The elections taking place in Wales and Scotland could not be more different. In Scotland, the election is framed by the fall-out of the Scottish referendum and the over-whelming popularity of the SNP that shows no signs of relenting. In Wales, nationalism remains off the agenda, but a national crisis affecting one of its biggest employers, UK steel, is damaging the Conservative’s chances of making extra in-roads at Labour’s expense.
Wales is proud of its industrial history. The problem for its economy is that it is quickly becoming just that – history. From a global leader in coal, copper and tin production and export, it saddens many that the steel industry was one of the very few which survived into the 21st Century.
Over recent decades such industries have declined to the point where communities have gone from ones in which everyone worked in the sector, to the point of concentrated industrial towns employing several thousand. Indeed in my own family I am the first for at least five generations not to be employed in such a way.
But this decline does not imply that the loss of steel manufacturing would be insignificant to Wales. Indeed it is hard to understate its importance – an importance which spreads far wider than the communities themselves. The industry is at the heart of just about everything else a modern economy needs. Therefore allowing it to fail is a risk other nations have considered too big to take.
Yet the reality is that the choice to address that risk is beyond the Welsh Government. It lacks the economic leavers and devolved competences to do anything other than tinker around the edges and offer support which is insignificant on the global stage. That is why the decision to sell Tata’s operations in Wales remains an intensely political issue. An issue which on the eve of the National Assembly for Wales elections is one which could decide how Wales is governed until 2021.
The political context is a simple one: Welsh Labour are on course to fall short of their coveted majority yet again. To retain the reins of power for a fifth term they may again need to be supported by Plaid Cymru or the Welsh Liberal Democrats (if enough remain). Conversely parties of the political right such as the Welsh Conservatives and UKIP have been on the march and look to be heading for the strongest result since devolution began.
But Tata’s Black Swan scenario could be enough to change everything. Blame for the crisis has been firmly stuck to the UK Government’s decision to block European Commission attempts to raise trade tariffs on Chinese steel.
Without getting into the ramifications of this on the Brexit debate, it is clear from sources within the Welsh Conservatives that this crisis, combined with the recent budget shambles, is quickly leading to a situation where expected Tory gains are moving beyond reach. This could be vital in key Welsh Labour facing marginal seats like the Vale of Glamorgan; Cardiff North; Aberconwy and the Vale of Clwyd.
If Welsh Labour pick up all of these (and mop up the Welsh Liberal Democrat vote to the degree they did just twelve months ago), they could be on the verge of forming their first ever outright majority Welsh Government.
Of course if a positive resolution is found in the next four weeks it is unlikely this will come to pass. What is for certain is that enormous political pressure has been placed on the Conservative party to fight for Wales. Whether it is willing to compromise its neoliberal ideology to do so remains to be seen.
By Alexander Phillips, Grayling Cardiff