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Liberal Democrat Conference review

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Jane Dodds: Leader addresses conference

THE WELSH L​IBERAL DEMOCRATS gathered at The Village Hotel, Cardiff over the weekend, vowing to foster ‘a fair, free and liberal Wales’ and to campaign to bring about a Ratification Referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal.

While the party has had a punishing time in the most recent round of elections, retaining only a single AM in the 2016 National Assembly Election and losing their final Welsh MP in Theresa May’s snap General Election, the prevailing mood at this weekend’s conference was upbeat.

A PARTY ON THE WAY BACK?

There was an appeal for traditional, Welsh Liberal values by Party President, Cllr William Powell, Mid and West Wales AM between 2011 – 16. Cllr Powell also paid an emotional tribute to his friend, party stalwart and former Preseli Parliamentary Candidate Nick Tregoning, leading to a short silence and round of applause. The former Swansea Council Cabinet Member and Presiding Officer, who died recently, represented the best in the Welsh Liberal tradition, and ‘thought and fought more for others than for himself.’

A keynote speech by new Welsh Lib Dem leader, Jane Dodds, who was elected in November last year, replacing Mark Williams, former Ceredigion MP, was particularly well received. Not shying away from the party’s recent challenges, Ms Dodds said: “There’s no denying we’ve had a difficult few years. While the wounds of the last few years are still visible, we are still fighting.”

Ms Dodds emphasised that the party’s top priorities must be to battle homelessness and poverty, as ‘The nasty party in Westminster doggedly pursues deeper cuts in public finances, vulnerable people scraping by to survive, without access to public services, with no hope for their future”

Turning to the Party’s signature policy on Brexit, the new leader continued: “We have to be clear in our opposition to the UK government’s disastrous handling of the biggest decision our country has faced in a generation…Whether we like it or not, Wales voted to leave the EU. But – and it’s a big but – it was not on the basis that we would leave under any circumstances.”

Concluding, she said: “We need to make sure we have the ideas in place that address the needs of communities and people living in Wales, and we have to translate these ideas into winning votes. Not power for the sake of power, but power so we can change people’s lives for the better, putting us back at the heart of Welsh politics, where we belong.”

A FREE AND FAIR WALES

Ms Dodds also presented a motion calling for the creation of ‘a fair, free and liberal Wales’, emphasising that the party’s mission for the immediate future should be to develop new policies to work towards this goal.

“We need to make sure we have an economy and a society which offers opportunities to all…A Wales of hope and optimism.”

Cardiff Councillor Rhys Taylor was amongst those to speak in favour of the motion, stating: “We know what we stand for, but we’re not always very clear about articulating that. It’s an aspirational vision for Wales and our society.’

Veteran Ynys Mon Councillor and former Cabinet Member, Aled Morris Jones, also spoke in favour of the motion, saying: “Never has there been a time when there has been a greater need for liberalism. We must stand up for moderation because it is under threat, both here and across the world.”

Summating the motion, Party President William Powell said: “It is ambitious, it will need a lot of work and I sense that people in this room and in our local parties are up for that. It is central to rebuilding our party and to our resurgence.”

The motion was supported unanimously.

Party Members and supporters also had the opportunity to quiz Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams AM, and to debate motions on plans to bury radioactive waste off the coast of Wales. There was also a passionate appeal for legal clarity over access to waterways for water sports enthusiasts from Welsh Paralympian and first time conference speaker, Frances Bateman.

BREXIT, SYRIA, EQUALITY DEBATED

The weekend also included an expert panel discussion on Brexit with Ms Dodds, Ms Williams, Liberal Democrat Federal President, Baroness Sal Brinton and former MEP Peter Price, chaired by Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire Lib Dem activist and Newbie Hilton Marlton. During the session, members agreed to keep battling Brexit, working across party lines with all Remain supporters, which was confirmed by an explicit #ExitFromBrexit motion on the Sunday morning.

Baroness Sal Brinton also gave a keynote speech, in which she criticised Theresa May for not giving MPs a vote on military action against Syria, saying that to do so was “further diminishing the standing of Britain in the world”. And she was optimistic about the party’s future prospects, saying: “I know the future of the Welsh party is in good hands.’

The second day of the conference also included a motion on the Welsh Government’s new plans to reform local government in Wales. Although the motion agreed with the principle of cutting the number of councils in Wales, it suggested the final number should be 14 or 15 – and emphasised the importance of respecting localism and democratic structures to reflect that.

Members also backed a motion calling for schools in Wales to introduce gender-neutral uniforms. Presenting the motion, Cllr Rhys Taylor of Cardiff said: “We should not dictate to young people what they should wear outside religious codes.” He added more support and training should be offered to teachers in supporting LGBT pupils.

