The other day I came across a video on my Twitter timeline:
“I don’t think anyone who is facing a planned operation which has been cancelled would say it’s more important that they have treatment than someone who is a genuine emergency.”
These were the words of one of the most up-and-coming Welsh Labour politicians, as he stood in the lobby of the Senedd speaking to BBC Wales Politics about the recent operation cancellations in Wales. For me, this quote, from Health Secretary Vaughn Gethin, is representative of a wider issue for Welsh Labour. It was stale, it was not good enough, it was a day too late.
My fear is, if Welsh Labour can’t get back on the front foot, the whole party might start to look stale.
Since the Welsh Assembly began on the turn of the millennium, the Labour Party has been the governing party, either alone or in coalition. Over the years since, the turnout rate for elections has at times been frustratingly low, hitting its lowest point around the high 30s – that’s 30% lower than the turnout in the 2017 general election.
As good as this has been for the Welsh Labour Party, having one major party always in government isn’t healthy for a democracy. Despite opposition parties putting plenty of pressure on every Labour-led government, having such a strong, continuous presence in the assembly brings with it dangers. Dangers of complacency, dangers of inefficiency... perhaps worse.
Being the only national branch of the Labour Party that has any control of the levers of power, Welsh Labour has a unique responsibility to play their part in the democracy of the United Kingdom. They have a responsibility not just to provide a voice for Welsh Labour, but to provide a voice for Wales. As brilliant as Vaughn Gethin has been over the last year, in my opinion his comment to the BBC shows that Welsh Labour aren’t quite meeting the mark.
Suggesting that people waiting for knee operations should be understanding about having their operations cancelled is completely beyond the point. Welsh Labour’s job is not to swallow the bitter medicine of central government and regurgitate some meaningless platitude. People who already wait years for knee operations have a right to be outraged, and Welsh Labour should be giving them a voice.
It’s time Labour stopped being defensive about the standard of our NHS and tell the people the honest truth: the reason the NHS is struggling is because it doesn’t have enough money. If you want that money for your operation, go tell Theresa May at the ballot box, because she’s got it in her treasury.
Despite the OECD objectively showing that no one country is lagging behind another in the UK in terms of NHS improvement, the Conservatives still like to point at Wales’ ‘worse’ NHS to deflect the attention from their austerity agenda. The irony is that the reason our NHS is on its knees is because of that very agenda.
But if they want to compare, as they often do, let’s compare: because our NHS is nothing to be ashamed of. The Welsh government have done well with the money they have been given – they’ve protected it from the private sector, English Conservatives haven’t. They’ve protected free prescriptions, English Conservatives haven’t. They’ve invested more money in social care through local authorities, English Conservatives haven’t.
The truth is that Wales is, demographically speaking, older, unhealthier, and more at risk to health complications than our English counterparts. The Barnett formula, which determines how much money Wales gets given from government, doesn’t take this into account – and Wales suffers as a result.
In the 2016 Assembly elections, a party called ‘Abolish the Welsh Assembly’ won 4% of the vote – more than the Green Party. If Labour don’t get on the front foot soon and show the people that Welsh politics matters, that it gives them a voice, this could be just the beginning.
Voters aren’t stupid. Talk to them, tell them the truth. Tell them their central government is failing them and show them what a Labour alternative could look like.