A lengthy response to Peter Black’s “This is what the Welsh Liberal Democrats are for” pamphlet that has been posted on his own website and Liberal Democrat Voice.
Shortly after May’s Welsh Assembly Elections I started writing an essay on how the party had done, where it was going wrong and what needed to change. After some time trying to find the right words though, I gave up as I increasingly had a sense that after being out of the country for four years I was probably somewhat out of touch with what was going on there. However, after reading today’s interesting pamphlet by Peter Black, I realised that some of my instincts were correct and many of the problems that the Welsh Liberal Democrats had back in 2003 were still just as valid, if not more so, in 2007.
One of the marked changes in the last four years has been the general improvement in campaigning across Wales. But when I say, “across Wales” what I mean is that there are pockets of success in more places now than previously. It is this improvement in campaigning ability that has seen our success in places such as Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Wrexham, and was the key change in Ceredigion that saw us win the seat back from Plaid at the last General Election. But the situation is far from universal. Indeed one of my favourite quotes on campaigning comes from my time working in Wales in the 2003 Assembly Elections. This is the time when in a discussion on how the candidate could raise his profile someone said “He could always wear a hat…or a brooch”. I accept that this cluelessness about campaigning is also often the case in other parts of the UK, but there does appear to be a stronger campaigning base in more of England than in Wales.
But this lack of focus on real campaigning is not only found in constituencies, but also prevalent in the Assembly as well. When Peter Black says that “we have spent too long mistaking our activity in the hallowed corridors of the Assembly for campaigning” he is spot on. During my time in Wales, I always felt that policy and research was held in far higher esteem than actual grassroots campaigning, and that was highlighted by the ratio of campaign staff to policy staff within the party. When your rebuttal of the other parties’ manifestos is longer than the manifestos themselves, you know that someone isn’t doing anything useful. But Peter Black’s comment on “a detailed manifesto containing hundreds of radical policies” is far from a uniquely Welsh problem. It can be found with the federal party too. Far from the Liberal Democrats having no polices, as is often said by our opponents, the Liberal Democrats have far too many policies on far too many issues, which then holds us back from having a more punchy and clearly defined, or to use the latest buzzword, narrative.
But the issue that I think will have to be confronted is that many of our members, (I hesitate to use the word activist), do not see the value in campaigning, do not believe it works and when they do go along with it, they find fault with what we stand for. Whereas Plaid is split between a strongly Welsh Nationalist agenda in the North and West of Wales, and a more socialist party in the South, the Welsh Liberal Democrats tend to be split between an old-fashioned establishment party in North, Mid and West Wales, and a more radical liberal party in the South. I still remember a Liberal Democrat councillor, who shall remain nameless, saying that he didn’t want to promote recycling in leaflets or on the council as he didn’t believe in it. Something that goes completely against the party’s general philosophy. I am not saying that Lib Dem councillors disagreeing with parts of party policy is unusual, indeed I am in no doubt that the other parties also have a similar issue. But I found that in some local parties, their whole motivation for getting elected appeared to be to maintain the status quo and to retain their status as part of the local establishment. So instead of being a genuinely radical liberal party that wanted to improve the area in line with our party’s principles, we were instead content to simply be a party that was a coalition of those who opposed change and liked things the way they were. During my time working for the Welsh Liberal Democrats I had to contend with one local party who wanted to work with Plaid to keep out Labour, another that wanted to work with Labour, Plaid and the Tories to keep out the Independent group on the council, another area wanted to work with Independents to keep out Plaid, another that just tried to reach a backroom deal to ensure that their councillors were elected unopposed regardless of who the other parties were, and then another one that promised they would fight hard to elect enough Lib Dems to be able to run the council, but then didn’t even put up candidates in half of the wards. This was all about who the party hated, and maintaining their own position, rather than advancing Liberal Democracy. It is hardly suprising then that our own internal discussions about whether to join a coalition as a part of the Welsh Assembly Government were so shambolic.
Reading Peter Black’s pamphlet however, I felt somewhat more positive about where the Welsh Liberal Democrats should be going. Peter brings out a whole host of issues where the Welsh Liberal Democrats could be saying something distinctive.