Amy Gaskin of Swansea University’s branch of the party also spoke in support of the motion, saying: “There’s increasing evidence that male and female brains just don’t exist. It’s more of a mosaic”.

“What right do we have to tell kids they should wear trousers or a skirt, or a tie or no tie?” she asked.

Sunday also saw Baroness Christine Humphreys of Llanrwst, North Wales AM from 1999 until 2001, appointed as the party’s new Deputy Leader. She was the only nominee.

Closing the conference, Welsh Party President William Powell said: “We’ve got a rich vein of new talent emerging in the party.”

Saying he felt a sense of “optimism and positivism, Mr Powell called for: “A kinder, gentler and more inclusive values-based politics – that is what Jane (Dodds) and our wider leadership want to introduce.”

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ON MONDAY (November 22), Labour and Plaid Cymru announced an agreement to stitch up the Senedd for the next three years.

Amid much self-congratulation,  Adam Price and Mark Drakeford hailed their success at reaching an agreement.

Labour promises to deliver the bits of its Manifesto with which Plaid agrees and considers delivering the bits of Plaid’s Manifesto that it finds unobjectionable.

WHAT THEY SAY

A joint press release says: “The agreement is a joint policy programme covering 46 areas, ranging from the delivery of free school meals to all primary school pupils; a commitment to take immediate and radical action to address the second homes crisis, to long-term reform of the Senedd.

“This is a new form of political working arrangement. The two partners – the Welsh Government and the Plaid Cymru Senedd Group – will work together to jointly develop and oversee the delivery of the policies covered by the agreement over the coming three years.”

First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “The Welsh Government has an ambitious Programme for Government, which it will deliver over this Senedd term. But we do not have a monopoly on good ideas, and we will work with progressive parties where we have shared and common interests to benefit people in Wales.

“This Co-operation Agreement brings the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru together to respond to some of the most pressing issues facing Wales today, such as climate change and the energy and cost-of-living crisis.

“We can achieve more for people in Wales by working together, and the Co-operation Agreement is both a response to the external challenges we face and a chance to build on the opportunities in our future. It will also help us secure a stable Senedd over the next three years, capable of delivering radical change and reform.

“These commitments build on our shared values of social solidarity, a sustainable planet and a vibrant democracy.”

Adam Price, Leader of Plaid Cymru, said: “Almost a quarter of a century ago, people in Wales voted for self-government for Wales, with a promise of a new type of politics.

“They placed their trust in a new democracy with an instruction to work differently – inclusively and co-operatively.

“The challenges we face require real ambition to deliver radical ideas. The fallout from leaving the European Union, the legacy of the pandemic, and the UK Government’s determination to erode the Senedd’s powers all increase the need for transformational change.

“Taken together, the bold policy pledges will unite Wales and benefit every generation, from all primary school pupils receiving free school meals to a national care service, free at the point of need.

“I am pleased this pioneering Co-operation Agreement is founded on common ground on a range of issues that will make a long-lasting difference to people’s lives.”

As part of the agreement, a publicly owned energy company for Wales could be created to encourage community-owned renewable energy generation; there will be further investment in flood defences and new measures to strengthen the Welsh language and support for young people’s mental health.

This is a bespoke agreement – it is not a coalition; Plaid Cymru Members will not be joining the Welsh Government as Ministers or Deputy Ministers. Plaid Cymru will appoint a designated lead member for the agreement. Committees of Welsh Ministers and Plaid Cymru designated members will be established to agree on issues covered by the Co-operation Agreement.

Funding has been put in place as part of the Co-operation Agreement and reflected in the draft Budget published in December.

All issues outside the Co-operation Agreement will be handled in the normal course of political engagement.

THE FALL OF ADAM:

FROM HIGH IDEALS TO BASE REALITY

Before May’s election, Adam Price spoke about his “despair” at the prospect of five more years of Labour Government, of Labour’s failures in Wales, and how Wales deserved better.

It turns out what he meant was that he was happy to support Labour in exchange for many things Labour said it was going to do anyway.

The prospect of last week’s Welsh Food Bill (supported by Plaid) ever hitting the statute book has taken a massive step backwards. Instead, there’s likely to be a continuation of the current Welsh Government strategy of discussing whether to consult before talks about holding talks.

Labour hailed its thirty seats in May’s election as a massive endorsement for its policies. Voters rejected those policies in large parts of Wales, where the fight for seats was between Plaid and the Conservatives.

Bolting strong anti-Labour sentiment in traditionally Plaid supporting areas did not end well for Plaid after the One Wales Government.

