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Posts Tagged ‘Liberal Democrats’

The dust is beginning to settle, the politicians are rested and refreshed and this is the week in which decisions will be taken which will have long-term consequences for Welsh politics.

I expect to see some movement by the end of Monday from Carwyn Jones about how he intends to deal the hand he’s been dealt. It’s a strong hand but the fact that he’s one seat short of a majority means it’ll need all his skill and strategy to play it.

In the meantime, here are some thoughts about what’s changed for each of the parties and speculation about what might happen next.

LABOUR

The Assembly group will need extremely strong discipline if it’s to sustain minority government over the next five years. Carwyn Jones has said that there is a range of options open to him from doing deals on a case-by-case basis, to more formal ‘supply and confidence’ arrangements or full coalition.

It’s pointless to speculate which he or his party prefers at this stage because there are so many variables that need to be taken into account. They’ll become clearer over the coming days.

For the party, even at this moment of success, there’s a longer-term question that won’t be answered for some time yet.

Poor electoral performances in 2007, 2009 and 2010 led to a great deal of soul-searching as a number of senior Labour figures suggested something was particularly wrong with Welsh Labour that needed fixing. Nobody’s asking the question now and it was clear during the campaign that the party is re-invigorated with a young and dynamic team now in charge of party operations.

However, it was only a year ago that Labour achieved its worst share of the vote in Wales since 1983. What it must demonstrate over the next few years is that the improvements are real and lasting and not dependent on a Tory bogeyman in Westminster.

CARWYN JONES

Something that’s been overlooked in post-election commentary is how much of a personal victory and validation this is for the Welsh Labour leader.

He already had an overwhelming mandate from his party when he was elected leader, but now he has the strong endorsement of the country. I think this is far more important than we on the outside realise.

There have always been those within his party who’ve grumbled that he’s lazy, too close to Plaid, and just plain lucky. A successful campaign which has shown how much of an asset he’s become to the party; confident performances in TV debates and the ringing endorsements of his UK party leadership has silenced those critics.

CABINET

Who will be in Carwyn Jones’ cabinet? Expect to see election mastermind Leighton Andrews rewarded with a significant role although not necessarily a different one. Pre-election he showed every intention of taking on the problem of education over an extended period. For similar reasons, Edwina Hart could well stay on in health. It’s surely time that long-term ally John Griffiths became a cabinet minister.

Labour’s manifesto hints at the possibility of a smaller cabinet. Certainly it points to a beefed-up role for Carwyn Jones himself, with a First Minister’s Delivery Unit and the FM taking on responsibility for economic development and energy policy. That could mean merging some departments. I should say that one senior Labour figure I discussed this with, dismissed the idea of a smaller cabinet saying,’why would you want more backbenchers?’

PLAID CYMRU

It quickly became clear during the campaign that Labour had taken many of Plaid’s best tunes and was belting them out with gusto. Plenty of internal and external critics are drawing unfavourable comparisons with the SNP’s campaign in Scotland.

There’s bound to be a question over the leadership of Ieuan Wyn Jones. But Plaid may think it needs to work out what went wrong before settling on a new leader.

What messages should it take from the SNP’s stunning victory in Scotland? Should it be more bold about independenceChange its name? But surely another lesson from the Scottish election is that Labour’s strategy of making the Welsh election part of a UK battle between Labour and the Conservatives may have failed in Scotland but worked here in Wales. That could well justify Plaid’s caution over talking about independence although it could be argued that Plaid’s role should now be to lead the debate and shape opinion.

The other question is whether or not it can do all this in government. Ieuan Wyn Jones has apparently told his party that it should go into government at every available opportunity. If he follows through with this policy (and if he’s in a position to do so), can his party do the job of holding an inquest, changing its approach, possibly changing its leader  – at the same time?

CONSERVATIVES

In the short term the Conservatives have a specific task – to choose a new leader who can continue the progress made under Nick Bourne. Who will get the job? Acting leader Paul Davies has to be in with a chance. Darren Millar must be a good bet. Andrew Davies wants it. Don’t rule out Angela Burns or Nick Ramsay standing.

If the Assembly group agrees on one candidate, AMs alone will have be responsible for choosing the next leader. If there’s more than one candidate, I gather the wider party votes, a situation which is thought to favour Andrew Davies.

