Jane Dodds reflects on a year as leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, and the challenges ahead
It’s now just over a year since I was elected Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and it is such a privilege to lead this great and historic party. They say a week is a long time in politics, which perhaps explains why I am now the longest serving Leader in Wales, once Welsh Labour’s leadership election is finished.
This year has certainly been a turbulent time for Welsh and British politics. The Conservatives have been in a state of near-permanent crisis over Brexit, Labour have faced their own anti-Semitism crisis and Welsh politics was rocked to the core by the tragic death of Carl Sargeant. On top of this we have seen leadership elections in every other major party meaning we will start this new year with a full set of fresh faces at the fore.
Domestically and internationally, it has been a tough time for liberal parties like mine. Around the world we’ve seen huge battles against authoritarianism and sadly we’ve seen Brexit, Trump and populists from Brazil to Europe triumph.
Today few things are certain. We don’t know what Wales’ relationship with the EU will be after Brexit, we don’t know whether there will be a hard border down the Irish Sea or whether Brexit will cause the break-up of the UK. What we do know is that Wales will be poorer, less welcoming and less influential after Brexit.
We must give the people the final say and the opportunity to choose an Exit from Brexit. We’re proud to be the first party in Wales to support a People’s Vote, but we’re delighted that Plaid Cymru, Welsh Labour Leadership contenders and some Welsh Conservatives have joined the campaign. This issue is far bigger than party politics and we must be willing to work across parties to secure a People’s Vote.
Brexit will exacerbate many of the challenges we’ve faced in Wales for decades. It will do immense damage to the Welsh economy and it will be those who can least afford it that will be hit worst.
Wales already has many of the most deprived communities in the UK, including too many post-industrial communities that never recovered from the collapse of the industries which put them on the map. Wales’ economy lags behind the rest of the UK and too many people are stuck in insecure, low-paid jobs.
Our economy remains too reliant on a small number of large companies and many small businesses. We lack the medium sized businesses necessary for an effective economy. If we are to create an economy that lifts people out of poverty, we must support Welsh businesses to grow.
Throughout the past year I’ve set out a vision for a fair, free and liberal Wales, a Wales fit for the 21st Century. I’ve called for a new Beveridge Commission to finish the work Beveridge started. The five ‘giant evils’ Beveridge identified may seem like they’re vanquished from our society, but don’t be fooled – they still continue to plague our society, they just now have new names. Whereas Beveridge talked of want, idleness, squalor, ignorance and disease, we now talk of poverty, opportunity, housing, education, health.
On top of this I feel we need to add isolation/loneliness to the list. Far too many in our society are isolated either due to their age, their economic situation or simply where they happen to be born. We’ve seen community transport services cut back again and again, leaving those in small rural communities cut off. We simply must do better.
Sadly, this is far from the only issue we face in Wales. So many people and families in Wales are still trapped in poverty, with many are currently using foodbanks to get by. What happened to the welfare state supposed to support them in tough times? Universal credit is proving far more a damaging than it is helpful. It is directly causing rising poverty and growing rent arrears. This will only get worse as it’s rolled out in more areas.
That’s why I want to overhaul the Welsh economy, to make sure we can support people when they need it most and guarantee people a stable, well-paid job. Central to this is creating a flourishing green economy. Wales can become a world leader in green energy, if only governments seize the opportunity. We could utilise Wales’ renewable energy potential and transform the Welsh economy, while also combatting climate change and provide high-skilled jobs for the future.
This task is not without its difficulties. The UK Government’s disgraceful decision not to back the Swansea Tidal Lagoon was incredibly disappointing and shows their short-sightedness and neglect for Wales. The UK Government need to change their mind, and they need to do it soon. That’s why I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues are pushing for the deal to be looked at again and given the go ahead.
Many people thought, in 2016, when we were reduced to one AM that the Welsh Liberal Democrats were finished. This could have been the case, but the one thing they did not count on was that one AM being Kirsty Williams. Kirsty has been proving time and time again the impact Welsh Liberal Democrats can have in government. She is delivering our national mission to raise standards, reduce the attainment gap and deliver an education system that is a source of national pride and public confidence.
But that’s not all. Many of our greatest achievements this year have been about housing. We’re building more affordable homes and introducing an innovative Rent to Own scheme to make it easier to get on the housing ladder. We were successful in our campaign to protect funding for preventing homelessness and supporting vulnerable people as we joined with Cymorth Cymru to convince the Welsh Government to back their proposals for a ringfenced housing grant.
We also have a proud record of improving health and social care. Last Assembly we fought, and won, to increase nurse staffing levels on hospital wards and this year we’ve led the fight for parity of esteem between mental and physical health which has seen us take steps towards the total ending of mental health discrimination in Wales.
So, despite the many challenges we face, we’ve proved people wrong time and again by continuing to deliver policies which benefit everyone across Wales. I am committed that we will continue to do so and never stop fighting for policies which help make people’s lives better.
It’s been one year since I became leader, but it’s also approaching 20 years since devolution came to Wales. We will have a host of new leaders at the front of Welsh politics which gives us the chance to present a bold new vision for Wales’ future. We need to have genuine and meaningful debates about the direction and values of our country and I for one will always fight for a vision which is optimistic and ambitious.
I want to see a Wales which gives everyone the opportunities they need to succeed, a Wales that tackles the deeply ingrained issues our society faces. We demand a better Wales and we have a vision for a free, fair and liberal Wales. Over the next few years I look forward to taking this vision to every corner and community of Wales. I hope you will join me in this fight.
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