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317 – The consensus that stifles
29 March 2007 (09:34:50)

Liberal Democrats in Wales are about to enter assembly elections in which little distinguishes the four main parties, says Russell Deacon

On 3 May, the Welsh Assembly election will occur. For Welsh Liberal Democrat candidates, it will provide both a verdict on Rhodri Morgan’s minority Welsh Labour government and an indicator of their own popularity with the Welsh electorate.

At the last election, the party suffered what nearly everyone now admits was a dismal election result. Coming out of a coalition government, the party expected either to be punished or rewarded by the Welsh electorate. In the event, they stayed static.

The six assembly members remained in situ, the number of Conservatives AMs increased slightly, Plaid Cymru’s decreased dramatically, while Labour stayed virtually the same. How then is the party moulding itself and taking on the radical legacy of its Welsh Liberal forbears in the period coming up to its all important show of strength?

The failures of May 2003 meant that some of the most radical Welsh Liberal Democrats, such as Rob Humphreys, the Welsh party president, failed to be elected the assembly and the party had to make do with the skills of its existing members, with no new infusion of Liberal spirit and ideas.

A rather lacklustre period of Labour government followed in which the Welsh Liberal Democrats spent the first 18 months getting used to opposition, and having to avoid attacking the incumbent government over some of the policies they themselves had been behind while in coalition.

Yet matters soon brightened up for Welsh Liberal Democrats. After the May 2004 council elections, they became the lead political party on a number of local authorities in Wales. After the political dust surrounding the coalition negotiations had settled, they were left leading not only the Welsh capital Cardiff, but also Swansea, Bridgend and Wrexham councils. The party now had more Welsh local authority power than it had had since the 1920s. A year later, the party gained four MPs in the general election. It was the Liberal Democrats’ highest number of MPs in Wales since 1951. With these good results behind it, it is hardly surprising that the signs for May 2007 are that the party will do better, and morale is now much higher than 2003.

All of the political parties in Wales have spent the last 18 months thrashing out their new policy agenda. When it comes to comparing their manifestos, there are normally far fewer real differences than people would imagine.

It is the detail of implementation of policy rather than the fundamentals of their actuality where the disagreements occur. This general policy consensus only falls apart when it comes down to exactly how much money should be spent on what point, or when Labour’s ‘pork barrel’ politics has become too overt. The major fall-outs on policy issues over the last four years have been the Labour party’s abolition of Welsh quangos and their backing for student fees (which the combined opposition were against). Labour has also failed to implement any of the more radical ideas from its various commissions, such as introducing the single transferable vote for local government and the Welsh Assembly elections.

Welsh consensus politics therefore means that, over the last two Welsh Assembly governments, new social and economic policy delivery has become closely connected through all political parties with ideology of ‘localism’ as opposed to ‘radicalism’. Localism means having policy delivered at the lower or the lowest functional level, which in essence means from regional or county council to town or even sub council ward basis. It is not a policy alien to most Welsh or British Liberals’ own philosophical hearts, but then it does not seem to be alien to Labour, Plaid Cymru or Conservative members’ hearts either.

Devoid of fundamental issues of policy difference, the Welsh indigenous press and media such as the Western Mail or BBC Wales are now full of ‘what if’ stories in respect of the aftermath of the next Welsh general election.

Most revolve around the possible coalition combinations post 3 May. ‘Will the Libs join the Labs?’, ‘Will the Labs join Plaid Cymru?’, ‘Will the Tories join the Libs and Plaid?’ ‘Who would led a rainbow coalition?’ Plaid won’t accept a Tory first minister, the Tories won’t accept a Plaid one.

This leaves the possibility of a compromise first minister in the shape of Michael German, a Welsh Liberal Democrat leading Wales. This is something which would have brought a tear of pride to the late David Lloyd George’s eye.

WEAKENED IDEOLOGICAL DIVIDE

The fact that the Welsh Liberal Democrats can be placed so easily with any of the other political parties in the Welsh mainstream and that none rule out working with the Liberal Democrats, while they will not work with each other, indicates that the ideological divide has weakened considerably in the Liberal Democrats, who have returned to equidistance.

After all, the Welsh Conservatives now embrace proportional representation for local government, one of the key demands for the Welsh Liberal Democrats in any coalition arrangement. So what does being a Welsh Liberal Democrat really mean now that it seems so easy to support other parties’ policy ideals in a shared administration?