On Thursday Alun Cairns MP said the election saw the return of two-party politics to Wales. That may be overstating it but, as the now-former leader Nick Bourne said in his interview with me, the campaign certainly was polarised.  In that same interview he speaks about his 12-year task of reinventing the Welsh Conservatives, taking them to the centre-ground of Welsh politics, ground that means more of the ‘Cymrufication’ – who would best take that legacy on?

I also asked him if it was time the party formalised that process by creating a formal Welsh party leader role – Nick Bourne has always been leader of the Conservative Assembly group rather than the party at large. He said that was a decision for the party, as was choosing a leader which is why he wouldn’t endorse any of the candidates. He also refused to speculate on the chance that he might become Lord Bourne.

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

Speculation is rife that some sort of deal with the Liberal Democrats is Labour’s preferred option. It’s often coupled with the rather cynical explanation that it would take less to win them over than it would Plaid. But as one senior Lib Dem put it to me, ‘Kirsty’s nobody’s cheap date.’

What’s more, despite everything, Kirsty Williams is in a better position than many predicted. Yes, it was a bad election for her party but there are still five Lib Dem AMs which gives them a foundation from which to rebuild.

I’m told that within the party, the leader is praised for recognising how difficult the election would be and dealing with it as effectively as possible. More importantly, it’s said that she’s trusted by party members to be open about any arrangements she may or may not reach with Labour and not to sign the party up to any deal it could be uncomfortable with.

She’s said that her priority is to promote the priorities the Lib Dems set out during the election, and is open-minded about how that’s achieved

PRESIDING OFFICER

There’s a good deal of confusion over this with even some quite experienced Assembly hands expressing the view that having a Presiding Officer from an opposition party would give Labour a majority of one. It won’t. The Assembly’s standing orders are clear: if the PO comes from the opposition, the Deputy has to come from the government party and vice versa. Their votes are (generally) taken out of the equation thus taking the situation back to stalemate.

The Assembly could decide to suspend the rules so that both PO and DPO come from opposition parties which would have the effect of giving Labour a 2-seat majority. But to do that requires a two thirds majority, i.e. 40 AMs must vote for it. That means Labour would need the support of either the Conservatives or Plaid Cymru to do it. Why would either or those want to make life any easier for Carwyn Jones?

Who’s in the running for both posts? Dafydd Elis-Thomas must still be a consideration, even though all the hints from him and from other Assembly figures suggest he won’t be returning to the Chair. The current Deputy, Labour’s Rosemary Butler is a strong possibility for the top job. The Conservative Angela Burns (if she doesn’t run for her party’s leadership) is thought to be interested. Her colleague David Melding has already said he’s not standing. For the Liberal Democrats, Peter Black has done the job from time to time.

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I’m writing this as I sit in the bay window of my hotel in Llandudno. I’m here for Welsh Labour’s annual conference which it’s fair to say is an important one for the party at a UK level as well as here in Wales.

View of Llandudno prom from my hotel.

As a sign of just how important, UK leader, Ed Miliband, has already arrived here this afternoon. He’ll be at a rally for a referendum Yes vote tonight and will be making a speech to the conference tomorrow.

It’s important to him because he needs Labour to do well in Wales on May 5th to show that the long climb back from last year’s General Election defeat is well underway.

Of course, doing well in May is important in itself to Welsh Labour which believes it’s capable of winning an outright majority of seats.

So Llandudno is Labour’s launchpad. By the end of the weekend we’ll know what the party will promise voters during the campaign.

Already this week, it’s unveiled pledges to make it easier for working people to see their GPs and funding for work placements.

There’s been another pledge today to create 500 extra community support officers.

Add in a further two promises which are expected over the course of the weekend and we’ll know what Welsh Labour’s Big Five are. It’s not yet clear whether or not these will appear on a pledge card, but you get the picture.

What won’t be discussed, publicly at least is what happens AFTER the election. As I mentioned, Labour’s leaders believe they can win a majority of seat in the next Assembly.

Where they differ amongst themselves is what having that majority would allow them to do when it comes to forming a government, either alone or with another party.

I’ve been given directly contradictory views. On the one hand, there are those who think a coalition would be necessary if Labour were to win 29 or 30 seats and desirable even if it were to win 31 seats. These are the people who think the arrangement with Plaid Cymru has worked well, delivering stable, strong and leftish government of the sort they’d like to see again.