It is hard to see the crustier members of the Party of Wales reconciling themselves to backing Labour in a Senedd many of them regard as not speaking for their concerns about language, culture, and rural Wales.

Setting unionism aside, the divide between rural Plaid voters and the Conservatives is a lot narrower than Plaid in Cardiff Bay would like to accept.

However, the signs that the parties would reach an agreement have been obvious for some time, notably at First Minister’s Questions.

Over recent weeks, Adam Price’s questions to Mark Drakeford played out like a charade.

The Plaid leader repeatedly invites the Labour leader to comment about the awfulness of the Westminster Government, and the Labour leader obliges and agrees with Mr Price about how awful it is.

The searching scrutiny of the Welsh Government’s actions one might expect from the Plaid leader has been from Mr Price’s questions.

All of which suggests both he and Mark Drakeford are more concerned about what Westminster is or isn’t doing than what the party in power in Wales is or isn’t doing.

It’s all been rather like the occasion when Margaret Thatcher, faced with short-term political difficulty, was asked by Pembrokeshire’s former MP Nicholas Bennett to list her Government’s achievements.

As someone who prides himself on his command of language and speech-making, Mr Price seems to have reconciled himself to the idea that it’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

When it comes to political idealism against political reality, Mr Price has shown himself a pragmatist.

REAL-WORLD CONSIDERATIONS

With 45 Senedd members, Labour plus Plaid, the numbers stack up arithmetically to increase the number of MSs and change the electoral system.

The losers in such a change, Plaid and Labour calculate, will be the Conservatives.

Increasing the number of Senedd members has long been a Labour goal. In the last Senned term, Labour lacked the numbers to make the change: now it does.

An increase in the number of Senedd members works only if a larger Senedd gets things done and gets them done faster and better.

Labour’s record on introducing primary legislation to the Senedd is weak. For example, it is still wrangling over the scope of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act passed in 2015, two Senedd elections ago.

There is, however, an issue that might cut through any proposed enlargement: public opinion.

Plaid’s and Labour’s recent rhetoric could come back to haunt them.

For the last two years, the Labour Government has lamented the powers being stripped away from it by the Conservative Government in Westminster.

Adam Price has agreed that the Conservatives have stolen powers and breached promises over finance at every turn.

If, as Labour and Plaid claim, the beastly Westminster Parliament is stealing away its power to do anything, the question arises as to why – with fewer effective powers at its disposal – Wales needs more Senedd Members.

A larger Senedd will not hinder a Conservative majority government in London from doing what it wants, and it would be neither more nor less legitimate than the current arrangement.

The result of sixty out of eighty Senedd members complaining when nobody’s listening will be no different than forty-five out of sixty.

CONSERVATIVES EMPHASISE

EVERYDAY PRIORITIES

A larger Senedd will not mean more powers in Cardiff unless Westminster grants them.

A larger Senedd must mean smaller (and possibly fewer) County Councils.

A larger Senedd might also mean a more openly centralised approach to Wales’s shambolic and chaotic health and social care provision.

The powers the agreement allows the Welsh Government to use are ones it already has – ones a Conservative Government granted it.

Wisely, the Welsh Conservative response to the deal does not over-egg the constitutional pudding.

It emphasises priorities for the Government over the party’s too-frequent claims of ‘constitutional chaos’.

A spokesperson said: “This deal fails to deliver on the priorities of the people of Wales.

“It does nothing to address the crisis in our NHS; nothing to improve our ailing Welsh infrastructure; and nothing to fire up our sluggish economy.

“Prioritising more politicians and constitutional reform over action to secure treatment for the one in five on an NHS waiting list or improving take-home pay for the low paid is appalling.

“Yet again, Plaid has betrayed its voters with another deal that cements a failing Labour administration into power for years to come.

“The message to voters is clear; vote Plaid, get Labour, and vote Labour, get Plaid. Only the Welsh Conservatives can deliver the real change that Wales needs.”

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UK Parliament Week 2021 to be celebrated across Ceredigion

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Ben Lake

BEN Lake MP is inviting everyone in Ceredigion to get involved in UK Parliament Week and join a UK-wide conversation about our democracy, people power and making change happen.

UK Parliament Week is an annual event taking place from 1-7 November, that engages people from across the UK with their UK Parliament, explores what it means to them and empowers them to get involved.

This year the focus is how small actions can lead to big changes, encouraging participants to get informed, take action and make an impact on issues they care about. It is a great opportunity to examine what issues are important to you and how you can work with the UK Parliament to bring about change. Community groups, local organisations and schools in hundreds of constituencies across the United Kingdom have already signed up to be part of the conversation.

