Wales is on the up. Whichever way you look at it – employment stats, GCSE results, cancer survival rates – the important measurements are heading the right way. There’s also a new found confidence in the country, which we see expressed on the sports field and in our ability to bring the biggest events to our doorstep – the Champions League final, Ashes cricket and World Cup rugby to name but three. There’s a sense of optimism and a can-do attitude amongst the younger generation in particular that is simply remarkable given the record-breaking cuts we’ve had to weather from the Conservatives in Westminster.
Just last month we attracted Aston Martin to set up its new factory in Wales, securing 750 new skilled jobs and beating off competition from 20 other locations across the globe. The company’s CEO couldn’t have been clearer about the reason why – it wasn’t the financial package on offer, he said, they had better offers on that front, it was the passion of the Welsh to make something happen. We have found a way to deliver in an age of austerity and without a generous Scottish-style settlement. In 2011 we promised to stand up for the people of Wales against the Conservative cuts – and we’ve done just that.
Things have not been easy, however. During the first decade of devolution, with a Labour government in Westminster, we saw our budget almost double. The Conservatives, by contrast, have cut our funding to the bone. We have had to make tough choices to fund our priority areas of health, social services and schools. We know for example that adult further education has had to take a hit – other areas have seen stand-still budgets, or cuts, that have made tough times even tougher. In areas where we need the UK government to step up – rail electrification in north and south Wales; the Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay; a fair funding settlement and a stable devolution settlement – the Conservatives have dawdled or rowed back. Approaching the election, the political situation is tough as well. We are in no doubt that this will be Welsh Labour’s toughest election since devolution. The lazy ‘time for a change’ charge from the opposition is finding fertile ground in the media. The Conservatives are better funded than ever before, and UKIP provides a new dimension of uncertainty in constituencies and a real challenge on the lists. It will be tough, but we are ready for the fight. And our biggest weapon is a record of delivery. After the 2011 election I promised the people of Wales a decade of delivery.
We are now half way through that process, and we are delivering on the promises we made. 15,000 extra jobs for young people through our Jobs Growth Wales programme; extra childcare support in our poorest communities through Flying Start; 500 extra community support officers keeping our streets safe; and, of course, protection for our students from paying £9000 fees. In addition, we passed an ambitious range of legislation including a pioneering organ donation bill that will save lives.
We are not content to rest on what we have done thus far, however. The measure of any government – and any Labour government in particular – is our ambition for the future. Radicalism is in the DNA of the Welsh Labour party and in the next term of the assembly we want to go further. So we will create 100,000 all-age apprenticeships and cut business rates for small businesses. We will offer the UK’s most ambitious childcare package – 30 hours free for working parents of three and four year-olds. Crucially, this will be funded for 48 weeks of the year, not 38 as it is in England.
We are going to build on the best ever GCSE results in Wales through a new £100 million school standards fund. We have committed to protecting health spending and free prescriptions, and we will introduce a new treatments fund that will give patients for all life-threatening illnesses access to the latest medicines and treatments. Finally, we believe that people in old age who need extra help – those who have played fair and paid in – deserve a fairer deal. So we will double the capital limit people will be allowed to keep on the sale of their home should they need to go into care. That’s £26,000 extra for thousands of older people in Wales. We want to see responsibility rewarded, and that is why we have also committed to no income tax rises in the next assembly – times are still tough, and people need a government that recognises that.
Wales wins when Welsh Labour wins – we know that communities up and down our country cannot afford a Conservative government in the assembly in addition to the one at Westminster. Their cuts driven agenda, allied with Plaid Cymru’s fantasy economics, would undo all the work we have done to bring Wales through the postrecession period. That is what is at stake – we’ll take nothing for granted, but we’ll take no backwards step in our attempt to secure a vital Labour win in May.
Image credit: Holly Victoria Norval