Going solo

Dewi Knight examines Kirsty Williams’ potential to impact the fifth assembly.

In his autobiography, ‘Going Solo’, Roald Dahl recounts the oddballs, animals and adventures of his time in Africa and in the RAF. A few dozen steps from the Norwegian Church so associated with Dahl, Kirsty Williams is also ‘going solo’ (with a little help from the Welsh electorate) in the exotic new Senedd.

Dahl described life as “made up of a great number of small incidents and a small number of great ones.” Wednesday’s nomination for First Minister was one of those small number of Senedd incidents to catch they eye (however fleetingly) of a wider constituency than the Bay Bubble. Kirsty’s crucial decision to nominate the First Minister, rather than Leanne Wood, was a genuine ‘Sliding Doors’ moments. Or was it?

An abstention, or vote for the Plaid leader, would have seen a clean sweep of female First Ministers across the devolved governments. But, seriously, would Ms Wood have still been First Minister by that evening or the weekend?

UKIP’s clever use of affirmative voting – and consequential toxicity for others – could easily have seen Leanne become an ex-First Minister just as quickly. Notwithstanding each leader’s right to put themselves forward, allowing long-standing ‘devo-deniers’ to control the narrative (however briefly) is surely a risk to Wales’s still young democracy and government. Simon Brooks, from a nationalist perspective, has been a consistent and clear-headed commentator on the dangers of this approach.

So, one could argue that just as Kirsty saved Carwyn’s bacon, she may just have saved Plaid from themselves. Call it Kirsty’s marvellous medicine – keeping ‘fantastic’ Mr (silver) Fox in his rightful constitutional place, but giving others the time to realise that the golden ticket to the chocolate factory may not have been all it was cracked up to be.

Of course, ‘going solo’ wasn’t the plan for Ms Williams. It is a startling statistic that over half of the Lib Dems’ national constituency votes came in just four seats. Eluned Parrott falling just 800 votes short in Cardiff Central has cost the party, and the Assembly, an articulate and thoughtful politician. She has a big contribution to make in the future.

No-one expected an immediate return to pre-UK coalition polling levels this year. There were some steps forward in England on May 5th, but of course in Wales the ‘progressive’ vote (to use a catch-all term) is split across at least four parties.

If truth be told, the party has been almost anonymous in many parts of Wales for sometime now. Mostly as a direct consequence of focusing campaigns and finances – but one would have hoped that individual and community connections to a Kennedy, Livsey, Williams left of centre values-based liberalism would still hold. It’s proved to be rather more concentrated than it looked five or ten years ago.

Modern campaigning techniques, knitting together causes and values into an easily understood narrative, embracing the best of a ‘start-up’ entrepreneurial culture, exposing the laziness and ‘easy answers’ found elsewhere in British politics – these are surely the challenges and opportunities for the party in Wales and across the UK.

It will also – as identified by the Lib Dem commentator Mark Pack – need the courage to campaign on unfashionable national and international issues. Topics that may not appear at the top of voters’ lists, but win an audience on both traditional and social media, and illustrate core party values. These mustn’t be excluded in order to focus exclusively on pot-holes, petitions and pedestrian crossings.

It won’t be easy. The cumulative effect of losing seats and resources in recent elections means that many of the most talented people in Welsh politics are now without jobs, and won’t be able to drive this approach.

Although Kirsty has stepped down as leader, she remains by far the Welsh party’s best asset. Indeed, there is cross-party consensus that she is one of Welsh politics’s best assets. But it will be tough in the siambr and in the media without the support of strong and confident operators such as Peter Black and Aled Roberts.

However, the Assembly arithmetic gives her opportunities for impact and influence. Labour sees itself as the Big Friendly Giant of Welsh politics, catching and distributing dreams across the land and holding back nightmares that come from the east.

In Dahl’s story, his BFG had superhuman hearing skills – and now Welsh Labour too is listening to Plaid’s proposals for government. But don’t rule out that solo artist who also knows a good tune or two.

Dewi Knight works in international education relations. He previously worked for the Welsh Liberal Democrats in policy and communications roles and writes here in a personal capacity.

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