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Sunday, May 13, 2007

The way forward

In the Wales on Sunday Matt Withers speculates that my supposed call for Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly leader, Mike German, to stand down has 'failed'. He reports that 'insiders say Mr German has "accepted responsibility" in private meetings but retains the party's confidence'.

If Matt wants to accept the word of one or two individuals anxious to protect the leadership on this matter then that is his concern. The fact is though that nobody knows whether Mike German retains the party's confidence or not because that has not been tested in an election since 1998. It seems to me that for many people the issue is not whether Mike should be challenged but when.

The Party's constitution is quite clear that there needs to be a leadership contest within twelve months of an Assembly election. The timing of that contest lies in the hands of the National Executive Committee who quite rightly for the time being are focussed on more important issues, such as the party's immediate role in the Assembly.

What the NEC must not forget however is that our leadership forms a crucial part of that consideration and it is for that reason that I believe that it is in the party's interests to hold any contest earlier rather than later. We can then test what party members really think about our performance, debate the future role of the party and what image we need to project to the electorate.

I am already on record as saying that I believe that our performance on May 3rd was very poor and that the leadership needs to bear some responsibility for that. If we are to continue with the same Assembly Leader then there is a need for an active endorsement by party members, not just another unopposed re-election.

Our problem however is that we are one of four parties all led by senior 'grey-haired' men. I mean that metophorically rather than literally. We have no USP and being the smallest of the four parties suffer for that. It would be helpful therefore if members are offered a real choice once a leadership election has been called.

Another problem is our failure to connect with voters. We went into the election with a detailed manifesto containing hundreds of radical policies, many of which we shared with the other parties. I am partly responsible for that manifesto as I helped write the education section and submitted ideas such as the need for local councils to have a statutory duty to provide facilities for young people to keep them off the streets at night. That particular policy was unique to us but had virtually no airing during the campaign.

Although we pulled out three particular policy areas to major on in the election, they turned out to be the same issues that the other parties were promoting as well. We failed to make them relevant 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 of the reasons for that is that we have spent too long mistaking activity in the hallowed corridors of the Assembly for campaigning. In many cases we have failed to 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 message that resonated with people our vote held up. 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 should be taking a lead, getting out onto the streets with other activists over a four year period to talk and listen to people about their concerns and ideas. Instead of relying on inadequate opinion polls and focus groups to hone our message, we should be using the real experience of our constituents and framing our policies in a way that they can identify with.

These are just some of the changes that I believe need to be discussed during a leadership election. If they are to be implemented then they need the full commitment of all of the Assembly Group and our MPs, as well as Councillors and activists and that requires a level of leadership and team working that has hitherto been absent. Whether we can do it I do not know but we need to try. We can not be distracted from that course by our involvement in Assembly power politics at this time.

Update: It does not assist debate if senior party figures continue to remain in denial. On the Politics Show just now Jenny Willott MP insisted that our overall vote in Wales was slightly up. It was not, it was slightly down. She also said that we came close to winning more AMs and that in some areas we doubled our vote. That may be the case in isolated pockets but the fact is that we have six AMs for a third time. We have not moved forward at all. That is not a success by any definition I am aware of and it is time that we stopped trying to spin it as otherwise.

Further update: Jenny Willott has e-mailed me to point out that the Welsh Liberal Democrat vote went up by 0.6% in the constituencies and down 1% in the regions. The link is here. I am happy to correct my previous comments and apologise to Jenny if it seems that I was accusing her of lying. I was not. My essential point however, that the party did not do very well and that we should not try to pretend otherwise, remains unchanged.
Peter, why not put yourself up for leadership if you are that unhappy with it, either that or quit your whining.
There is no election at the moment. I actually believe that I am debating the future of the Welsh Liberal Democrats. I would hardly call it whining but then I am happy to put my own name to my comments.
Hi Peter,

You have excellent points regarding on how we carry ourselves in wider public arena. If Mike decides to step down then Kirsty should consider herself.

On another note you should consider is Welsh Language. I did a lot of leafleting/canvassing/talking to voter in my area up here. But what I found fustrating was the lack consideration for the Welsh Language on our leaflets. Although we had some bilingual leaflets there were lot of english only ones or some little tidbits in Welsh.

This made my heart sink when I had to deliver these to houses were I knew the family/people were welsh speakers and I thought 'why bother?' because I knew they were going to end up in the bin.

I think a lot of fellow members Peter who don't 'get' the importance of the Welsh Language in the modern Welsh politics.
Why bother? The Lib Dems are so close to New Labour there are only minor quibbles to arge over. If Peter did not make a fuss over the leadership then we might have forgotten about them. The Welsh Lib Dems always fit in where they are put and let life happen. As we in Swansea know so well.
To echo what Peter said earlier, some of us are happy to put our names to comments we make, not hide behind anonymous tags and snipe.

Whether people agree with what he has said or not at least he has been open about it. Perhaps it is that which sets us apart from other Parties?
So if there has to be a leadership election withing twelve months of an assembly election then why wasn't there one after the last one or the one before.

Why do you want to go into opposition and not government?

I agree that you'll get more votes from opposition but thats because I think you'd do a shit job in government. If you disagree with me then theres no reason you wouldn't want to go into coalition.
What an incredibly refreshing change to read a politician stating "we have spent too long mistaking activity in the hallowed corridors of the Assembly for campaigning". It's the sort of thing that Labour has been saying in private to iteslf for some time. They haven't learnt any lessons. Will your colleagues?
I think I have explained in this post why I believe that it is the Welsh Liberal Democrats best interests to go into opposition for now. We have been in government as it happens and I believe we did rather a good job of it. There was a leadership election in 2003 but Mike German was unopposed. There was no election in 1999 because Mike had only just been elected.
Your analysis Peter, is on the ball and, I believe, is in tune with the majority of activists on the ground.

- Richie Northcote
You are compulsive reading at the moment Peter - and you are a politician with real b***s
Are you planning to stand for leadership at the next Lib-Dem conference and challenge Mike German? if not who would you like to see be the new Lib Dem leader in the Assembly?
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