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Posts Tagged ‘Welsh Liberal Democrats’

Assembly members will get the chance to vote on whether or not to reinstate the two disqualified Liberal Democrat AMs on June 29th.

That’s the date when two motions – one relating to Aled Roberts and one to John Dixon – have been tabled to be discussed.

The date is the latest possible under the timetable outlined in legal advice given to the Presiding Officer, but according to several sources I’ve spoken today it’s also the earliest realistic date.

The view is that AMs will need to have all the facts and legal opinions in their possession before making a judgement and that means waiting for the police to conclude their investigation, for the Crown Prosecution Service to make its decision and then for the Assembly’s own investigation. *

One political source told me that setting a date also sends ‘a clear message’ about the intent to try to find a way to overturn the disqualifications to the returning officers of North Wales and South Wales Central.

These men, Mohammed Mehmet and John House, are crucial to what happens next because it’s they who’ll declare the two seats officially vacant and they who will nominate the next candidates on the regional lists.

I gather that they will wait until the outcome of these motions before taking any further action although that won’t stop them preparing for that action, i.e. contacting the next on the list and checking that they’re still willing and able to become Assembly members.

It’s not clear what chances the motions have of succeeding. Labour members are taking a strong line against the disqualified two as are many Conservatives.

One Labour source said to me, ‘How can they be re-instated? They were never elected?’  If that view holds sway, then it’s all over for the Lib Dem 2.

They may find support amongst Plaid members although even there it’s said that, while there’s no hardening of opinion against them, there’s not much by way of positive support.

But the Welsh Liberal Democrats remain hopeful and aren’t planning to abandon their efforts to re-instate their colleagues.

A senior source told me that the party acknowledges mistakes have been made, but that members think highly of Aled Roberts and John Dixon and want to see them in the Senedd.

Several party figures have told me that many of the sternest critics have changed their mind when the legal position’s been explained to them and they hope more will do so when the final reports are in.

Whatever the outcome, it means another three weeks of uncertainty for Aled Roberts and John Dixon who by then will have been in limbo for nearly two months and another three weeks when the Liberal Democrats only have three members in the Senedd chamber.

All this could change when the CPS makes its decision public. According to a CPS spokesman, the matter’s still with the police. The police will only say that they’re still investigating.

* I understand that the barrister Gerard Elias QC has been lined up to head the Assembly’s investigation.

The Assembly spokesman wouldn’t confirm this or otherwise, saying only that there is no investigation yet and therefore no appointment but other sources have confirmed the name.

It’s a name which may be familiar to seasoned Assembly-watchers.  Back in 2004 there was a row when it emerged Mr Elias had been vetoed by then First Minister Rhodri Morgan for the job of Counsel General.

 

UPDATE: 16:32 Here’s an Assembly statement on the Clerk’s investigation.

The investigation initiated by the Clerk of the National Assembly, into the circumstances that led to the disqualification as Assembly Members of two Liberal Democrat candidates, was suspended pending the outcome of the police investigation into the matter. For as long as that investigation is on-going it is not possible to take any final decision as to the form and timing of any resumption of the Assembly’s own investigation, although the aim of the Clerk would be to ensure that if the need arises, that investigation would be carried out as a matter of urgency. We cannot make any further comment at present.

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As political interventions go, this is one of the most intellectual: one of the UK’s leading scientists, backed by 60 other senior academics criticising all four political parties.

What worries  Sir John Cadogan is that he says none of the parties in this election campaign is addressing concerns about the funding gap between our universities and those in England and Scotland.

That’s why he’s chosen to speak to ITV Wales and why he’s written directly to the party leaders.

But why should any of them pay attention to him?

Well he certainly has the credentials as a former professor of chemistry at universities in England and Wales, as well as a government adviser and a leading figure in business.

And he’s speaking in his position as President of the Learned Society of Wales – an institution representing the creme of Welsh academia. The society has 60 fellows and is about to see its numbers more than double. These are heavyweight opinions.

Not only that, but Sir John reckons that the Learned Society is giving a voice to academics, lecturers, governors and Vice-chancellors who won’t speak out because they’re concerned that doing so will cost them dearly.

