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Friday, September 12, 2008

The uniqueness of the Welsh Liberal Democrats

Kirsty Williams' leadership bid launch has certainly got the blogosphere buzzing and no more so than in the musings of BBC Welsh Affairs Editor, Vaughan Roderick here. Sanddef has very kindly translated the post on his blog.

Vaughan identifies the Welsh Liberal Democrats essential problem as having no core vote: 'It is a party which has to struggle for each vote and each seat. The other parties have constituencies where any fool can be elected as long as he wears the right colours - the Liberal Democrats have to push hard to get their people in - be they fools or otherwise.'

It is certainly the case that we have to work harder than most other parties to get elected but actually what is wrong with that? The existence of so-called safe seats generates complacency and leads to voters being taken for granted. The fact that we fight for every vote has raised the standard of representation in many seats around Wales for thousands of voters. Surely that is a good thing. And trust me on this, it is not easy to get fools elected with this style of campaigning so often we do not even try.

However, I must also challenge the assumption that the Welsh Liberal Democrats do not have a core vote. For a start we are not a centre party, we sit to the left of centre as is evidenced by our emphasis on reducing the tax burden for the lower paid, our commitment to social justice and community and on empowering individuals.

The promotion of the pupil premium by Nick Clegg and by Welsh Education Spokesperson, Kirsty Williams, in which additional resources are targeted at educating children living in deprived areas, is the most radical education policy adopted by any UK political party and marks us out as a party commited to enabling disadvantaged communities and individuals. The same can be said for our green policies and our position on energy and taxation.

Secondly, it is a fact that our basic liberalism, a belief in individual rights and responsibilities, is shared by the vast majority of people in this country. Our problem is not that we do not have a core vote but that our natural constituency need to be convinced to break away from the old voting assumptions and believe that we can win.

In part this explains the tactics often adopted by Welsh Liberal Democrats in election campaigns much derided by Vaughan and our political opponents. We know that if people believe that we are a credible challenger then they will switch their vote to us, either because they instinctively agree with us or because they think we have the best candidate or offer a good practical alternative.

However, let us not be seduced into believing all the hype of our opponents about this campaigning style as Vaughan has done. The Liberal Democrats are no more 'dirty' in their campaigning than any other party.

It was not the Welsh Liberal Democrats for example who circulated a leaflet in a recent Swansea by-election urging people to vote for the Labour candidate so as to get rid of the gypsies. It was not the Liberal Democrats who had a Councillor evicted from their seat in London for winning a by-election by conducting a disgraceful smear campaign against her Liberal Democrat opponent. Nor was it us who have consistently misrepresented our opponents position on issues such neurosurgery in Swansea and who politicised a cross-party campaign for their own ends. That was Plaid Cymru.

There are countless examples of all parties adopting dubious tactics in elections that make the so-called 'unprincipled' Liberal Democrat campaigning handbooks look like a Fanny Craddock cookbook. The fact is that any objective study of Liberal Democrat literature will reveal an obsession with issues and with helping the community we are seeking to represent. It is the effectiveness of that literature our opponents object to not its contents because for the most part they have all adopted our tactics and are trying to use them against us. That is hardly the action of an outraged innocent.

Vaughan Roderick does not dispute that the Welsh Liberal Democrats have principles. In fact he says that we have 'a firm philosophy and easy to admire values concerning civil rights and freedom of the individual but the party does not base its campaigns on these things. Almost without exception the basis of the Liberal Democrats' campaigns is the claim that they are somehow more "local" than the other parties and that only they are able to beat Party A/Party B in that constituency or ward.'

And this is where he is mistaken. I have been involved in many campaigns up and down the country where the Liberal Democrats have argued against ID cards, for better community policing and for greener policies amongst many others. I cannot believe that a commentator as experienced as Vaughan can really believe that where we have had success we have done it on the basis of the sort of vacuous agenda he outlines. That would be an insult to the electorate, one that they would not stand for. It is sad that Vaughan has swallowed our opponents propaganda so completely.

Vaughan goes on to argue as I suggested above that the Welsh are a liberal nation, undermining his own point about the lack of a core vote. However, his suggestion that Plaid Cymru is 'to all intents and purposes a liberal party and liberalism is part of the DNA of a number of Welsh Labour members and some of the Conservatives as well.' is just ludicrous.