When the Welsh Liberals were last in a real position of strength in Wales in the early twentieth century, their radicalism was known and feared throughout the political world of Westminster and the council chambers of the principality.

Today, the most famous Welsh Liberal Democrat name is Lembit Öpik. This, however, is not because of his radical ideas or presence in parliament but because of his tabloid celebrity status. This is a pity because Öpik at times can be one of the most effective orators in the Welsh party and quite an ideologist. (Lord) Alex Carlile also has a high media profile; again this is nothing to do with his connection with Welsh Liberalism but rather more to do with his role as a leading barrister and reviewer of the Labour government’s anti-terrorism legislation. The remaining Welsh Liberal Democrats in Westminster and Cardiff Bay have more local profiles.

Peter Black and Jenny Randerson are certainly well known names in Swansea and Cardiff. Mike German even has a limited Welsh profile, known by around 6% of the Welsh population according to a recent poll. Apart from Öpik, however, no Welsh Liberal enjoys a recognisable British profile. None of Ming’s main men (or women) are from the Welsh Liberals, but then to be fair neither were Kennedy’s, Ashdown’s, Steel’s or Grimond’s. The only main difference with the current leader is that, unlike his predecessors, he had little support amongst Welsh parliamentarians in the leadership election. Since his election, the Welsh parliamentarians and assembly members have also remained mainly indifferent and sometimes publicly critical of Campbell. All this does not help endear the Welsh party to Campbell or help in projecting Welsh Liberal identity within the federal party.

Out of the gaze of both their British leadership and the media, the Welsh Liberal Democrats should be free to pursue as radical a policy agenda as they see fit.

They do not have to tiptoe around the Murdoch press or Daily Mail. Yet in Wales there is an obvious lack of radicalism, not just in the Welsh Liberals but, as earlier noted, in all the mainstream Welsh political parties, as they have moved to the centre ground.

The parties have built mainly on the socialist rather than the Thatcherite models of ideology in their quest for the centre ground. They seek to regulate this issue, set up a new quango for that concern and merge or restructure some other quangos to meet another policy objective. The state, in the form of the Welsh Assembly, is seen to be the panacea for all of society’s ills and problems. No problem, it seems, cannot be dealt with by the state or by its financial resources or regulatory powers.

Yet Wales suffers severe problems. It has some of the worst health, crime and social problems not only in the UK but sometimes in Europe. Wales is at the top of nearly all of the league tables that indicate social and economic problems, and seems in many ways to be getting worse. Added to this is a declining economy in which the public sector is the largest employer, and thanks to the Welsh Assembly, dwarfs any private sector employer in Wales. The European Union Objective 1 funding of more than £1bn has been squandered. It has not failed to halt the declining economy, and the economy has declined still further against the European average GDP. All of these failures to redress decline are crying out for radical solutions.

Going into the assembly elections, the Welsh Liberal Democrats clearly have some strong politicians. Their AMs, such as Black, Randerson, Kirsty Williams and Elinor Burnham, have built up strong reputations in the assembly in their own portfolio areas. Black, perhaps, is also the closest to a traditional Liberal radical, for which he gains admiration across the assembly chamber. Little of their ideas have filtered out as being truly radical, however.

INNOVATIVE, NOT RADICAL

When it comes to the actual policy detail, there are only two references to the word ‘radical’ in Trust in Wales: Welsh Liberal Democrats pre-manifesto. The pre-manifesto is therefore innovative rather than radical. Of course, the Welsh Liberal Democrats would argue that their entire manifesto is ‘radical’. But if we take radical by its other name tag of ‘revolutionary’, the manifesto is not radical. The most life-changing ideas, such as the plan to generate all of Wales’s electricity through renewable sources by 2050 (43 years’ time), is incremental rather than radical. By 2020 would have been radical and achievable in the political lifetime of those standing for election.

The Welsh Assembly election will show that the Welsh Liberal Democrats have sound and well thought out policies. Yes, the Welsh Liberal Democrats have produced some excellent ideas to try to deal with some of Wales’s major problems. Yes, their ideas are better than the other mainstream parties’ in Wales but are they radical enough? Not at the moment, they still need to stretch further.

This they may well do with the arrival of the new primary law making powers in the Welsh Assembly in May. They now have the opportunity and means to be more much more radical. Let us hope they make their radical ancestors proud and do so.

Russell Deacon is a reader in Welsh history and governance, and chair of the British Liberal Political Studies Group.

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