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This is what the Welsh Liberal Democrats are for

August 28, 2007 12:00 AM
By Peter Black in Liberal Democrat Voice

The challenge

The outcome of the 2007 Assembly elections was both frustrating and disappointing for the Welsh Liberal Democrats. Despite increasing our vote share in the constituencies, despite fighting a very professional all-Wales campaign, we failed for the second time to increase the size of our Assembly Group past six.

I have no desire to re-open the debate that the party entered into following the election. The outcome of those discussions was that we voted to go into a rainbow coalition with Plaid Cymru and the Tories only to see the nationalists walk away and sign up to a deal with Labour. There are a few things that need to happen now, firstly the party needs to learn the lessons of the past few months and we need to regroup and then rebuild with the one clear aim of getting our message to the people of Wales.

Our problem last May was our failure to connect with voters. We failed to make it clear to them what it means to be a Welsh Liberal Democrat. We went into the election with a detailed manifesto containing hundreds of radical policies, many of which we shared with the other parties. Although we pulled out three particular policy areas to major on in the election, these issues were not presented clearly or effectively and they turned out to be the same issues that the other parties were promoting as well. We failed to make them relevant or unique to us because we did not relate our positions to the day-to-day experience of ordinary voters. In other words we did not use our manifesto as a campaigning tool.

One reason for that omission is that we have spent too long mistaking our activity in the hallowed corridors of the Assembly for campaigning. Whilst the work we do in the Assembly is important, for a political party it can never be a substitute for honest groundwork and visible local community involvement. In many cases we did not get out into communities to deliver our message to voters. That has not been universal, because in those areas where we did work and where we did have a localised message that resonated with people, our vote not only held up but in some cases dramatically increased. It was the rest of Wales, the vast majority of communities where that did not happen.

In this respect we could learn a lot from Plaid Cymru. Our elected Parliamentarians and Assembly Members should be taking a lead, getting out onto the streets with other activists to talk and listen to people about their concerns and ideas. We should be using the real experience of our constituents and framing our policies in a way that they can identify with. In other words we need to put into practice on a national level what is at the heart of Welsh Liberal Democrat philosophy, devolution, localisation, community empowerment, real, genuine interaction with communities.

At a UK level we have a distinctive agenda based on civil liberties, freedom and the environment. Although we have tried to carry that agenda over into a Welsh context as yet we have failed to make an impact.

The opportunities

As a party we have to recognise the opportunities that now present themselves to us and make the most of them. The red-green coalition that has taken the reins of power in Cardiff Bay is based on a One Wales document that is vague in many parts and uncosted in others. It dodges important issues such as the future of nuclear power for the sake of political expediency. According to One Wales all the answers to Wales' problems lie with the government, not with the people who keep Wales going. It fails to address key policy matters such as class sizes for 7 to 11 year olds and the higher education funding gap between England and Wales. It relies shamelessly on gimmicks such as grants for first time homeowners and free laptops for kids that do not deal with the problems they are intended for, whilst squandering vital resources.

We are in opposition, but we are far from insignificant. With 6 out of the 19 opposition Assembly Members we will have far more opportunities to scrutinise and to set the agenda both in the Assembly and in the press. We also lead four major Councils with a population of about a million people and are delivering improved services and better governance to them. That is a strong record to defend next May.

Labour may be enjoying a Brown-bounce at present but in May they recorded their worst result since 1918, they will be defending their record in government both in Cardiff and at Westminster and Plaid Cymru will be tied into that.

The Tories might have embraced the Welsh consensus but at their heart they remain committed to a right wing, market-led agenda which is out-of-touch with the views of the vast majority of the Welsh electorate. That is evident in their support for foundation schools and hospitals and their championing of PFI as a catch all solution to public service delivery irrespective of the evidence to the contrary. It is also the case that Tory proposals for tax cuts at a UK level could well lead to less money being available for services in Wales.

Welsh Liberal Democrats are not ideologically opposed to public private partnerships but we need to evaluate each contract on a case-by-case basis to ensure that we get value for money for the taxpayer, are able to protect the rights of workers and deliver top quality services.

Our principles

This is our chance to refine a distinctive, dynamic and radical message that will have wide appeal in future Welsh elections. At the heart of that message are the Liberal Democrat principles of fairness, honesty and justice. We are committed to tackling poverty and inequality, to taking the hard decisions that will improve our environment and our quality of life, that will remove barriers and offer people the educational and employment opportunities to better their lives and which will open up government and make it more transparent and accountable.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats are a party that believes in strengthening communities by giving people the power, the knowledge and the confidence to improve their own lives.