So what are his worries?

A paper produced for the Learned Society claims that universities have been significantly and deliberately underfunded for the last ten years.

It refers to figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales which show the extent of the funding gap.

Hefcw’s report is here. It’s a few years old, but it shows that in 2007/8 the difference between the funding of Welsh universities and those in England was £62m and with Scotland it was £181m.

The Learned Society reckons the gap over the last decade is over half a billion and a billion respectively.

The bigger concern, though, is not the past but the future which is why Sir John has written to each of the four party leaders spelling out the situation and asking what they’ll do about it.

You can read the letter to the party leaders here.

In the absence of any replies, he’s read the manifestos and finds no credible plan to plug the gap.

Sir John told me,

One Vice-Chancellor told me that if his university had been in Scotland under the Scottish system of funding he would have had another 100 lecturers… It’s not about governors, Vice-chancellors – discoveries are made in the Library and the lab by people working at the frontier. If you don’t have those people working at the frontier with the best equipment, the best libraries and the best students – because we want to attract the best students – you’re not going to win.

And he warns that,

They can’t compete, they’ll slide. They’ll do their best and what’s remarkable is how well universities have done. There have been these pinnacles of excellence but (Welsh universities) are like a pier with too few supports and the danger is that the expensive subjects will take the hit.

That was echoed what Dr Steve Hagen of Newport University told us. He said that what’s not being invested in are things like medical, paramedical and scientific subjects – anything that requires students to spend a lot of time in expensive labs.

We tackled each of the parties with Sir John’s concerns.  I’m not sure that their replies will reassure him. See what you make of them.

Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones said

We know that the alleged funding gap will disappear next year because higher education in England is being destroyed, slashed by up to 80%. We’ve protected higher education as best we can in Wales while at the same time making it possible for people to afford to go to university.

Plaid Cymru’s leader Ieuan Wyn Jones said

I don’t think there has been deliberate underfunding, certainly not during the time we’ve been in government. What we have to do is to work with universities to improve research and development capacity on the side of the economy. We’ve also protected students by keeping fees down. What we also recognise is that in England 75% of the teaching grant is being cut – nothing like that has happened in Wales.

The Welsh Conservatives say the funding gap would be plugged by raising tuition fees which students would only pay after graduating and earning over £21,000.  They claim that Labour’s policy of subsidising tuition fees would ‘result in Welsh unversities being underfunded compared to those in England, resulting in a two-tier higher education system.

Kirsty Williams, the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats said

(We) have consistently highlighted the growing gap in how our universitites are funded compared with those in England and its vital we get a good balance between support for individual students and support for institutions.  After all if we don’t keep pace with developments not just in England, but across the world, we’re not going to have a university sector that’s attractive to people.

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Day Two of manifesto week sees the Welsh Liberal Democrats set out their election promises.

You can read the manifesto, which they’ve called ‘Wales Can Do Better’,  here.

It’s main theme is tackling waste: money-wasting, time-wasting and wasting of the potential of people.

That’s why the very first pledge you read is to

Root out Government waste so that the money we do spend makes a real difference to you and your family.

As well as giving the Welsh Lib Dems a means of attacking Labour and Plaid’s record in government in Cardiff Bay over the last four years, highlighting waste serves another useful purpose.

It allows the Welsh Lib Dems to sidetrack the argument over whether or not the UK coalition is cutting spending too fast or not.

And that’s important because Kirsty Williams’ team would be in a no-win situation if they did get involved in the row.

If they argued that Wales needs more money spent on it, they would be accused of being at odds with Nick Clegg’s team in London.

But on the other hand they know that their poor showing in the polls stems from people who may have voted Lib Dem in recent years but who do think that cuts ARE too fast and too deep.

So the focus of waste and inefficiency allows the Welsh Lib Dems to blame Labour for creating both the need for spending cuts at a UK level and for spending unwisely here in Wales.

At the same time they can include Plaid in that criticism and set out a series of ideas that they believe can be funded by freeing up money that’s been misspent in the past.