But there are others who think Labour should seek to govern alone, certainly with 31, but also if it has 30, 29 or even 28 seats. This is the school of thought that also believes that, if Labour finds itself in need of a coalition partner, it should talk to the Liberal Democrats first.

One insider told me that party members would accept another coalition with Plaid only if it were ‘absolutely necessary’ and expressed the feeling that some Labour AMs were attracted to a voluntary arrangement because a large majority in the Assembly chamber would make life easier and ‘nobody said governing should be easy.’

An interesting divergence of opinion in private then, but I wonder how much we’ll see expressed in public here in Llandudno.

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Labour’s pledge to make it easier for working people to get to see their GPs in the evenings and at weekends means that all four parties have now given us flavours of what they’ll be promising us in the Assembly election which is looming ever closer.

It may not be very popular with GPs but Labour reckons it’ll be a vote-winner amongst busy working people who currently have to take time off in the working week.

I understand the promise will be one of five key pledges that the party will go into the campaign with, and will probably be those listed on a pledge-card which has become a familiar part of election battles.

That also makes it likely to be one of the ‘red line’ policies which would be expected to survive any coalition talks after May 5th.

I doubt the Liberal Democrats’ pledge, also unveiled today, will be one of their top five, but they insist it is an important indication of what they want for Wales.

The party says it will promise to bid for a stage of the Tour de France to be held in Wales.

Pie in the sky? Not at all, according to Veronica German AM. Think back to the idea of Wales hosting the Ashes or the Ryder Cup? Plenty scoffed then, but both events took place and were considered big successes.

Ms German says it’s a matter of being confident about Wales. If London can do it, why not Wales?

I have to share, by the way, the snippet of info from the Lib Dems about Veronica German being a ‘keen cyclist’. She was 1968 Warwick and Leamington Child Cyclist of the Year and tells me she still has the cup to prove it.

Not that she’s pretending to be a competitive cyclist now. On the contrary she says cycling is one of those sports that can appeal to all fitness levels.

Plaid Cymru has already made a number of announcements including the idea of a not-for-profit company to run train services in Wales and a vow to halve illiteracy levels by 2015.

The Conservatives have released more manifesto policies than any of the others, including a Veteran’s Card to give ex-forces people free or priority access to services, the abolition of business rates, direct funding of schools and most famously or notoriously, protection of the health budget.

What does this tell us on this Monday morning in February? It tells us that with just over eleven weeks before we vote and with a referendum on Assembly powers in just over a fortnight, that all four parties are in an advanced state of preparation for the Assembly election.

Expect more to come.

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As we count down to next month’s referendum on changing the Assembly’s powers, we wanted to get a bit of context about the powers that Cardiff Bay already has and how they might change if there’s a yes vote on March 3rd.

Of course, Wales isn’t the only devolved part of the UK so I’ve been on a whistle-stop tour of the two other big devolved institutions: Scotland’s Parliament and Northern Ireland’s Assembly.

Both have come to devolution by different means and for different historical reasons, but its worthwhile looking at the powers they wield as we plan to make our decision.

It was interesting to talk to the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond as well as Northern Ireland’s First Minister and deputy First Minister, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to get their perspectives on devolution.

Alex Salmond said to me,

It’s very seldom in history that when a country gets the ability to have even a small bit of self-determination, very seldom it’s turned down. Wise nations tend not to turn it down and Wales is a wise nation.

In Northern Ireland, they’re playing the long game and making a go of devolution despite overwhelming odds being stacked against it.

Even so, it’s remarkable how optimistic both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are about their experiences.

You can see the pictures I took here and here and you can see the film of my travels in tonight’s programme. There’ll be a flavour of them too in Wales Tonight at 6pm.

Back home, the two coalition parties in Cardiff Bay seem to be going through a rocky patch.

It centres on anonymous attacks by Labour figures on the Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones. He’s come out fighting, so does this mean the end of the One Wales coalition is in sight?

In one way it is, because there’s not much time between now and the Assembly election. Can we expect to see more of this?

Talking of tricky and tense relations, I’ve been interviewing the Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan, at a time when relations between Westminster and Cardiff Bay seem more strained than ever.

The latest spat is over the Assembly’s refusal to co-operate with the UK Government’s plans to set up scrutiny panels for proposed elected police commissioners.

It may seem a bit obscure, but there are those who think the unprecedented move by AMs should make ministers in London think again about their plans.

