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Posts Tagged ‘Welsh Conservatives’

There seem to have been a lot of false starts in Welsh politics recently, amongst them the contest to replace Nick Bourne as leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Assembly.

After an initial flurry when the party’s Assembly Members negotiated agreements and disagreements to come up with a final two, today looks more like a real beginning of the contest.

A week of hustings starts in Aberystwyth tonight and will take the two rivals and their supporters around the country to meet party members.

And earlier one of the candidates, Nick Ramsay, published his manifesto, marking the official launch of his campaign. You can read it on his campaign website here.

There were some surprises in his manifesto such as the eye-catching promise to ‘look again at our policy of opposition to free school breakfasts.’

In itself that may not seem particularly significant but as a signal of intent, it sends quite a message to the political world – that the Welsh Conservatives have changed and, under Nick Ramsay, would be willing to change further.

But he can’t afford to be seen as just a moderniser and a devolution-fan since many in his party are sceptical if not downright hostile to the Assembly and everything connected to it.

So for them there’s this message:

I will not seek devolution of further legislative power to the Welsh Assembly – we now have the tools to get on with the job. It’s time to stop marking out the pitch and start playing the game.

But there was one overriding message he wanted to send today, it was that the Welsh Conservatives must continue to ‘reach out’ to non-Conservatives if it’s ever to be in government in Cardiff Bay.

Naturally he thinks he’s the man to lead that task.

His rival Andrew RT Davies thinks differently. Welsh Conservative members will get to find out more about what HE stands for over the next few days.

The rest of us will find out when his manifesto is published next week.

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‘No deals,’ Andrew RT Davies insisted when I asked him. ‘I don’t believe in deals.’

And when I put the same question to Darren Millar he used almost identical language, saying ‘There have been no deals with Andrew RT Davies about jobs or anything like that in the future.’

The deal or no deal question keeps being asked by people like me because Mr Millar has regularly been spoken about as a potential leader of the Conservatives in the Assembly and it was considered a given that he would stand for it when the vacancy arose.

Now it has arisen but he won’t be standing and will be supporting Mr Davies. A decision reached, he assured me, after discussing it with his family and based entirely on his belief that Mr Davies is the effective communicator the party needs now that Nick Bourne is no longer in charge in Cardiff Bay.

After all, the AM for Clwyd South reminded me, he’s only 34 and has time on his side.

But cynics will wonder why, as well as not standing, he’s also nominating Mr Davies.

Particularly since the other person who was thought to be a potential leader but isn’t standing, Angela Burns, isn’t backing either man.

Her failure to win nominations will disappoint many inside and outside the party, and not just because she would have broken the male domination of the Conservative leadership.

She also surprised many in the party by holding her Carmarthen West and South Pembs constituency with an increased share of the vote and is said to have strong views on the way the Welsh Conservatives can achieve what seems a distant goal – getting into government in Cardiff Bay.

But in the end, once Nick Ramsay had secured three nominations with the promise of a fourth, it became clear to those of us on the outside what had long been suspected: that there could only be two candidates.

That’s because both acting leader Paul Davies and new Deputy Presiding Officer David Melding said they would remain neutral.

That left only seven AMs in the group and a requirement for three nominations.

According to Darren Millar though, his decision was taken last week before the maths became clear.

A lot more will become clear over the next two months. That’s how long there is for the two candidates to persuade Tory members across the country that they’re the right man for the job.

It looks increasingly likely too that Plaid Cymru will be choosing a leader sooner rather than later too.

The election may be over, but its effects are only just beginning to be felt.

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As political interventions go, this is one of the most intellectual: one of the UK’s leading scientists, backed by 60 other senior academics criticising all four political parties.

What worries  Sir John Cadogan is that he says none of the parties in this election campaign is addressing concerns about the funding gap between our universities and those in England and Scotland.

That’s why he’s chosen to speak to ITV Wales and why he’s written directly to the party leaders.

But why should any of them pay attention to him?

Well he certainly has the credentials as a former professor of chemistry at universities in England and Wales, as well as a government adviser and a leading figure in business.

And he’s speaking in his position as President of the Learned Society of Wales – an institution representing the creme of Welsh academia. The society has 60 fellows and is about to see its numbers more than double. These are heavyweight opinions.

Not only that, but Sir John reckons that the Learned Society is giving a voice to academics, lecturers, governors and Vice-chancellors who won’t speak out because they’re concerned that doing so will cost them dearly.

So what are his worries?

