Lee Waters’ comments on the economy deserve more than laughs

(Title Image: National Assembly)

“For 20 years we’ve pretended we know what we’re doing on the economy – and the truth is we don’t really know what we’re doing on the economy”. That was the “astonishing” admission coming last week from none other than the Deputy Economy & Transport Minister, Lee Waters (Lab, Llanelli).

And how we laughed. It’s a harsh lesson on the pitfalls of trying to do politics by snappy soundbite.

Yes, it’s very The Thick of It and  something that can be put on every opposition election leaflet and shared around Twitter and whatever, but I don’t think the opposition (or many others in Labour either) have that much of a response to the questions and challenges Lee Waters posed – and, yes, he really did lay down a gauntlet.

Let’s look at the quote in full:

“For 20 years we’ve pretended we know what we’re doing on the economy – and the truth is we don’t really know what we’re doing on the economy. Nobody knows what they’re doing on the economy.

 

“Everybody is making it up as we go along – and let’s just be honest about that. We’ve thrown all the orthodox tools we can think of at growing the economy in the conventional way, and we’ve achieved static GDP over 20 years.

 

“The levels of GVA-per-head now are the same they were in 1999. And that’s not from a lack of trying. There’s no failure on the part of ministers and civil servants. Boy, have they tried!

 

“But it’s an approach that has its limits for Wales – and we need to try a different approach….What we don’t want is more bloody pilot projects. Devolution has been littered by tool-kits and pilot projects, which then don’t get mainstreamed. ”
– Deputy Minister for Economy & Transport, Lee Waters

There’s absolutely nothing funny about that. It’s a cold, hard, painful truth that – if anything – Lee Waters deserves praise for actually coming out and saying after decades of pretending everything’s fine. He certainly had nothing to apologise for.

The “we” didn’t necessarily refer to the Welsh Government or Labour; it referred to all of us: talking heads, politicians of all colours and business leaders.

What should have lead to sober thought on economic policy (and a bit of introspection) has, predictably, been pounced upon then reduced and distorted into a digital custard pie thrown at the Deputy Minister’s face.

There’s a fundamental issue as to whether Welsh policymakers from all parties and at all levels of government have found the right balance between, firstly, patching holes in the side of the boat to maintain the present course of the economy and, secondly, the urgent need to adapt to the economy of the near-future (upskilling, shorter supply chains, automation, decarbonisation, foundational economics). We always seem to miss the next big economic shift whilst trying to prop up what we’ve already got, assuming it’ll be around forever.

It’s long been a case of two steps forward two steps back. There’s no shortage of grand plans and visions, but when it comes down to it they all often fall into a few categories.

First, there’s the mad – doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. In practical terms, this means keeping anchor companies on board, corporate welfare, investment in “big bang” infrastructure/shovels in the ground and focusing on “sure wins” like tourism. Proponents talk the talk on more radical ideas like decarbonisation and alike, maybe even propose the odd co-operative or arms-length company here and there with a Welsh name, but when it comes down to it the numbers come first. It keeps our heads afloat until the next crisis or economic panic, after which the whole process starts again, keeping us locked in a cycle.

Then there’s the rad – the utopians and de-growthers. People have somehow got to be convinced that their future lies in a twee eco home, cycling to good jobs right on their doorsteps (which currently don’t exist) and trying to make a living off of market gardens, recycling wood or fixing wind turbines. Industries that currently employ maybe a few dozen people at most at any given time in any given area will be expected to absorb tens of thousands of jobs as automation takes hold, as well as generate the necessary tax revenues to fund things like a universal basic income, subsidised care for the elderly and an end to austerity or whatever else is on the never-ending shopping list.

Finally, there’s the bad – the carpet-baggers, spivs, speculators, disaster capitalists and alike who offer flashy artist impressions, thousands of jobs and jam tomorrow if you’ll just give them a minute of your time, a few hundred million pounds (grants, tax breaks or whatever) or just a momentary bit of short-term pain as we undergo some moderate political instability. Everyone acts shocked when nothing happens or, in worst-case scenarios, they’ve taken the money and ran.

When the Welsh Government’s own economic plan boils down the impact of automation, for instance, to “be smarter and work harder than a machine“, you can see that we’re in danger of sleepwalking into a serious set of problems which Lee Waters has forseen and understands the implications of, but everyone laughing or tutting at him haven’t quite yet grasped.

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