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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Hanging on the telephone

I have an article in the latest Liberator magazine attempting to explain the chain of events that led up to the Welsh Liberal Democrat special conference on coalition. It was written in the middle of June so it is not up-to-date.

Since writing it I have had two inaccuracies pointed out to me as follows: Firstly, the disagreement between the Group leadership and the Executive was to do with a much earlier stage of the process, that is the point at which the Party decided to negotiate with another party or parties.

On this some AMs wanted the Group to decide alone. The NEC wanted separate votes,and if there was disagreement, the Group Leader and Party President were to find a way through.
The business later of any agreement needing a majoitry in the Group, NEC and Negotiating Team was never raised at NEC by anybody as a potential problem.

Obviously, the triple lock was designed so that nothing could be forced through, against the wishes of the NEC or Group (either way), and to avoid anything which would so obviously split the Party. In this, the triple lock actually worked in the way it was designed to, but clearly no one expected it to be a tied vote.

Secondly, my memory proved to be faulty on the outcome of the consultation with members. The possibility of a deal with Labour was certainly the one having the most publicity when we did the consultation, and hence caused the most reaction amongst members - but it was more like 30/35% anti-Labour. There was actually quite a lot of support for a Labour deal, and also a lot of hostility to the Tories. I think that most of us had the impression from the consultation that a deal with Labour would not have got through conference.

The article is not on-line so I have reproduced it below:

Wales hangs on the telephone

As I write the future governance of Wales remains unsettled; Plaid Cymru have resumed talks with Labour with a view to forming a formal coalition and the proposed rainbow partnership of Plaid Cymru, Welsh Liberal Democrats and Welsh Tories looks to be in doubt.

We are a nation coming to terms with proportional representation, but we are doing so in the context of a hybrid and unsatisfactory system which was stacked in favour of the dominant Labour Party by two successive Acts of Parliament and in which our actions have consequences on other elections, for Parliament and local Councils, both fought under the old first past the post system.

In itself that situation can account for many of the jitters that exist in all parties about various arrangements with others, but there are other factors at work as well. The Welsh Liberal Democrats for example remain a loose coalition of traditional Liberals, largely based in the more rural areas of Wales, where they have always seen the Conservatives and latterly Plaid Cymru as the main enemy; and the more urban Liberal Democrats fighting in the valleys, towns and cities of mainly South Wales, against Labour. Plaid Cymru have similar divisions between the North Wales based ‘conservative nationalists’ and the South Wales ‘socialists’.

For the first time in living memory, the Welsh Liberal Democrats are running Councils in Wales, and not just their traditional strongholds of Conwy, Ceredigion and Powys. We lead four of the six largest conurbations – Swansea, Bridgend, Cardiff and Wrexham – at the head of ‘rainbow coalitions’ with a mix of independents, Tories and Plaid Cymru. The exception is Cardiff where we have a minority administration with no formal arrangement with any other party.

In these urban centres the enemy is seen to be Labour and many of our Councillors do not want to risk their seats and the fruits of their hard work by entering into a coalition with them in an election year. This is especially so as in all of these Council areas the Welsh Liberal Democrats are demonstrating not just that the local Council can be run without Labour for the first time in decades but that real changes and improvements can be brought about as well.

That is the background against which we entered into discussions on a way forward after the Assembly elections but before I look at the chronology it is worth noting the position of the other parties.

Labour under Rhodri Morgan have largely managed to insulate themselves against the anti-Blair/Iraq War backlash in Wales, however even they could not hold back the tide this year. They lost constituency seats and picked up two regional members so as to move from 29 AMs to 26.

The Tories were the main benefactors of that change, picking up four new constituencies but losing three regional members in the process. They increased their group in size from 11 to 12. They too have been trying to carve out a distinct Welsh position as a mainstream centre party who are in touch with people’s concerns and as an alternative competent government.

Plaid Cymru also benefited from Labour’s misfortunes increasing their group from 13 to 15 with a spectacular gain in Llanelli and an extra list seat in South Wales East. In contrast Welsh Liberal Democrat expectations of gains were frustrated and we came out of the election with the same six AMs we have had since 1999. There is one independent.

To understand what happened within the Welsh Liberal Democrats over coalition talks one has to go back before the election. In 2000, when we went into coalition with Labour, we held a special conference to endorse that decision. It was always the intention to do the same again. What was different was the mechanism that was put in place by the National Executive to trigger that conference.

A number of members were deeply opposed to any deal which involved the Conservatives and were suspicious of the way that the three opposition parties had been working together against the then Labour Government. They were convinced that talks had been on-going for some time, even before the election, to set up a rainbow coalition and were determined not to allow the Assembly Group to call all the shots.