I asked Cheryl Gillan about that and, on a lighter note, about what she thinks of Meryl Streep’s portrayal of an earlier leading female Conservative politician, Margaret Thatcher.

Not only will you find out that, but you will also find out who Mrs Gillan would like to play her in a film of her life. You’ll never guess so you’ll have to watch.

My guests are Liberal Democrat AM Peter Black, UKIP’s David J. Rowlands and the journalist Felicity Waters.

Join us for Sharp End at 1035pm, ITV1 Wales.

 

 

 

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I’m reading the second volume of Chris Mullin’s diaries. Like the first it contains a lot of nuggets, personal and political.

Like this extremely accurate prediction recorded more than five years ago on Monday 21st November 2005.

Mullins is talking to ‘a Yorkshire MP’ who he quotes as saying:

‘I think we will lose the next election. The Tories will come to some sort of understanding with the Lib Dems and we’ll find that we’ve opened the door to the market in health and education. And when we protest they will reply, “But this is your policy; you started it.”‘

I bet it’s cold comfort to that gloomy Yorkshire Labour MP that he was proven right.

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Following on from my previous post about where the tuition fees row leaves the Welsh Liberal Democrats in relation to their party’s leadership, it’s worth highlighting a flurry of comments and articles that may shed a little more light on what could be going on inside the party.

In today’s Observer, the former director of policy for the Lib Dems, Richard Grayson, urges grassroots members to ‘engage’ more with Ed Miliband’s Labour. He writes

Most of the party defines itself as being ‘centre-left’, so how did the party end up so badly split on an issue which has previously united it? This split stems not just from a different approach to fees, but from a wider division between centre-left and centre-right liberals. Those on the right generally favour privatised and marketised policies. On the left, we really do take the view that we are all in it together. We seek democratic and localised policies and yes, we do generally favour higher spending and more redistribution.

When Grayson talks about “most of the party” you can certainly include the Welsh party which regularly defines itself as centre-left and never more so than over the course of the last week.

Richard Grayson pops up in this week’s Spectator too. In the paper version of the magazine, Political editor James Forsyth puts him at the centre of an already-established “internal resistance campaign”:

When the Lib Dem left saw the direction that the party was heading in under Clegg’s leadership, they decided to take over the committees. They knew that they could use them to wage a policy insurgency against the leadership.

Grayson is quoted as saying that ‘the social liberal wing of the party realised that it needed to get organised’ after the 2008 conference decision to drop the commitment to a 50p higher tax rate. Forsyth returns to his theme today when he talks about ‘the Lib Dem insurgency.’

But in his Spectator article, Forsyth argues that Nick Clegg, elected leader by 20,000 members, has more of a mandate than the Federal Policy Committee formerly chaired by Grayson, which was elected by just 1,731 members. And he urges Clegg to assert his authority:

Those closest to Clegg are telling him that to turn the Liberal Democrats into a credible party of government he must reform these party structures. Clegg needs his own version of Blair’s ‘Partnership into Power’, the reforms that broke the stranglehold of the left over the Labour party. As one Lib Dem minister puts it, the current arrangements ‘don’t allow the leader to lead.’ For that reason, they must go. No party that aspires to be a party of government can bind the hands of its leader.

Rounding up what he calls a grim set of Sunday papers for Nick Clegg, Forsyth’s Spectator colleague Peter Hoskins says that ‘this particular error has cast the Lib Dems into their most difficult internal dilemma since May.’

So where do the Welsh Liberal Democrats fit into all this? They exist as an autonomous organisation within a federal party. In today’s edition of BBC Wales’ Politics Show, Welsh leader Kirsty Williams says she was pleased her MPs had honoured their pledge on tuition fees and said that was ‘the beauty of devolution’ (in party as well as government terms). She said she doesn’t ‘expect to dictate to federal colleagues’ nor does she expect to be dictated to.

However, as I suggested in my previous post, voters may not make the federalism distinction. The question raised by that post was, how do the Welsh Lib Dems get the message across that they take a different approach to their ministers in the Westminster government? Let me add a further two questions.

If there is such a thing as an internal ‘insurgency’, what is the role of Welsh Liberal Democrats? They certainly share the views of those who are said to be resisting moves to the right. And if Nick Clegg does assert his authority over the ultra-democratic structures of his party, where will that leave a proudly distinct Welsh party?

 

 

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