Fighting for social justice

We have to remove obstacles. It cannot be right that after ten years of Labour government one in six Welsh youngsters are leaving school with no qualifications, training or employment. Statistics show that these people are twenty times more likely to commit a crime, whilst female NEETs (No education, employment or training) are 22 times more likely to be single mothers. Setting targets is not enough; there must be specific investment and action to reverse this trend.

These figures are linked to the fact that one in four Welsh people are living on the breadline. According to a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation the number of people living in Wales in poverty has increased since the 1990s from 20.4% in 1990 to 27.4% today. Child poverty still sits at just under 30%. Despite a high profile commitment from the Labour Assembly Government there has been no change in recent years.

In addition, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)(1) reports that Wales' economic output has fallen even further behind that of the wealthiest part of the UK, the South East of England, since 1997. In the last eight years since then Welsh GVA (Gross Value Added) - the accepted measure of wealth per head - has fallen from 81% of the UK average to 78%. Over the same period with London has increased from 129% to 136%, with England as a whole, static on 102%.

That is a shocking indictment of the Labour government and its failure to use significant resources from the European Community to improve wealth and well being through investment in skills, entrepreneurship and research. One example is the way that Welsh Higher Institutions are failing to adequately drive forward research and development so as to create high quality well-paid employment that will reduce the wealth gap between England and Wales.

Despite spending half a billion pounds a year on research projects at Universities in Wales(2), the number of patents that result is very low when compared to non-Welsh universities. For example, the University of Chicago had 500 patents issued or in the pipeline compared to around 50 for the University of Wales of which 38 come from the medical school.

Unless we get to grips with this problem then we will remain dependent on Objective One for some time to come. Part of the problem here is that the Welsh Assembly Government does not take science seriously nor do they actively invest in it. An authoritative cross-party consensus in the previous Economic Development Committee was widely ignored by the Welsh Assembly Government, with the result that we still do not have any coherent science policy. We must not accept second best for Wales.

Investment in further and higher education, so as to reduce funding gaps with England, reduce the disincentive of student debt and fees and assist people to learn on a part-time basis will all help to raise the level of knowledge and increase employability. At the same time we need to provide proper support for vocational options where these best fit the strengths of individual students.

Strengthening Communities

We also need to recognise that local schools are an essential part of the community but we cannot be blind to pressures caused by falling pupil rolls and the poor condition of school buildings. It may be necessary to replace and merge a number of older schools into one new building that may also provide childcare and other facilities for the local community or communities. It is important that we use consultation and effective communication to engage local people in the process so that they embrace the modernisation of services.

Other barriers include the lack of affordable housing in many communities, poor health and inadequate transport links. Positive action is needed to ensure that new housing developments contain a high proportion of affordable homes, and that we invest in a proper community health service based around primary care hubs and pro-active prevention measures. People need to have a greater say on their local health provision.

Anti-social behaviour is a big problem for many communities and we need to ensure that the Assembly Government does all it can to ensure that there is adequate policing to help combat that. However, we also need to shift the emphasis so as to help young people fulfil their potential. Giving them their own space and an opportunity to engage in constructive activity may be expensive but it is a much-needed investment and one that needs to have a higher priority in public expenditure terms.

These are just some examples of the Welsh Liberal Democrat agenda of investing in communities and of providing opportunities for those who live in them. It is a social liberal programme that recognises that the state has a role in helping people to fulfil their potential without dictating how they should live their lives. We understand that if barriers such as homelessness are to be removed then those who face them need to be given choices and the power and ability to be able to choose in an informed manner.

We understand too the special nature of each community. That is why we changed the emphasis and direction of the Assembly when we were in the partnership government so as to develop Welsh language provision according to local needs. There are many other measures that can be taken so as to help preserve and protect Welsh speaking communities including proper consideration in planning, housing and educational provision.

Investing in a better future

We also value our environment and want to see measures to help sustain and improve it: better public transport provision, locally sourced food, the promotion of the reduce, re-use and recycle waste hierarchy so as to cut landfill, alternative energy sources and help and support for indigenous businesses. Protecting the environment is not just for a select group. Sustainable green solutions must be available to everybody.

Saving the earth requires hard choices, but we should not be afraid either to draw a line when necessary so as to strike a balance between the needs of communities and the needs of the planet. An example of this is in the provision of sustainable energy. Welsh Liberal Democrats are in favour of a mixed economy of energy provision. That means that when wind farm proposals are acceptable, will benefit local communities and are on a human scale then we will support them.

