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Saturday, December 02, 2023

Whither the Welsh Liberal Democrats

This is my article in the latest edition of Liberator - Number 420:

When I was elected to Swansea Council in 1984, I was the only Welsh Liberal Councillor, sandwiched between a dominant Labour group and a substantial group of Tories. My response was to find some distinctive issues, to raise the party’s profile and work to get more councillors elected to sit with me.

I understand, therefore, how hard it can be as the only Lib Dem on the Welsh Senedd, and as a member of that body myself for seventeen years, I know how difficult it can be to get our message across.

Despite this, it is possible to establish a clear and distinctive presence if approached in the right way.

No party has a clear majority in the Senedd. That means that the Labour administration is reliant on other parties to get their budgets and their legislation through. At present they have an understanding with Plaid Cymru, but that does not always stand up, and so there is an opportunity for the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ leader to obtain concessions which we can campaign on.

My beef is that when that situation has arisen, negotiations have apparently been cursory, and we have sold our support cheaply. If we have got anything for the Welsh Liberal Democrat vote, it has not been broadcast to the rest of the world, nor has the wider party been given any background briefing as to what happened and why through the private social media and other communication channels available to us.

And then there is the legislation to introduce a default 20mph speed limit on all Welsh roads. The general view is that this is fine in urban areas by schools and hospitals, but that the speed limit on a large number of roads has been wrongly downgraded.

That is an opinion supported by many Welsh Liberal Democrat activists and members as well as a record-breaking petition which, at the time of writing, has attracted over 461,400 signatures. It is a subject many of us want to campaign on, but we can’t because the new speed limit was supported in the Senedd by our sole Welsh Lib Dem MS, without any communication with members as to why, or any consultation on her approach to this issue.

There are, of course campaigning opportunities available to us on this issue in the way councils implemented the change and the way they introduced exemptions, but it always comes back to the fact that we supported this unpopular and frankly ludicrous measure, imposing changes from the top down rather than allowing them to develop locally according to the individual circumstances. That would have been a more liberal approach.

The other issue is the expansion of the Senedd from sixty members to ninety-six. Current party policy is that we should increase the number of MSs to eighty or ninety, with the accepted wisdom being eighty because the chamber has been designed to be easily expanded to accommodate that number. There is in fact a good case to do that.

The case for ninety-six however, is less clear. It is an arbitrary number put in place to enable a closed list system based on the thirty-two Westminster constituencies. The idea is to group these into sixteen Welsh Senedd constituencies, each electing six MSs by the D’hondt system from closed party lists.

The instincts of many Welsh Liberal Democrats is to oppose this proposal on the basis that there is no justification for so many members. It is too expensive at a time when key budgets are being cut, while the proposed voting system puts too much power into the hands of party apparatchiks at the expense of voters.

Although our party leader is rightly continuing to argue for STV as the required voting system, she has thrown her hat in with the idea of ninety-six members, and when members question why, her office tells them that this is party policy. It is not. Once more there is no communication or interaction with members to justify this stance.

All of this matters because our capacity for local campaigning has been curtailed. We currently only have sixty-four principal councillors on thirteen of Wales’ twenty-two authorities, having been effectively wiped out in South East Wales and the south Wales valleys at the 2022 council elections. Our membership is also near rock bottom as well.

We need effective leadership from the Senedd on issues that matter to voters, and we need proper engagement with members, including the awkward buggers like me. If we don’t take members with us in what our representatives are doing at any level then we will lose them, and we will fall back further.

I understand that the main enemy at the moment is the Tories and that they hold Brecon and Radnorshire, the one constituency where we are competitive for the next general election, but there needs to be a recognition that many of us are up against Labour in our own areas.

When our sole national representative is seen to be cosying up to Labour over and over again, instead of effectively opposing them on key issues, when we are not using what leverage we have to get concessions that will benefit our constituents, and when we are left in the dark as to what exactly is happening in the Senedd, with our queries being unanswered, then we will continue to struggle to motivate activists.

That must change.

Personally, I think the default 20 limit needs to be given time for assessment. Now it is in place, we need to see whether the severity of road injuries is reduced or on the other hand more small businesses have gone under.

Politically (and cynically) a chance was missed to dissociate Lib Dems from a measure originally proposed by Conservatives and adopted by Labour.

Remembering that there is a leeway of 10% + 2 mph in speed before police usually prosecute for speeding, the 30 mph limit means effectively a 35 mph limit. The 20 mph limit on this basis becomes 24 mph which is below the 25 mph speed above which serious injuries and death to pedestrians and other road users start to increase rapidly. So a 20 mph speed seems a sensible choice for urban areas. What causes problems is when there are repeated speed limit changes over a short stretch of road; I have seen a report of eight speed limit changes over a distance of just two miles on one road in Wales. This is nonsensical as the last thing we want to do is to encourage drivers to accelerate and brake repeatedly. The speed limits need to be applied with a degree of common sense, even if it means that some short stretches of country roads between villages are restricted to a low speed.
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