A triple lock was put in place therefore against the wishes of the Assembly Group leadership. What this meant was that, immediately following the election, a joint meeting of the Executive and the Group would take place to decide a way forward. Any decision had to be independently ratified by each body. If both decided to enter into talks then a negotiating team drawn equally from the group and the executive would be set up. They would report back to another joint meeting, which would decide whether to trigger a special conference or not. For that conference to happen there had to a majority in favour in each of the negotiating team, group and the Executive.

When we did eventually gather together on the Saturday after the election we were all a bit stunned. We had effectively come through a third successive election without making any progress. Some of us were not in the mood for talking but wanted to get our own house in order first. It was also the case that our four Council leaders got in the act and sought to prevent any talk of a deal with Labour.

Just before that meeting I blogged on the way forward:

“My instincts are that the Welsh Liberal Democrats do not have to be the deal-makers in this process. We have our own issues to sort out first around where we are going as a party and what sort of image we project to the Welsh public. We obviously want to put Liberal Democrat policies into effect but there are other ways of doing that apart from being in government. The last thing we need is to enter a divisive and difficult process of negotiation with a Labour Party that has been rejected by the people of Wales when our own problems remain unresolved. We need to take our members with us on this not drive them away and surely the opposition of our four Council leaders to a deal with Labour must form a part of that process.”

That remained my position throughout. My view was that we needed an early leadership election so as to set the direction and tone of the party (the constitution says there must be one within 12 months of an election) and a thorough review of how we campaigned and how we were relating our distinctive Federal messages on the environment, civil liberties, fairness and honesty to a Welsh context.

It is clear to me that our campaigning did not resonate with people, that we did not get hold of local issues effectively and that our policy initiatives and manifesto seemed remote from people’s daily lives. I accepted in saying all this that I was a party to these decisions and had to take responsibility as well, but the issue was not to apportion blame rather it was to get it right both next time and in the near future.

I took the view that a leadership election was an appropriate vehicle to have a structured and positive debate about these issues. I also took the view that to go into coalition would put all of this on the backburner, prevent that debate taking place and doom us to another election in four years time in which we made the same mistakes.

Needless to say my views did not prevail even though I repeated them consistently in all available forums right up to and including the special conference. What did happen was that there was a mandate for the Assembly Group leader to have talks about talks whilst a consultation took place with party members. A series of joint meetings took place in Llandrindod Wells and a way forward was agreed.

The Executive and Assembly Group heard that of those who responded to the consultation over half were opposed to any deal with Labour. The prevailing opinion was that Labour had lost seats and had been rejected by the electorate. We should not keep them in power. The Group and the Executive decided by a majority vote in each that we should not pursue talks with Labour but instead engage with Plaid Cymru and the Tories so as to pursue a viable alternative government to Labour.

In these talks of course there was a deadline hanging over all the parties. Whilst politicians were circling and talking about the interests of the people of Wales, they knew that if a First Minister was not elected within 28 days then there would be another election. Nobody wanted that.

Essentially, we had about a week left to put together a comprehensive programme for government which was both deliverable and affordable. Whether that was achieved or not is a subjective judgement, however on the last Wednesday before the deadline, with just a week to go, the Welsh Liberal Democrat National Executive met to consider the document.

There was a prolonged debate, following which the group voted 4-2 in favour, the negotiating team voted in favour but the Executive tied 9-9. Two votes cast against from Westminster through a telephone conferencing system proved to be crucial, as was that of a member who spoke in favour and then was persuaded by the debate to vote against. It was only then that we discovered that in the constitution the Chair of the executive does not have a casting vote.

Those who had been promoting the rainbow coalition had failed to secure the votes to get it through the triple lock. However, the reaction of the membership was one of fury. They felt disenfranchised and I confess that, although I was opposed to it, if I had had a vote in the Executive I would have opted to send it to the members for decision and taken my chances there. The tied vote however, effectively killed off the rainbow coalition at that time.

As a result of the outrage amongst members a special conference was quickly summoned by 20 voting representatives and was scheduled to be held in the Saturday slot originally allocated to it. In the meantime Labour had moved quickly and secured the re-election of Rhodri Morgan as First Minister the day before.

The Conference held a high quality and often passionate debate that lasted for nearly three hours. At the end the representatives voted by 125 to 77 in favour of the ‘All Wales Accord’ as the partnership document was now called. Where we go now is in the hands of Plaid Cymru.
Another "inaccuracy" which people might think is that Plaid in fact went from 12 (rather than 13) to 15.

I guess you are however taking Aberconwy to have been a "notional" Plaid win in 2003 and therefore a hold rather than gain!

We anoraks must stick together!
No that was just a mistake.
I wouldn't worry about it Peter, memory lets us all down occasionally. Anyway, this is pretty much moot given the news that Plaid Cymru has also voted for the PC-Labour deal. The only good thing to come out of this is that it is "over with" ... for now.
I dunno - I give you an "out" and you still don't take it. Fair do!
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