However, we must invest in other technologies as well and give them greater priority. Tidal lagoons, micro-generation, energy conservation and energy storage schemes are all projects we would want to see move up the government agenda. That means that we must also take a realistic view of the Severn Barrage proposal. There has to be a reconciliation of the environmental benefits of the sort of power generation such a barrage could produce against the impact it will have on the physical environment. We would expect a proper study to assess these matters before the go-ahead is given for this scheme, but in the meantime we should keep an open mind.

The same sort of consideration must apply to transport. The one feature of new roads is the speed at which they fill up with traffic and become congested themselves. There is a very strong case for new road building schemes where they by-pass beleaguered communities or reduce accidents, however, the same justifications cannot apply to the construction of huge trunk roads on major routes especially when environmentally valuable sites will be lost. Schemes such as the M4 extension around Newport need to pass very stringent tests before they are allowed to proceed. Often a proper investment in public transport provision can have an equal but longer-lasting impact on traffic flows and is a more sustainable solution. Again, we should be testing the Welsh Assembly Government on such proposals so as to ensure that they are fulfilling their duty to sustainability and to future generations.

Hard choices on local services

We should be fighting to preserve local services such as doctor's surgeries, dentists, hospitals, schools and post offices either in the present or an enhanced form so as to keep the heart beating in both rural and urban communities. That does not mean that we will not take difficult decisions when necessary but it does mean that we will promote and practise a more open, transparent and accountable form of government.

We will listen to people's views and concerns and spell out the choices we face together so that we can seek to come to some consensus on the way forward. Where that consensus is not possible then we will at least be making a decision in which the choices are fully understood by all those affected and ensuring that we are helping communities and individuals adjust to these changes.

Individual rights

Welsh Liberal Democrats join with our Federal colleagues in valuing the rights and liberties of every citizen. We oppose ID cards because we believe that they are both ineffective in what they set out to do and a gross infringement of basic liberties. The Government has claimed that these cards will help to combat terrorism, fraud and crime. The 9/11 terrorists carried valid ID cards; most benefit fraud involves people who misrepresent their circumstances rather than their identity; and the difficulty in clearing up crime is almost always that the criminals are not caught, rather than not identified. ID cards will also make it easier for those who wish to steal identities and make it far harder for vulnerable people such as those fleeing domestic abuse, to access services.

It is also likely that members of ethnic minority groups will be stopped and asked for their ID cards much more often than white people are. This could lead to a serious deterioration in relations between ethnic minorities and the police and other sections of the community. To add to this injustice by requiring the ID card to be used to access public services will rapidly lead to a situation whereby the card is voluntary for most of the articulate middle classes and compulsory for those who use public services and/or can't argue and resist the need for the card. This is one injustice the Welsh Assembly Government can and should resist.

People's right to information is an important part of our democratic process. It should be a fundamental part of good governance. Devolution should not stop at the state level. We have a duty to explore how we can better empower local government, but also to make councils more effective by ensuring that they better represent the views of the communities they serve. That is why we champion fairer voting and why we will introduce it for local government at the first realistic opportunity.

What we are for

Despite not being in government the Welsh Liberal Democrats have a major role in prosecuting this agenda. It should form the basis of our campaigning and of our work in ensuring that the new coalition government is giving the best deal for the people of Wales. We may be able to agree with other parties on some common elements but taken as a whole this is a unique Welsh Liberal Democrat vision, which values the individual and the inter-locking communities we live and work in. It is about empowering people, not dictating to them, about using the levers of government to remove barriers and create opportunity, not to run things from the centre. It is about working with local people to take on vested interests where that is necessary.

It is our strength as campaigners, enablers, environmentalists, civil libertarians, federalists, and social reformers that define what the Welsh Liberal Democrats are. Our time will come to implement these reforms as part of a left of centre Assembly Government but in the meantime we should use our position in local government to promote this agenda, whilst using our ideas and principles to redefine the role of the second opposition party in the Assembly as the one that can best reflect the aspirations and needs of people in their communities.

Peter Black

29 August 2007

(1)http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/0100news/newspolitics/tm_headline=wealth-gap-widens-for-welsh&method=full&objectid=19575988&siteid=50082-name_page.html

(2)http://drchristopherwoodsdiary.blogspot.com/2007/08/wealth-gap-or-stupid-politicians-gap.html

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