I am not going to dispute that there are in fact some genuine liberals in all parties or even that my own party contains a few members who are essentially illiberal, however the idea that any of the other three major Welsh parties are liberal is nonsense.

I think we can easily dispense with both Labour and the Conservatives in this argument. Both of them have records in government at both a central and local level in which they have patently proved themselves to be anti-democratic, centralising and inhumanly corporate.

Plaid Cymru have their moments. They have borrowed many of their policies from the Liberal Democrats, however when it comes to the crunch their solution to problems is always top down rather than enabling and liberating. In government they have supported further centralisation of the health service, the underfunding of local government and have talked about the Assembly Government taking control of school budgets and social services. Their instincts are managerial not liberal.

The Liberal Democrats are a pro-European internationalist party, it is part of our liberalism. Plaid Cymru portray themselves as the same, but their internationalism and their support for Europe is tempered by their nationalism. Plaid's world-view is blinkered by virtue of the fact that it is Wales-centric.

That is why it is possible for the Welsh Liberal Democrats to break the consensus in the Bay; by being true to their own liberal roots and looking for solutions to problems that empower individuals and communities rather then denude them. Yes, we want to defend public services, fight poverty and need and promote minority rights, but we need to work with people and with local bodies to achieve those aims, not impose solutions on them from on high. We need to give people the power to shape those services themselves, and allow them to have a real stake in their own future whilst creating opportunities that will allow individuals and communities to realise their full potential.

If there is a consensus in Wales it is not a liberal one. It is a paternalistic, state-knows-best, politically-correct blanket, smothering individuality and innovation. The Welsh Liberal Democrats have tolerated and co-operated with this view for too long and in doing so we have allowed our values to slip. It is for this reason that Vaughan Roderick is fundamentally wrong. By embracing our liberalism we can underline our distinctiveness and break that consensus once and for all.

I'm starting to think people should take casual swipes at us more often, if this is the result. Best thing I have ever seen you write, Peter, bar none.
m with Steph, this is a fabulous stirring call to arms. I feel pumped up after reading it, and I'm not even Welsh.
BE BOLD. Your party could go for the “Party of the Future” by doing things that speak to developing the positive side of Wales’s future. For example, the Welsh Lib Dems could do something really bold like putting protection of Wales’s greatest asset at the top of its list of priorities. Distinguish yourselves by promoting investment in Wales through positive Welsh asset protection. Take the initiative on treating Wales as the smart small nation that it really is by believing it is through prioritizing protecting its future tax base by promoting Wales First Patent First. BELIEVE IN WALES.
“… in which additional resources are targeted at educating children living in deprived areas, is the most radical education policy adopted by any UK political party and marks us out as a party commited to enabling disadvantaged communities and individuals. The same can be said for our green policies and our position on energy and taxation.”

Forgive me, but I am very skeptical about “additional resources” – what are these then? Are the Welsh Lib-Dems going to throw money or experimental ‘progressive’ education methodology at what they see as a problem and by magic expect positive results? The issues surrounding low education achievement levels in deprived areas are very complex and unlikely to be resolved by the standard pattern of throwing ‘professionals’ at the problem. But hey, makes for a good sound bite.

The status quo will not shift unless the issues are thoroughly appreciated and at least partly understood (which I believe are not understood by Kirsty Williams). The central core issue is one of motivation linked to low expectations driven by survival mode of thinking by mothers and fathers. Essentially, the rot has set in before the child starts his/her first day of school.

Just having more teachers or smaller class sizes will not fix the low achievement stats.

I talk as one who once lived on what some regarded as among the worst council house projects/estates in Wales and a huge council estate in South East London when my Welsh father, having been made redundant from the steel works, moved the entire family from Trowbridge Estate on the then edge of East Cardiff, a family that included us four kids, to London via a council house exchange with a Welsh family wanting to get off that huge London estate and return to Wales. Some years later my parents did the same reverse journey, returning to Wales via yet another council house exchange to a house on Llansbury Park, Caerphilly where a neighbour’s son murdered a man on the same estate while high on glue. Glue sniffing was a problem on the estate.

Without any “additional resources” me and two of my siblings went on and got six university degrees including a joint law-sociology degree (BSc (Econ))from Cardiff University, a traditional chemistry PhD from Glasgow University, CNAA Masters in biotechnology, a straight law degree, plus two Bar exams, post-grad diploma in social work (my sister became a social worker in Brent, London and later in Cardiff). Given that I have a sister who a social worker who worked with at risk children and was attacked by a parent (if memory serves, a client in Brent, London) I appreciate very much the need and challenges faced by social workers.

