire questions at the candidates for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, I thought “Great! More people than for the General Election hustings last year.”
It soon became clear, though, that Europe, not Wales, was uppermost in many people’s minds. To stay in or leave?
Only one of the five candidates present, UKIP’s Neil Hamilton, campaigns for Britain’s exit from the European Union, and (in addition to loyal, redoubtable Mrs Christine H) he did have some support in the room. On balance, the stayers appeared to outnumber the Brexiters, but that’s just an impression. We’ll have to wait until June 23rd to find out.
Adam Price for Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Conservatives’ Matthew Paul, Steve Jeacock for Labour and William Powell from the LibDems, all back staying in the EU, for different reasons, and they were not all united on much else. For Matthew Paul, the EU is the fourth pillar of UK national security after our nuclear arms, the USA and NATO (I think that was the order) but for Neil Hamilton the EU has nothing to do with peace, and a lot to do with German financial power impoverishing southern Europe.
Steve Jeacock, who manages a Swansea community library in his day job, was somewhat disadvantaged because of the absence of a Labour manifesto (to be published next week). The Conservative manifesto was not quite published either, but barrister Matthew Paul, a West Walian, had plenty to say about policy priorities. Neil Hamilton, Monmouthshire-born and Aberystwyth-educated, and Conservative MP for Tatton 1983-1997, is an entertaining speaker whether he has a sheaf of policies or not. William Powell, teacher and organic farmer, is well practised because he was an AM – Member of the National Assembly for Wales – from 2011 until the start of this election campaign. Adam Price, who was MP for the constituency between 2001 and 2010, achieved a national profile, and people remember that he tried to impeach Tony Blair for lying to Parliament before the Iraq War. Adam did not stand for election in 2010 – Jonathan Edwards was elected in his place – and went off to Harvard University. Now he’s back.
Steve Brown and John Gaffney from the local environmental group Transition Tywi Trawsnewid organised the hustings, and so candidates’ green credentials were probed. Given the group’s eco interests, it was a shame that Green Party candidate Freya Amsbury could not be present.
Wales has missed its climate change emissions targets, said one questioner, so what would candidates do about it? Nothing, said Neil Hamilton, on the basis that the UK’s (let alone Wales’s) emissions make no difference in the global context. Matthew Paul does not rate climate change, either, arguing for “jobs before climate”. “Enough has been done on climate change,” he said, “I’d rather see a Port Talbot blast furnace operating”. Renewable energy was OK, he ventured, provided the schemes were big, Nuclear power, too, is on Matthew Paul’s list of Good Things.
Steve Jeacock likes to take the long view and referred to the Well-being of Future Generations Act (Wales) 2015, which comes over as a Motherhood and Apple Pie law of good intentions but (in my inexpert view) very imprecise and open to interpretation.
For both William Powell and Adam Price, climate change is an accelerating danger. William and Adam would go for community renewable energy schemes and retrofitting homes for energy efficiency, and Adam would back a new power station at Port Talbot, using waste gases from the steel plant to generate electricity for the works.
The Welsh Government cannot dictate to the climate, but does have control over education. William Powell and Matthew Paul struck a chord with their criticism of Welsh Labour’s urbanising agenda – centralising education and leaving rural areas without schools. They both highlighted the closure of Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn, Llandovery, as a tragic consequence of this agenda. For Steve Jeacock, as a loyal Labourite, educational progress is manifest in new buildings and in teaching everyone how to write computer software, for example. Adam Price would encourage innovation, imagination and diversity, while William Powell would raise the profile of vocational education, and Neil Hamilton would abandon the target for half of school leavers to go to university.
Matthew Paul wants to take funding away from local authorities and pass it directly to schools, which sounds rather like the Conservative policy in England to force all schools to become academies (quasi private, rather than owned and run on behalf of the public).
Are hustings useful? More for personalities than policies, the manifestos are better for those. More than one of the candidates could be elected next month, because two of them, William Powell and Neil Hamilton, are also included in their parties’ regional lists for Mid and West Wales. Bit of a pity, though, that in 2016 the audience had no women candidates to question.
Personal choice? I’m a member of Plaid Cymru and will support the talented Adam Price, but I’d also like to see a seat for William Powell, who really understands sustainable rural regeneration. And as Adam said, running Wales well will require ideas and commitment from all of us, regardless of political party or affiliation.
Whether in or out of the EU, Wales will still need inspired government.