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Friday, October 14, 2005

Coalition and tough decisions

It is always dangerous to rely on a newspaper interview as source material when commenting. Often reasons of space will mean that coherent and well-argued views are edited and the end product becomes something it is not. Even when the journalist and his sub-editor gets it right the politician in question will react to the slightest criticism with the age-old cry that he or she was "quoted out of context."

My caveat in commenting on this Western Mail interview with Lembit Opik therefore is that I am referring to what appeared in print, I was not present when he said it. Of course that should not prevent my speaking out nor should it place any obligation on me to check first as to whether what is in print is accurate or not. The public will read what I do and will form their own opinions from that. The terms of the debate have been set by the newspaper's interpretation of what was said not by the actual words themselves.

From what I can see Lembit made two basic points in his interview: (1) that the Liberal Democrats should resolve their policy differences and lose their timidity; and (2) that in Wales the party should prepare for a return to government - probably in a revival of the 2000-03 coalition with Labour - after the 2007 Assembly elections. Both of those points have more to do with the media's agenda than to what is happening in the party.

Firstly, as Lembit is giving this interview in preparation for a Welsh Liberal Democrats Conference it is surprising that he should refer to "policy differences" at all. The consternation over the so-called "Orange Book" group of MPs has not penetrated into Wales, largely because those sort of differences of approach do not exist here (and to be fair I believe that he was trying to make that point). It is debatable even such differences are present to any great degree in the Federal Party. There are a small group of MPs who take a particular view but, as the September Party Conference showed, their views are marginalised within the wider party and even amongst the 62 strong Parliamentary Party. To raise it again in the context of a Welsh Conference is not only unnecessary but it does the Party at large no favours at all.

Some people may think that strong leadership is about raising spectres and then dispelling them but in reality that sort of gimmick raises questions about judgement. Thus the comment "I think I am impatient with anyone who argues for our limitations, and I think the Welsh Liberal Democrats have been under-confident about what we can achieve. I can't be bothered with people telling me what we can't do. I haven't got the time or inclination to hold ourselves back" is not just nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense. That is because until Lembit raised it there was nobody arguing for our limitations, under-confidence has certainly not been a feature of our party, who have consistently punched above our weight.

Who are these people who have been telling Lembit "what we can't do"? Who is it who is trying to hold the party back? Why should the Leader of the Welsh Party slag off his colleagues in this way, especially as he appears to be the only person who is of this view? Is this a man who does not believe in listening to his colleagues or is this a leader who has unrealistic ambitions. The comment is so stupid that I cannot believe that Lembit was quoted accurately.

The second issue is that of coalition. It will of course be up to the Assembly Group and the wider party after 2007 to decide if that is a realistic option. As somebody who does not believe in holding the party back I believe that it will not be necessary as we will have a majority as of right. However, the idea that such a coalition should be with the Labour Party does not necessarily stack up. To be fair this seems to have been thrown in as an assumption by the reporter, but Labour have demonstrated conclusively in the last two years that they are not an inclusive party. They have burnt so many boats that it would be difficult to revive the old Partnership Government. Equally, for me, working with the Tories is currently not an option either. There are too many ideological differences, too many principles that would have to be compromised. That may change but I cannot currently see circumstances in which it would.

The future of Welsh politics is uncertain and rests in the hands of the electorate and an electoral system designed to favour the Labour Party. There are more options than coalition government involving the Liberal Democrats and we would do well to recognise that. Our leaders too should not make the mistake of promoting such an option at this stage. There is still so much to play for.
Crikey !

Perhaps reasons of space meant that coherent and well-argued thoughts have been edited out of your blog and the end product became something that you did not intend.

It's strong stuff Peter; do you expect to get some flak for taking a pop at Lembit?
"burnt so many boats"

thats a new turn of phrase on me although i do have a fantastic image of rhrodri morgan at a viking funeral.

- theres something to cheer me up during my magna carta lecture

Is it true that the basis of the first coalition between Labour and the Lib dems was negotiated by Lembit Opik, Charles Kennedy, and Chris Rennard at a private meeting with Labour leaders and then ratified with the Assembly group later. I have heard two versions of this story one that says Mike German was present and one that says he wasn't.....is either true?

Just curious.....remember I did suggest that the Lib dems would form a coalition with Labour after 2007 ...now you know why I thought that!!!
No Mark, none of that is true. The Partnership Government was conceived and negotiated in Wales. If anything the MPs had reservations that had to be overcome. Charles Kennedy took the view that it was a matter for us though he was prepared to intervene at a Federal level if we requested it. We did not as far as I can recall.
“…working with the Tories is currently not an option either. There are too many ideological differences, too many principles that would have to be compromised.”

So how come they’re in your coalition in Swansea??
As I have explained to you previously Martyn, at a Council level we are able to concentrate on local issues and as such ideological matters do not come into it. That cannot work at a National level.
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