How people power can overcome the conservative forces governing Wales - Adam Price, Leader of Plaid Cymru
There is a smart saying in politics: always do quickly what you will be forced to do eventually.
The last few months have posed unprecedented challenges for the Welsh Government – a global pandemic followed by an exams fiasco – that will have repercussions for years to come.
Responding to the Coronavirus crisis has been a mammoth task. The Welsh Government has been worthy of praise for much of what they have done in recent months to guarantee enough hospital beds, to shield the most vulnerable in society, and to be willing to take a different course of action to the rest of the UK.
However, on too many occasions, there has been a stubborn reluctance to change tack when the evidence in favour of doing so was considerable if not overwhelming.
The first case of Covid-19 in the UK was registered on January 29th. By 11th March, the World Health Organization had declared a global pandemic yet staggeringly, the Welsh Government maintained that the Wales v Scotland Six Nations rugby match would go ahead in Cardiff, attracting tens of thousands of people to the stadium and surrounding area.
It wasn’t until 24 hours before kick-off, after growing political and public pressure, that the match was called off leaving supporters angry and disappointed.
This situation was entirely avoidable. Rather than digging in its heels, the Welsh Government should have made an early announcement to clear-up confusion for fans and sent an unequivocal message to the public that mass gatherings posed a risk of spreading the virus.
Similarly, the saga surrounding Covid testing in care homes highlighted the Welsh Government’s refusal to heed calls to extend testing to all care homes, only to eventually concede after many wasted weeks.
Correspondence with the Labour Health Minister fell on deaf ears and the First Minister dismissed Plaid Cymru’s calls, claiming that there was “no value” in providing tests to everyone in care homes.
I am in no doubt that lives could have been saved had the widespread testing that was eventually rolled out been done so far sooner.
The same intransigence was seen weeks later in May when Plaid Cymru led calls for the Welsh Government to increase fines for those who breached travel restrictions. The original fine of £60 for the first offence did little to deter people travelling from as far away as London and Norwich to Welsh beauty spots on a sunny bank holiday weekend. Overnight, the maximum fine was raised from £120 for six offences to £1,920 after ministers supported Plaid Cymru in a Senedd vote on the matter.
Finally, and most recently, the exams fiasco which has caused untold anxiety and confusion to young people across Wales was a masterclass in government mishandling.
The cancellation of exams was confirmed by the Education Minister on March 18th. This meant that the Welsh Government had five months before results day to map out a fair and workable system of grading students.
Instead, last week we reached an unacceptable situation where a deeply flawed system left thousands of students disappointed as many of their grades were inexplicably revised downwards.
After a protest by rightly outraged students on the steps of the Senedd, an online petition attracting tens of thousands of signatures, and many moving testimonies from young people who felt that their futures were in the balance, the Welsh Government performed an eleventh hour U-turn.
The Education Minister confirmed that students would be awarded the predicted grades given by their teachers, rather than the downgrading determined by the now notorious algorithm.
This was certainly a welcome move, but we now face a new problem whereby many students may still be denied their university place of choice.
The Labour Welsh Government’s failure to plan properly months ago, and its reluctance to show greater flexibility in responding to the fiasco betrayed the weaknesses which are holding Wales back.
The truth is that the Labour Party has long parted ways with its radical tradition.
Two conservative forces are now running Wales – an incompetent Tory government in Westminster, and a stubborn, unimaginative Labour administration in Cardiff Bay.
That is why a change of government next May is key to reversing Wales’s fortunes.
The U-turns and concessions made by the Labour government in recent months have come about due partly to political pressure, but mainly thanks to people power.
The young people on the steps of the Senedd who spoke so passionately of their fears for their futures, the sons and daughters of care home residents who voiced their concerns for their loved ones.
In these darkest of times, the power of unity and community have come to the fore. When a nation speaks with one voice, its government has no choice but to listen.
The Covid crisis and exam results fiasco have been something of a lightbulb moment for devolution. People are increasingly aware of who decides what and are directing their voices to the right places to deliver real change.
None more so than our young people – a force so strong that not even government ministers could withstand their calls.
There will always be room in a healthy democracy for dissenting voices and peaceful protest.
The difference a change of government will bring is a more radical and receptive approach – less dither and delay, less burying heads in the sand.
A willingness to admit when you’re wrong and to respond with humility and flexibility is what will move Wales forward – now more than ever is the time for that change.
This article was originally published in the Western Mail on Friday the 21st of August 2020.