2011 has most certainly been a year that has kept all of us busy – elections to the Assembly, referenda, journalists following us around making sense of it all and the people of Wales playing an active part in Welsh political life. As the Arab spring was sweeping through the Arab world bringing with it elections and democratic accountability, Wales was also playing its part in making its voice heard.
The turn of the year
In a special feature this week the four party leaders in the National Assembly reflect on their achievements during 2011 and prospects for the next 12 months. Tomorrow Plaid Cymru’s leader Ieuan Wyn Jones says Plaid Cymru must be ready to answer the call to be a party of government.
This time last year, I was a few months away from leading my party into my first Assembly elections as leader. The media was predicting a wipe out for the Welsh Liberal Democrats. They were prophesying that we were only going to hold on to one seat. In media interviews, this dominated the agenda. We had to work hard to highlight what we would do to make sure that the NHS delivered better results, strengthen our economy and close the spending gap between Welsh and English pupils. It is frustrating for politicians, but most importantly, for the general public when some journalists just want to talk about processes, hypothetical situations and coalitions when the voters just want to know what answers we have to the problems we face in Wales.
The Assembly election results were difficult for all political parties in Wales. For us, while it was ‘a pretty creditable result’, according to the BBC’s official analysis, that does not mean it was good enough. Faced with difficult political decisions being made by the Westminster coalition, Labour espousing their mantra of ‘standing up for Wales’ against the ‘savage’ cuts, and the majority of people in Wales receiving their news from the UK media, it wasn’t an easy ride. We had a few casualties along the way. However, we are currently a strong group of five in the Assembly, punching well above our weight, putting into practice what we campaigned for in the referendum.
On that Thursday in March, Wales said ‘yes’ to giving the National Assembly of Wales more powers to ensure that laws that affect only Wales are made in Wales. The Welsh Liberal Democrats can be proud of the role we played up and down Wales in the cross party campaign. Polling shows that back in 1997 Welsh Liberal Democrat supporters were not as enthusiastic about devolution despite our long-standing commitment to the cause. Fast forward over a decade later and Welsh Liberal Democrats voters were supportive of more accountability and responsibility for our National Assembly.
Liberal Democrats have consistently supported greater financial powers and it is a credit to the Coalition Government that they announced the Silk Commission after over a decade of Labour inaction. Wales’ devolution package is missing a critical element. Unlike most families and businesses, the Welsh Government has the luxury of spending money handed out by others. Uniquely, Wales has no power to borrow or raise money. This lack of accountability for how money is raised breeds irresponsibility about how money is spent.
The ‘Yes’ vote took Wales to the next step of devolution. However Labour hasn’t delivered what we, as political parties, promised the people of Wales in the weeks before the referendum. In fact, ‘delivery’ and ‘no more excuses’, Labour’s watch words for the fourth Assembly, have turned to vague promises and mud throwing at Westminster.
Recent GVA figures show that Wales is still the poorest nation/region in the United Kingdom and our education and health systems are, quite frankly, not good enough. Labour uses the language of equality but poor services do poor people down. If you fail to crack down on poor standards in schools, it isn’t the well-off that suffer. They can play the system, move house, or go private. They have options to decide what they need to do to get their kids the best education. It’s the poorest in our society, the people Labour professes to care about, who have to put up with poor services. Changing that is what motivates me now, as it did me when I first joined the Welsh Liberal Democrats.
At the beginning of December we agreed to support the Welsh Government budget on the basis that we introduced a Welsh Pupil Premium. Nick Clegg has persuaded the Tories in England of the importance of extra funding for our most deprived children. In Wales I am proud that we have now persuaded Labour to do the same. We may have a small group in the National Assembly, but our influence in these budget negotiations will have a big impact on the lives of the people of Wales.
What I want to see more than anything during 2012 is growth in the economy, growth that will reverse job losses and dire unemployment figures we’ve seen over the last few years. Constant and repetitive headlines of factory closures and record unemployment can often make us immune to what that actually means. Behind every statistic there is an individual or a family struggling and anxious about what the future will bring.
As a responsible political party, we will work with the Welsh Government to ensure that businesses get the best environment to thrive so that jobs can be created. However, there is only so much we can do as opposition. The onus is on the Welsh Government to pull their finger out and start being pro-active.
Businesses must be fleet of foot to survive. Consequently, when enterprise zones and business rate relief extensions are announced months in advance in England, it is not surprising that our unemployment is higher in Wales than any other part of the UK as businesses move to where the environment suits them.
The main big political ticket item in 2012 is going to be the local government elections. The Tories don’t believe in letting people make decisions on the issues that affect them locally. Meanwhile, Labour cannot credibly use their ‘standing up for Wales’ slogan in these elections after months of whingeing and inaction in Cardiff Bay. In areas where Labour were ousted in 2008, we can’t risk a return to poor services and high taxes. The result of our success in 2008 is that Welsh Liberal Democrats are now in power in places as diverse as Swansea and Newport, in Ceredigion, in Wrexham and of course in our capital city of Cardiff. We are defending a high water mark in councillor numbers but we will do it with confidence and pride. We have proved that we can deliver services for half the population of Wales with huge success, low council tax rates, improved educational outcomes and sensible financial planning.
We started 2011 with the media writing us off before the Assembly election and there’s no doubt they’ll do it again in 2012. However, we finish 2011 in better shape, showing ourselves to be a responsible, relevant and effective opposition party at the centre of political debate in Wales.