The rot sets in before the first day of school. Throwing extra resources into their education from that point is somewhat equivalent to locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. I can think of several ways of helping to resolve this issue (and no, I am not talking about removing babies from mothers who happen to live in ‘deprived areas’); among them: setting up centers on estates focused on nurturing prospective or new mothers in basic things like bed-time reading, arithmetic, furniture assembly (including MFI type stuff) and delivering the furniture they assemble to their front door for free, cooking skills (including teaching how to prepare or cook nutritious meals and letting them take the meals home (free) to their kids or family) and otherwise letting them store their cooked meals in a freezer at the center.

Sound nutty to you? Well, it’s a question of thinking outside the box and getting new or prospective parents in deprived areas onto a firm footing before or soon after having their first child). Will cost $$$$, but save the country millions of $$$$.

Empower the residents on the estate to fix up and maintain their own estate – pay them wages, provide jobs so they do it themselves. Simple solutions, but there will be great results if you allow them to grow. And yes, there would have to be oversight and a relentless purge of drug/smoking/drinking ways of thinking. Drunk or smashed out parents should be discouraged. Monitoring for drug usage (in all its various forms) by children on the estate, exciting nursery and youngster nights playing organized games in halls or whatever, after school classes once demand picks up, asking working scientists and medical doctors and other professionals to give up some time to explain their jobs to kids, and very important: asking kids who have grown up and made it into successful jobs off the same estates to make themselves available – role models, empowering young minds to think they could do it too. Community building and self-empowerment ... through to protecting Wales' most important asset: its intellectual property - such things would set the Lib-Dems apart and I for one would support them and if they went for such policies I would join them to help turn Wales into the smart country that it should be.

But just throwing money around to employ “professionals” will only give ‘professionals’ paychecks without resolving anything of substance.

So what exactly is Kirsty Williams proposing? So Kirsty Williams is talking about “additional resources” for educating children in deprived areas; a traditional elitist ill-thought out approach from an elitist party. Like that is going to work – yeah.

As I warned you sometime ago on this blog your election of Clegg has taken you firmly to the centre right. You are not a centre left party and certainly not in the context of the political spectrum in Wales. Centre left parties do not assist right wing reactionary parties such as the Tories into power. You tried to do in Wales last year and Clegg has indicated his intent to attempt again at UK level in the event of a hung Parliament.

Your ideology is delusionary. This idea that you can have fair and just society delivered via a small state and the 'empowerment' individuals to pursue their own interests grabbing as much of the cake as they can is intelectually incoherent and rather naive. It is the world or markets in health and competiiton between schools. It always actually empowers the strong not the weak and broadens injustice. It is a philsophy discredited a century ago and the reason that the mature democracies of Europe all have bigger more pervasive state's than ours.

Incidently you are not the Liberal party but a party bringing together Liberals and Social Democrats. The philsophy you describe, take it from me is neo liberal and not social democrat. I suspect, thank heavens, that Kirsty is more latter than former and will hopefully clearly distinguish you from drift to the neo liberal right of your party in London.
Patriot, an interesting riposte but one based on misperceptions of the Liberal Democrats and of the nature of liberalism perpetrated by the media and our opponents rather than the reality.

We are not a small state party nor is Nick Clegg 'right wing' we are the Liberal party both in terms of our philosophy and our policies but one that believes that targetted state intervention can make a difference towards creating a fair and just society.if done properly empowerment can lift people out of poverty even if that involves a programme as simple as helping somebody be a better parent or supporting them in practical ways whilst they fulfill their own potential.
Well said Peter, only the most jaundiced of attack-dogs could gainsay much of this. It is amusing to see how other commentators, presumably for their own reasons, are trying to jusge how 'liberal' WE are, and also still trying to box us in to the tired old ideas of 'left' and 'right'. Communication is the key, and once we persuade the public that we can change our emphases precisely because we are liberal - unlike the other two parties which are so in hock to their paymasters - I think that our ability to act pragmatically on our philosophy will be seen to be the strength that it is.

As a final thought, isn't it nice to be the party that belongs to its members and always does refer things back to its guiding philosophy?
If Patriot thinks Clegg is leaning to the right, what does he think Blair and Brown are?

A: Listing
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