A paper produced for the Learned Society claims that universities have been significantly and deliberately underfunded for the last ten years.

It refers to figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales which show the extent of the funding gap.

Hefcw’s report is here. It’s a few years old, but it shows that in 2007/8 the difference between the funding of Welsh universities and those in England was £62m and with Scotland it was £181m.

The Learned Society reckons the gap over the last decade is over half a billion and a billion respectively.

The bigger concern, though, is not the past but the future which is why Sir John has written to each of the four party leaders spelling out the situation and asking what they’ll do about it.

You can read the letter to the party leaders here.

In the absence of any replies, he’s read the manifestos and finds no credible plan to plug the gap.

Sir John told me,

One Vice-Chancellor told me that if his university had been in Scotland under the Scottish system of funding he would have had another 100 lecturers… It’s not about governors, Vice-chancellors – discoveries are made in the Library and the lab by people working at the frontier. If you don’t have those people working at the frontier with the best equipment, the best libraries and the best students – because we want to attract the best students – you’re not going to win.

And he warns that,

They can’t compete, they’ll slide. They’ll do their best and what’s remarkable is how well universities have done. There have been these pinnacles of excellence but (Welsh universities) are like a pier with too few supports and the danger is that the expensive subjects will take the hit.

That was echoed what Dr Steve Hagen of Newport University told us. He said that what’s not being invested in are things like medical, paramedical and scientific subjects – anything that requires students to spend a lot of time in expensive labs.

We tackled each of the parties with Sir John’s concerns.  I’m not sure that their replies will reassure him. See what you make of them.

Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones said

We know that the alleged funding gap will disappear next year because higher education in England is being destroyed, slashed by up to 80%. We’ve protected higher education as best we can in Wales while at the same time making it possible for people to afford to go to university.

Plaid Cymru’s leader Ieuan Wyn Jones said

I don’t think there has been deliberate underfunding, certainly not during the time we’ve been in government. What we have to do is to work with universities to improve research and development capacity on the side of the economy. We’ve also protected students by keeping fees down. What we also recognise is that in England 75% of the teaching grant is being cut – nothing like that has happened in Wales.

The Welsh Conservatives say the funding gap would be plugged by raising tuition fees which students would only pay after graduating and earning over £21,000.  They claim that Labour’s policy of subsidising tuition fees would ‘result in Welsh unversities being underfunded compared to those in England, resulting in a two-tier higher education system.

Kirsty Williams, the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats said

(We) have consistently highlighted the growing gap in how our universitites are funded compared with those in England and its vital we get a good balance between support for individual students and support for institutions.  After all if we don’t keep pace with developments not just in England, but across the world, we’re not going to have a university sector that’s attractive to people.

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The Welsh Conservatives have launched their manifesto today, meaning that all four of the main parties in this election have now laid out their promises for us.

You can read the manifesto in full here.

It’s the smallest of all four manifestos, coming in at just 32 pages but as small books go it has to achieve a great deal.

Not only does it have to appeal to Conservative voters across Wales, many of whom are still sceptical about devolution, but it also has to complete the rebranding that’s gone on over the last ten years which is sometimes half-jokingly referred to as Welshification.

And it also has to appeal to other parties if a rainbow coalition with Plaid and the Liberal Democrats becomes a possibility.

Privately a party source told me that about 90% of the manifesto is true blue Conservative that no Tory anywhere in the UK could really disagree with.

It’s the other 10 per cent that’s much more interesting. This is where you find pledges like the commitment to ‘working towards 1.5 million Welsh speakers by 2015,’ quite a pledge from any party, let alone the Conservatives.

And when it comes to the nation-building ‘wish-list’ there’s a huge amount of reaching out to Plaid in the manifesto, for instance a commitment to fair funding for Wales and a statement that ‘the legal jurisdiction of Wales needs to be made more account and partly accountable to the National Assembly.’

A little book then, but one that could go a long way.

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For tonight’s Sharp End, I’ve interviewed the Shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain about Labour’s Assembly election hopes.

First though I wanted to know about his relationship with the First Minister, Carwyn Jones.

You may remember from last week the behind-the-scenes row over Mr Hain’s criticism of the Deputy First Minister, Plaid Cymru’s Ieuan Wyn Jones.

Last week Carwyn Jones’ response seemed to suggest a sharp difference of opinion between he and Mr Hain.

Since then though both sides have done their best to pour oil on troubled waters, issuing a joint statement and holding back from any overt criticism of Plaid ministers in Mr Jones’ government.

