Battle of Hearts and Minds: The role of health and education at the next Welsh election

1 May


One of the chores delights of my annual diary is attending the four political party conferences in Wales.  The past month has seen me travel to Cardiff (Plaid), Llandudno (Labour), Newport (Lib Dem) and Llangollen (Conservatives).  One thing that did strike me is that despite there being a European election on the horizon, and a General Election next year, we are very much beginning to see the battle lines for the Welsh election of 2016 take shape.

As the two biggest portfolios, and traditionally seen as the most important, it is no surprise that health and education are taking centre stage.  Yes there is discussion about the economy but not so much in a Welsh specific context.  Ultimately the power of the Welsh Government to transform the economic outlook without financial levers is limited at best. However, there is no hiding with health and education given they are essentially fully devolved and so all praise/criticism falls on the 5th floor of the Senedd.

What has been quite striking is the different approach that speakers on these two policy areas have taken.  On health there has been an arms race to inflamed rhetoric.  The emotive language, which make no mistake has been coming from both sides, reached a crescendo when David Cameron described Offa’s Dyke as the line between life and death.  We’ve actually had few ideas on the NHS but the soundbites and headlines have come thick and fast.  That they now regularly dominate Prime Minister’s question time as well as FMQs show how politically important this has become, even in a UK context.  More interestingly perhaps, in the scheme of an election campaign, the fact the Welsh NHS is the focus of so many UK news outlets demonstrates just how much of an issue this is.

From opposition parties at the Senedd, the Westminster Government and the Welsh Government the focus on the NHS has often gone hand in hand with a sense of who can shout the loudest while actually saying the least.  That may not be an entirely fair statement, I am sure many have approached the issue sensibly, but there is a feeling that health is not to be a battle of ideas but one of emotion.  While you wouldn’t expect parties to be publishing their Assembly manifestos yet, and no doubt each will stand on a platform of polices on the NHS, at present the landscape is one focused on winning with the public on a fear factor.  Contrast that with the education debate and you begin to see a different type of battleground.

I am of course not suggesting that there isn’t that element of soundbite politics involved in the education debate.  There most certainly is.  However what is also clearly emerging is that in this particular field we are seeing the development of the battleground of ideas.  If health is to be about who can shout the loudest education is potentially going to be about who can speak the clearest; who can be the most insightful.

Opposition parties have already started setting out their stalls.  At Plaid Cymru’s conference Simon Thomas AM detailed policies about addressing the bureaucracy of teaching and a full-time education system for children at the age of three.  Plaid have also published a paper on creating a multilingual Welsh nation.

Language is also a focus for the Welsh Conservatives who have their own policy on creating a trilingual Wales.  Angela Burns AM’s speech to the party conference was also policy based outlining a new deal for teachers.  This included proposals for teacher exchange programmes, changes to teacher enrollment and properly funded sabbatical programmes.

The Welsh Lib Dems have not detailed as much policy in my own area of schools as yet but it is again driven by education.  At their conference the party passed their ‘Future for Further Education’ paper which proposed, amongst other things, creating a Welsh National Cyber College and reviewing post-16 qualifications and curricula in Wales.  A Higher Education paper was passed the year before, while they have remained committed to rolling out free school meals to all pupils in Wales.  Let’s also not forget that education was central for both Plaid Cymru (apprenticeships) and the Liberal Democrats (pupil deprivation grant funding) during their budget negotiations with the Welsh Government.

Agree with the sort of alternatives the opposition are putting forward or not they are, which is in contrast to the perception of the debate we are seeing around health, offering what they believe at least are valid solutions.  It does not change their entitlement or ability to scrutinise existing delivery from the Welsh Government.  Indeed, if anything, it strengthens it.

For the Labour (see the Welsh Government) it is of course a tad more difficult to be pushing policies for after the next election publicly given they are currently in a position to implement them.  That the Schools Challenge Cymru programme has recently been unveiled does show that creating innovative solutions drawing on the experiences and success of other nations is in their own thinking, even if the delivery of such policies is still yet to be evaluated.  However, the fact that the Diamond review  will be reporting back at least the preliminary findings I believe before the next election, and the OECD report now in the public domain has potentially forced a rethink on some key policies, we should have a full slate of key pledges to review.

To be fair, someone more closely aligned with a policy role in health may pick me up on work that is being done.  I do not claim to be up on existing issues at the moment.  What is, I think, a fair assessment is that the public nature of how these two areas are being debated are quite different.  The emotive language in the health debate is making it harder and harder to cut through the sensationalism.  This is a battle for the hearts of the Welsh electorate.  In education we are at least having a more constructive debate with the ideas, the battle for the publics mind, being waged.

If the road to the next Welsh election is a yellow bricked one leading us to the emerald city in Cardiff Bay, the education passion in me hopes it is the tin man’s search for brains that wins out.  I am somewhat of a pessemist mind and sadly to me it looks like we are already too far down the straw man argument to turn back.

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