Debates over the economic policies of successive Welsh Governments have been focused on the government’s various business support schemes, the impact of EU funding streams and Welsh GDP’s stubborn refusal to grow at a faster rate than the UK average. Rather surprisingly there have been few recent debates on unemployment, the impact of economic policy on poverty or even the purpose or objectives of the Government’s interventions.
The Welsh Conservative approach has been to be gently critical of the Government’s approach. This partly reflect the personality of the Conservative spokesperson, William Graham, but it also reflects the Conservatives difficulty in opposing a policy position that has in many ways been written by themselves. The Minister, Edwina Hart, has ruthlessly stolen many of the Conservatives’ clothes, from enterprise zones to business finance. The Welsh Government sees itself as fiercely pro-business. She has even appointed the Conservatives former economics advisor as one of her key advisors and the former Conservative Leader, and now Wales Office Minister, to chair the Milford Haven Enterprise Zone. This has been a Labour Government’s policy programme written by business and pragmatic Conservatives.
Perhaps the most striking policy that has been pursued by the Welsh Government has been Jobs Growth Wales which has been a great success in providing training and support for people to access employment. Many thousands of mainly young people have found work through it and the Welsh Government are right to be proud of this success. Another success has been the SuperFast Cymru initiative to provide access to superfast broadband. The Government are confident of achieving its objective of providing over 90% of properties with access by the end of this Assembly.
The last Welsh Labour manifesto contained little indication of the policy approach taken over the last four years and it is unlikely that the next manifesto will provide any detailed vision of the future either. There will certainly be a celebration of the Welsh Government’s record with a renewed commitment to inward investment. There will also be a commitment to continue the present Welsh Government’s approach to trade missions and continuing to increase Wales’ international profile. There will also be a new commitment to green growth and the green economy with a commitment to continued support focussed on the network of enterprise zones and on business support, including business finance which will build on the work completed during the current Assembly. At the same time the Welsh Government will signal its commitment to continued infrastructure investment with the south Wales Metro and new M4 at the heart of the proposals with some balancing proposals on the A55 to create some proposals tailored for the north Wales audience.
The Conservatives will adopt a rhetoric that is more different to the Welsh Government than the policy would suggest. They will try to make points on business rates and improved support for small businesses but the substance will not differ radically. There will certainly be criticism of the impact of the policies in narrowing the gap between Welsh economic performance and that of the UK as a whole. The Conservatives will emphasise the joint approach that they will adopt with the UK Government. There will be clear commitments to initiatives such as the City Deal in Cardiff and other UK-wide policies which the Conservatives believe will be potentially popular in Wales as well as another commitment to relaunch a WDA organisation, although the recent figures on inward investment will blunt this attack.
Plaid Cymru has found it difficult to make much headway on this essential policy area. The party appears to have found it difficult to articulate a clear and convincing alternative, though no doubt further work is underway on this matter. There will be commitments to a green economy and to creating a new investment bank for Wales there is little of substance that will form the heart of a radically new approach. Plaid Cymru will also make a great deal of the power of procurement but again this is an area where the Welsh Government has seen some success and it is difficult to see how the Plaid approach will be so very different from Labour. Where they will differ is on investment in the M4 – Plaid Cymru have clearly outlined their concerns over the black route proposals.
A similar problem in finding an alternative approach faces the Liberal Democrats. They have been strong critics of the Government, especially in terms of EU spending but like others have so far failed to articulate a clear and compelling alternative. As a party they are far more comfortable debating public services than economic policy where they only appear to have a well-argued position on agriculture and the rural economy.
The UKIP position is likely to reflect the approach of the UK party and to be focused on a right wing, free enterprise philosophy. They will clearly promote the advantages that they argue will accrue from withdrawal from the EU. There is little support for this from any other party and very few other Members. Apart from a few Conservative backbenchers, the Assembly remains firmly pro-Europe and firmly in favour of continued membership.
A devolved administration has at times found it difficult to find its place in determining economic policy when it does not have the macro policy levers available to it. However the current administration has succeeded in developing a distinct approach which has avoided the pitfalls and errors of previous governments and has invested in a comprehensive business support framework. However, if anyone remains unconvinced about the scale of the challenge ahead then they should read the Bevan Foundation’s report on the shape of Wales to come where the economy of Wales is comprehensively and brutally analysed. For many people that report will form the basis of their agenda for next May.