Ben Lake MP said: “As the MP for Ceredigion I encourage people in my constituency to get involved with UK Parliament Week 2021. Active public participation is vital in a thriving democracy and we all have our part to play. I look forward to seeing how organisations and local groups in Ceredigion join in, especially the next generation of voters in our schools.”

Last year, almost one million people took part in UK Parliament Week, despite the challenging circumstances caused by Covid-19. Activities were held in every nation and region of the UK, as well as countries all over the world.

Amy Baxter, Head of Education and Engagement at UK Parliament, said: “Every year we are delighted to see so many people take part in UK Parliament Week. It’s a great opportunity to get informed, take action and make an impact in Ceredigion and beyond. Change starts with you and UK Parliament Week is a great way to learn how you can make a difference.”

Those who sign up for UK Parliament Week will be sent a free kit packed with resources, including a booklet, a ballot box, stickers, and a packet of “sow the seeds of democracy” chilli seeds. There are tailored kits available for youth groups, primary and secondary schools, and each nation of the UK. 

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Moving the Welsh Economy Forward: “A Team Wales recovery, built by all of us” – Economy Minister

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THE WELSH GOVERNMENT will pursue a progressive economic policy that focuses on better jobs, narrowing the skills divide and tackling poverty, Economy Minister, Vaughan Gething, will say today.

At a hybrid Economic Summit, the Minister has invited businesses, trades unions and local government leaders to discuss how Wales can create a stronger, fairer, greener economic future.

In setting out his vision to move the Welsh economy forward, the Minister will commit to extending a Team Wales model to offer ‘as much certainty as possible’ for businesses facing a volatile recovery.  

He will promise a new era of partnership to strengthen regional economic development, a delivery plan to back the everyday economy and wide ranging support for workers in a fast changing economy.

The Welsh Government will work with unions and business to develop it’s ‘something for something’ approach so that Welsh public money is wedded to action on fair work, decarbonisation and skills.

The Minister will also start a conversation about the long term demographic challenge facing the Welsh economy. The proportion of the population aged 16 to 64 years old in Wales has been decreasing year-on-year since mid-2008 – and could be just 58% of the population by 2043.

In response, Welsh Ministers’ approach will be geared towards creating an economy where more young people feel confident about planning their future in Wales thus supporting job creation and more dynamic local economies.

The Welsh Government will set out a vision of what makes Wales an attractive place to live, study, work and invest – including the quality of life in an inclusive, open and green nation.

The Welsh Government will also call on the Chancellor to demonstrate the UK Government’s ambition for Wales by honouring promises made on EU successor funds, backing major renewables such as tidal energy and investing in Welsh research and development.

Later, the Minister will visit a family-run business that’s received Welsh Government support to grow, before delivering a speech to a predominantly virtual audience of business, trades unions and local government leaders and other partners at Transport for Wales’ new HQ in Pontypridd.

Speaking ahead of the summit, Economy Minister, Vaughan Gething said: “The Welsh Government is taking bold action to build a stronger, fairer, greener Welsh economy. It has taken a Team Wales effort to keep Wales safe and we will deliver a Team Wales Recovery, built by all of us. 

“A strong Welsh recovery will be based on the principles of fair work and sustainability as we invest in the industries and services of the future.

“As we face the headwinds of Brexit, I am determined that our credible plans will offer as much certainty as possible to help businesses plan ahead. 

“A new era of partnership for stronger regions, a young person’s guarantee, a plan to back our everyday economy and collaboration with world leading, advanced manufacturing. This is the cause for optimism for the future we are building in Wales.

“My ambition is to make Wales a place where more young people feel confident in planning their future here. You don’t have to get out to get on, make your future here in Wales.”

The Welsh Government’s approach includes:

  • Investing in our people – through the Young Person’s Guarantee and a strong employability and skills offer, including Apprenticeships;
  • Supporting those furthest away from the Labour market to find work. The upcoming Employability Strategy will highlight the support available for individuals, particularly those most impacted by the pandemic and furthest away from the labour market;
  • Accelerating the adaptation to new skills which are required for skilled, secure jobs, not least in the area of low carbon. The current recruitment challenge has also shown there is a need for some quick action on skills in certain sectors;
  • Exploring how we retain our graduates and talent in Wales by building strong linkages with universities, and between universities and businesses;
  • Support start-ups, including graduate start-ups, with possible incentives in some areas;
  • Ensure we have firms grounded in Wales who can provide future opportunities;
  • Wales can also benefit from the opportunities for far greater remote working and flexible commuting options.
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