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Navigating the winding path

Oliver Townsend looks forward to the Welsh Assembly election and the opportunities it can give to the Welsh housing sector

There are so many different dimensions to an election campaign for those working and seeking to influence within particular sectors. But we can try to divide them into three very broad areas. In any election, there is the politics, the policy and the predictions.

They are all clearly interrelated, and understanding them is the key challenge facing ‘people who lobby’.

This election is going to be a fascinating one. I admit I do get quite overly excited by an election, so it would have to be a pretty extraordinary situation for me to be bored by one. But this election is – within the bounds of certain parameters – a ‘change’ election. For electoral nerds like me, that’s the equivalent of a Rugby World Cup Final with Wales against England in the Millennium Stadium. In short: a big deal.

I mentioned the parameters. Unless something catastrophic – and utterly beyond the current realms of imagination – befalls Welsh Labour, they will stay the largest party in the Assembly. In some respects then, to describe this election as a ‘change’ election is a little exaggerated. However, this election could see huge changes amongst the opposition parties. It could see the arrival of a new party entirely into the Assembly (UKIP), and the departure of a long-standing political force (Lib Dems). And the reason this election is so exciting: the numbers between vastly different outcomes are surprisingly so small.

So let’s deal with predictions first, with a current dirty word: polls. There have been greater efforts to establish polling within Wales. Recent polls suggest a good night for the Conservatives, a breakthrough for UKIP, a poor one for Welsh Labour, a Plaid Cymru result that can go either way, and a terrible result for the Welsh Lib Dems. The biggest weakness in polls, however, is that they do tend to give an average snapshot of the Welsh viewpoint, and they are not brilliant at drawing out individual constituency results. There are also limitations with regards to a poll’s ability to reflect regional variations across Wales in voting behaviour.

Those two weaknesses and the tendency for hyper-local campaigning, means the above result can’t just be assumed. The outcome of the election could hinge on a few hundred votes either in specific constituencies or across regional lists. What does this mean? Quite simply, for those lobbying within the housing sector, it means no party can be ignored, and no party can be automatically assumed to be guaranteed a place in government. And that is why I described this as a ‘change’ election, because when politicians are looking for every last vote in every last area, it gives us all a chance to advocate for what will make a difference.

The politics of the election is beyond the scope of an article today, but it is already clear that the Welsh Conservatives will be making it an issue of competence by drawing a distinction between English systems and Welsh devolved systems. Competence, broadly, will be the theme of this election, with other parties arguing that Welsh Labour stands as the establishment in our country. The Conservatives have focused on the differences between Wales and England in health and education – and will no doubt be looking for other areas to do the same. This also gives an opportunity for those within the housing sector, because there is a chance for a significant debate about the new direction Welsh Labour has taken us in within housing. Different approaches to the right to buy, to homelessness prevention, to welfare – they give an opportunity for us to discuss matters of policy.

So: policy.

The first rule in any election is that voters don’t care about policies as much as policy wonks think they do. Depending on your view, policy is either the icing on the cake (the stuff that makes the cake look attractive) or the foundation sponge (the stuff that supports the political icing). In either analogy, it is not often the focus of an election campaign, except when a policy is a clear disaster, or when it captures a public mood.

Instead, from a policy practitioner’s perspective, the policies put forward by every party give us an opportunity to ensure the needs of the sector are heard clearly and that those needs interact with the politicians’ priorities. This election is fought against the continued backdrop of austerity and financial pressure, with the dividing lines of devolution and questions of competence.
At Cymorth Cymru, we are working to represent the interests of the people our members support. We will engage as much as we can with the election, and our aim is to link the policy pledges and the electoral politics to the debates we know need to happen in the next Assembly.

But the real work will begin after a new Government is formed. In a sense, the election is a series of winding paths, and we can take any number of routes. They will all lead back to a new Government, with the same challenges: addressing poverty; providing services despite crippling austerity; allowing all within Wales to be ambitious for their future.

Whoever we end up with after May, those issues are not going away. We need to fight to make sure housing issues are high up the agenda (which is why Cymorth Cymru has signed up to support Homes for Wales campaign) – and after the election we need to make sure we offer solutions to the big challenges. For us at Cymorth, that means we use the impetus of a new start to address four key areas: changing commissioning to make it people-focused; investing in programmes that work in partnership together; establishing clear data for all sectors; root-and-branch examination of the policy systems to ensure prevention is at the core of everything we do.

If the new Government, whatever its colour, can start addressing those areas, the Fifth Assembly will be almost as exciting as the election preceding it. And much more meaningful.

Oliver Townsend is policy manager for Cymorth Cymru

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