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Education Minister Leighton Andrews said on Monday that he wanted to start a debate on whether or not school sixth forms and colleges are offering too many courses leading to quantity not quality. He said,

It made me raise the question, should we be looking in Wales at a narrower range of subjects?

That move has come under fire today from the Welsh Liberal Democrats who have accused Mr Andrews of causing confusion.

They point to the Assembly Government’s legislation in 2009 to require Sixth Forms and colleges to offer at least thirty subjects and to do so by this coming September.

Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams said that local education authorities, schools and colleges have been left in disarray: should they continue expensive and sometimes controversial consultations about increasing numbers of courses or should they abandon them following the minister’s comments?

She said the minister should provide clarity.

When I asked her what she was in favour of – more choice or less, she came down on the side of choice. She said,

We shouldn’t be snobbish about whether someone studies Latin or hairdressing: we need a mix of skills and different levels of training.

Plaid Cymru’s former chair, John Dixon has also blogged about what he calls a ‘welcome U-turn’ by Leighton Andrews but he’s pretty clear that the original plan was confusing in itself.

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Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers may be working together well enough in government at Westminster, but it seems that partnership doesn’t stretch to Welsh conference arrangements.

Welsh Conservatives recently announced, with some pride, that the UK party is to hold its Spring Forum in Cardiff at the same time as the Welsh party’s annual conference. It’ll mean up to 2,500 delegates at an event that usually attracts a few hundred. There’ll be leadership figures, UK media interest and the move has been warmly welcomed by party chiefs in Wales and Westminster.

Unfortunately nobody consulted the Welsh Liberal Democrats who are already holding their conference in Cardiff on that same weekend, which will now almost certainly be overshadowed by their coalition partners’ jamboree just down the road. And that’s before you take into account the fact that the conference was already going to be overshadowed by the result of the Assembly powers referendum which is due on the Friday of that weekend.

At a time when the Lib Dems are struggling to assert their party’s individual identity outside the coalition, this clash makes that task a little more difficult. Although, as one party source in search of a bright side said to me, at least it shows the coalition parties don’t always work hand-in-hand.

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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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The decision of Jenny Willott to resign and join the other two Welsh Liberal Democrat MPs to vote against their government means that the Welsh wing of the party is pretty unified on tuition fees and at odds with the party’s UK leadership. Does that amount to a split ?

The truth is, the Liberal Democrat party is federal which means the Welsh party led by Kirsty Williams is, in theory at least, an autonomous operation making its own policies within the framework of a UK party, even if Welsh members in parliament are expected to toe the UK line.

There have been differences before, most notably over plans for St. Athan. But party leaders and members here, whatever their misgivings, are largely supportive of the Westminster coalition.

And in practice, most people don’t register this federalism business, just as voters, politicians and journalists often fail to grasp the realities of devolution in terms of the difference between UK government and the Assembly government.

And whatever the rights and wrongs of policies, promises and the reality of coalition government, the polls and the protests show that the Lib Dems are taking the worst of the flak on tuition fees, while their Conservative partners aren’t.

As Iain Martin of the Wall Street Journal points out the Lib Dems are perceived as compromising more than the Tories:

“Clegg was prepared to ditch one of his promises to deliver for the coalition on fees but Cameron clings to free TV licences for the over 75s and the winter fuel payment to wealthy pensioners whilst talking constantly about hard choices.”

Nick Clegg is said to be taking the long view, convinced that in time people will see his party’s difficult decisions as being the right ones.

Here in Wales, however, time is a luxury the Liberal Democrats don’t have: the Assembly election is fewer than five months away.

Fair or unfair and regardless of resignations and rebellions, Welsh Lib Dems could suffer from the fallout of tuition fees and other difficult aspects of coalition decision-making.

The other parties are already making the most of the Lib Dem’s discomfort. Plaid Cymru is offering free membership to students whilst Labour is doing the same for £1.

I won’t adapt Labour’s clear red water metaphor, because yellow water conjures up unpleasant images. But the Welsh Lib Dems do need to look at the way that Rhodri Morgan managed to keep Welsh Labour loyal to but different from his UK party if they’re going to avoid a miserable May.

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