Thursday, 23 July 2015

Signposts to the Senedd elections of May 2016—using Kirsty’s 'Road Map'

Article written before new leader announced.

Last week, Kirsty Williams, Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, made a very good contribution towards analysing what went wrong in coalition with the Tories—an analysis with which I fully concur, as expanded upon in my last blog.
In essence, she stated that the party struggled to locate a compass to navigate its way through the five years in coalition with its values unscathed.  Party workers were told time and time again on the doorsteps of past supporters that the Liberal Democrats had lost its way.

The central component of the speech was an outline of what she termed the ‘Road Map’ for the Senedd elections 2016 which I repeat below:

‘We will strengthen our identity. The Welsh Liberal Democrats feel strong sense of national identity - we must communicate that. We have the deepest roots of any Welsh political party; yet unlike other parties, we embrace the Wales of today and we will speak for all of Wales, no matter who you are or where you live.

We will fight for the underdog. You have to be brave to be a liberal, but it's our liberal values that set us out from all the rest.  The Human Rights Act, the Green Agenda, mental health - we've proven that we lead on the issues that no-one else will. 

There is nothing progressive about poor public services. Over the coming months, the Welsh Liberal Democrats will be unveiling people focused policies - ones that show we are on the side of the pupil, the parent, the patients.

We will focus on opportunity. Our Pupil Premium, our extra investment in our schools, shows our commitment to fairness and equal opportunity. Over the coming months, we’ll build on this, unveiling a pro-enterprise vision that strengthens our economy and creates wealth’

Sadly, after five years in coalition, the road back is going to be a long and tortuous one—gone are the days of 20% plus support for the Liberal Democrats in Wales. However, the key point is that such levels of support once existed.

Harold Wilson, someone I knew very well, once said as Prime Minister—‘a week is a long time in politics’. That is undoubtedly true because the twists and turns of politics are often sudden and unexpected. The key factor is to be ready to benefit and capitalise on unexpected developments when they happen.

Now, on the surface, all looks bleak but the discerning observer can envisage more twists and turns ahead than the conventional wisdom assumes. At present, the opinion polls—about which I blogged recently—continue to indicate that the Tories and UKIP will do well next May, with Labour and Plaid Cymru stagnating, if not regressing, and the Welsh Liberal Democrats nowhere—indeed, threatened with extinction in the Senedd.

I accept that is how it looks today, but picture this...

The Tory honeymoon period will soon come to an end when the reality of the budget begins to kick-in by mid to late autumn 2015. Their unwarranted attack on the young, underprivileged, low earners struggling to make a living, public service workers and those on welfare will probably mean that it won’t be a case of ‘glad glorious morning’ for them by the beginning of next year!

UKIP has yet to be tested as to their Welsh credentials and policies. I can foresee a direct assault on them coming from all directions. They benefited considerably from the prevailing public mood of disillusionment and disenchantment that had manifested itself with a vengeance at the General Election. When Wales’s future in Europe will be a greater focus and the realisation that UKIP puts at risk the benefits Wales currently receives, then matters can soon change. There will be a bigger test for UKIP in a Senedd ‘focused’ election. 

However, the level of support for UKIP in Wales has to be taken seriously, but it can be dismantled. I don’t have a feeling that such a party sits comfortably in the heart and soul of Wales. They have appeared at a time when, across Wales, middle and lower wage earners as well as the unwaged, in particular, don’t feel Labour listens anymore and, quite frankly, does not represent them. The old industrial areas and the valley communities probably feel this the most...

My view is that Labour will have to be extremely careful in how it responds to the election campaign and the Tory agenda. It faces a real dilemma—left, centre or centre/right. As a party, it is in danger of being asked—as I posed recently—‘What is the point of Labour?’ In addition, I have a feeling that none of their four candidates will emerge as Prime Ministerial material and they will be stuck with the Foot/Kinnock/Miliband scenario once again. 

For reasons best known to it, Plaid Cymru too has stagnated for more than two decades. Firstly, when the opportunity came calling to have their own First Minister in the Senedd during 2007, they spurned it. Plaid has lost its way even more so by now, and has an image of being further to the left than Labour in its attempt to be seen as more socialist. Now, it is perfectly possible that Leanne Wood is comfortable in that scene—but are all the traditional party supporters?

To me, the main point about Plaid is that it is no longer anywhere close to having the ideals and vision that Gwynfor Evans once created for them and the Welsh people. I genuinely feel more of a ‘nationalist’ now than most people in Plaid Cymru—and most certainly more so than its current leader. I have had a feeling, for quite some years now, that having secured a Senedd the party is broadly happy to play politics in that limited arena. Now, of course, that is only my perception but I don’t think I am too far off the mark... 

Finally, the Liberal Democrats, which in the eyes of many people has lost the plot—not to mention its vision. For me the only way back is to be that radical movement once again. Certainly, that is where I am happiest. The party also needs to start speaking more plainly and without fear. The two leadership candidates are of a similar frame of mind, but I do believe that Tim Farron would be the best choice to meet the challenges ahead..

It has been my view for quite some time now that politics in Wales has been too cosy—and the only way back for the Liberal Democrats is to stop being part of that ‘softly, softly approach’ in the Senedd community.
In her speech, Kirsty said:

‘far too often it seems that Welsh solutions at best lack impact, but at worst often exacerbate, Welsh problems and no amount of made in Wales strategies, statements or summits are seen to be providing answers’. That is absolutely correct.


‘Even when a Welsh government keeps tuition fees low – there is still a huge gap in educational attainment between our less well-off communities and our richer neighbourhoods’.
Again, that is correct but it is a much wider, deeper and bigger concern than that. Improvements in Welsh education provision are insufficient—with standards and the performance of our schools nowhere near good enough. This will be a topic of a future blog after my 18 years experience of inspecting schools.

Two other points made by Kirsty: 
‘Although prescriptions are free – you can’t afford to fall ill on the weekend, or be in need of a speedy ambulance response’. Then she went on ‘even as the Welsh Government just this week attacked the UK Government for redefining child poverty, nobody seriously expects them to meet their own target to abolish child poverty by 2020’.

For me the trouble with the Senedd and the Welsh Government is its complacency and how easily pleased the AMs are with mediocrity and lack of any ‘real’ action.  
Plans, proposals and initiatives are forever been talked about. These give the impression of action. There are endless apologies over poor delivery in the public services; Health ministers are having to try and explain why there has been mismanagement in the NHS or there has been a lack of proper care in residential homes and the community; some other Minister having to explain why public funds are not properly handled and controlled—frankly the list goes on and on.

The central question is what is being done to remedy these matters? Are things changing and are people being held to account? All I hear is the often repeated standard statement that ‘lessons are being learnt’.  It really is time for a shake up.
So, I begin to see signposts on the road map becoming clearer. And although there’s a long way to go, my advice is to never write off the Liberal Democrats—its roots are stronger in Wales than many other parties. 

Click here to see speech by Kirsty Williams