And in my interview, Peter Hain denies intending to undermine Carwyn Jones, telling me that ‘this is a Cardiff Bay bubble story’ before adding that he supported Carwyn Jones in his leadership bid and that ‘we remain good friends.’

What Mr Hain really wanted to talk about what his belief that Labour has the best opportunity for forming a majority government that it’s had since the Assembly was created.

His reason for saying that? The fact that this will be the first Assembly election without a Labour government in Westminster.

I wondered if that ran the risk of making Labour’s campaign for May the 5th entirely negative – not according to Peter Hain who reckons it can do both things: channel opposition to the UK Government whilst building on Labour’s record here.

Is he right about that? That’s what I’ll be discussing with my guests who are the Liberal Democrat AM Veronica German, Plaid Cymru’s Neil McEvoy and the former council leader Jeff Jones.

They all have experience of local government so we’ll be talking about this week’s dramatic intervention on Anglesey: was it the right thing to do?

And I’ll be speaking to the man behind the Welsh Conservatives’ manifesto, David Melding AM, to find out how his party plans to fight the Assembly election campaign.

Join me for Sharp End, tonight at 1035pm, ITV1 Wales.

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The Yes campaigners in the Assembly powers referendum are unveiling what they hope will be their most compelling line-up of supporters today: people who voted  or campaigned for a No vote in the last Welsh referendum back in 1997.

Chief amongst them is the leader of the Conservatives in the Assembly, Nick Bourne. One of the leaders of the No campaign back then, he’s now one of the cheerleaders for a Yes vote this time.

Not all of his party has made the journey with him though as proven by the party in Newport, which has been the most vocal in opposing any further devolution.

And with the referendum just days away, they’ve gone further. I’m told every member of the Conservative group on Newport council – which shares power with the Lib Dems – has signed a petition ‘against giving the assembly more powers.’

I haven’t yet seen this petition and I know Yes campaigners will dispute its claim that this referendum has anything to do with more powers.

Even so, it’s a strong message from a prominent and powerful group of Welsh Conservatives and puts the Newport 17 alongside the group of  12 councillors in Wrexham which has taken a similar stance.

What’s not yet clear is how representative they are of opinion amongst grassroots Conservatives which is why the party’s officially neutral in the referendum. Not an easy position to be in for Nick Bourne, but at least it deals with the tensions within his own party.

I know of one senior Welsh Conservative who, despite being very much in favour of devolution, still hasn’t decided how to vote on this occasion.

But to put it in context, Yes campaigners say small groups such as the Newport 17, however prominent, don’t come anywhere near the many more from all parties and none who’ve signed up to the numerous groups and public meetings that have come out in favour of a yes vote.

We’ll know soon enough. But there might be an earlier clue before Friday’s results. ITV Wales has a YouGov eve-of-poll poll which is published on Wednesday.

By the way, the leading light among Newport’s anti-devolution Conservatives, Councillor Peter Davies, is claiming history – and the history of a different party – on his side of the argument.

The electors of Gwent though still being proud Welsh men and Women have always been proud of their right to independence. A fact Lloyd George will attest to when he held a public meeting at the City’s famous Kings Head Hotel near the market on 16 January 1896, and he was howled down when proposing Welsh Nationalism. After the meeting he  gave up supporting the cause of Nationalism.

Yes campaigners say these small groups don’t match up to the numerous groups and public meetings that have come out in favour of a yes vote.

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David Cameron effectively relaunched his Big Society idea yesterday (Monday) amid claims that it’s too vague and little more than a cover for spending cuts.

But Welsh Conservatives are convinced it’s a good idea.

When I asked their leader in the Assembly, Nick Bourne, what his views were he said,

I agree with the thrust of the policy David Cameron is developing. It’s not just about saving money: local solutions to problems are more familiar and people trust them more. You can’t just do away with large swathes of the public sector but (the Big Society) is a more effective way of delivering a lot of policy.

I wondered if the term itself – controversial as it seems – will appear in the Welsh Conservatives’ manifesto for May’s Assembly election.

‘Yes,’ according to Nick Bourne. ‘We will use the term. The Big Society is central to our thinking because it links into devolution and localism.’

But it seems it’ll be a different version of the Big Society, more suited to Wales’ needs.

The Big Society works wherever it is. We have roots (of volunteering) already here in Wales. The Government should be there to foster that with funding. But it may well be different in Wales.

 

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