One of Peter’s ongoing themes is that of strengthening communities, and that I agree would really strike a chord throughout Wales. The Liberal Democrats have always been a party that believes in working with and as a part of the community, and that is why its campaigning has become so successful. Indeed we sometimes seem to forget that our campaigning is as a result of that belief, rather than simply because it is an effective way of winning elections. Whilst many communities in England have lost their unique identity and now struggle to keep alive many of its traditions and institutions due to the pressure of the market economy or apathy, the traditional image of every Welsh town and village having its own choir, band and rugby team is surprisingly often still true. It always surprises me how many small villages can enter a choir in the various eisteddfodau, when in England you would struggle to get two people even vaguely interested. My reason for mentioning this though is not to indulge in some stereotypical Welsh idyll, but to demonstrate how strong the community spirit still is in so much of the country. Nurturing stronger communites could therefore not only fit well with our own principles, but it would also undoubtedly resonate with people throughout Wales.
Linking in strongly with communities, there is another thing that Liberal Democrats could fight for within Wales. Plaid Cymru have sold themselves as the only truly Welsh party, and invoked people’s patriotism to gain support for their separatist agenda. Whilst I think it would be impossible for the Welsh Liberal Democrats to out-Welsh Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Liberal Democrats could instead sell themselves as being the “Positive about Wales and what it can achieve Party”. The Lib Dems could take the lead in promoting small businesses in local communities, perhaps taking the best of Wales and its traditions and using this as an opportunity to be world leaders in the creative industries, food and the environment. Instead of being a party that blames Wales’s failures on England as Plaid Cymru does, it could instead be a party that takes a positive view of what Wales can achieve and works with communities to achieve it. When it comes to business, research and technology, Wales already has a core part of the infrastructure that would make this happen, with the University of Wales that reaches most parts of Wales, and covers both urban Cardiff and rural Lampeter as some of its locations.
A key part of the infrastructure for a more positive Wales though is the need to improve public transport throughout the country. Wales is a country that has to rely on cars because it is almost impossible to travel conveniently across the country without one. The Liberal Democrats have always had the dilemma of how to approach this, with some people advocating internal flights as the only fast and efficient way of getting people around the country. Whilst I understand the appeal of this, it is of course not an environmentally-friendly option. Transport has clearly been a concern of Liberals and Liberal Democrats in Wales for a long time. I remember seeing a pamphlet produced back in the 1970s by some Liberal activists who were convinced that the solution to the country’s infrastructure problems was a West coast motorway linking Aberystwyth with Carmarthen. Not something we would of course advocate now, but it highlights the long-standing need to tackle transport issues across the country. Rail is perhaps the only mode of transport that can be both fast but also meet the needs of local communities. Whilst not cheap, the Lib Dems really should be promoting the re-opening of lines that would connect the country together. This would not only make getting about the country more sustainable, it would help unite the country more, and could also be the saviour of many more rural communities, particularly those that are Welsh speaking, as it would allow people to remain living in these smaller and remoter communities, whilst travelling to the larger towns and cities for employment and on business.
This posting has gone on longer than I’d intended, and yet I have only touched on a few of the issues and some ideas on what could make the party move forward. It is also biased towards the more rural parts of Wales, but then that was where I lived. Peter Black has hit the nail on the head when he raises two key issues on how the Welsh Liberal Democrats moves forward: what it stands for that makes it distinctive, and how it campaigns. The former may well be easier to resolve than the latter, but they are both vital. There is no point in the Welsh Lib Dems developing the best ideas that anyone has had, if it campaigns so badly that no one knows about them. The challenge the party has ahead is immense, and for that reason I think it is good that the party did not enter any coalition in the Assembly. And yet next year it has council elections to fight across the whole of the country.
Some people may feel that it is a bit of a cheek for me, an Englishman who only lived in Wales for nine months during an election where we also failed to make much progress, to criticise the Welsh Liberal Democrats. But the time I spent in Wales was wonderful, and despite some frustrations I took the party and Wales as a whole to my heart. I want it to succeed and I hope that Peter Black can now generate a positive debate that is needed within the party to make it succeed.
PETER BLACK AM: What the Welsh Liberal Democrats are for
LIBERAL DEMOCRAT VOICE: This is what the Welsh Liberal Democrats are for