Welsh Lib­eral Democrats’ leader sets out her pri­or­i­ties

Wales On Sunday - - NEWS - DAVID WIL­LIAMSON Po­lit­i­cal Ed­i­tor david.wil­liamson@waleson­line.co.uk

THE Lib­eral Democrats were once a ma­jor force in Welsh pol­i­tics. They shared power with Rho­dri Mor­gan’s Labour Party in the first As­sem­bly term, and in the 2010 elec­tion more than one in five vot­ers in Wales (20.1%) backed the Lib Dems.

But in last year’s elec­tion they won just 4.5% of the Welsh vote and not a sin­gle MP was elected.

And while Bre­con and Rad­nor­shire Lib Dem AM Kirsty Wil­liams ex­erts im­por­tance in­flu­ence on the fu­ture of Wales as the Welsh Gov­ern­ment Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary, she is the only mem­ber of her party left in the Senedd.

The Lib Dems from across the UK who have gath­ered in Brighton for their con­fer­ence are still con­vinced this ex­plic­itly pro-EU party has a vi­tal role to play in UK pol­i­tics but can they con­vince vot­ers? Are the Lib Dems poised for re­birth or is this party inch­ing to­wards its demise?

Jane Dodds, the leader of the Welsh Lib­eral Democrats, is nei­ther an AM nor an MP but she wants to see the party not just de­liv­er­ing a clear mes­sage on Brexit but lead­ing the fight to tackle the mod­ern “scourge” of lone­li­ness.

The Lib Dems strug­gle to do bet­ter than 10% in UK polls but she ar­gues her party is a nat­u­ral home for pro-EU vot­ers.

She said: “If I’m hon­est, I don’t un­der­stand why all Labour vot­ers who are re­main­ers aren’t aban­don­ing Labour, be­cause they re­ally are sid­ing with the Brex­i­teers.”

Now, win­ning back the West Wales heart­land is a pri­or­ity.

The party won just one MP in 2015, when Mark Wil­liams held on to Ceredi­gion, but he was ousted last year by Plaid Cymru’s Ben Lake with a ma­jor­ity of just 104. enough par­ties as it is and I think peo­ple are fed up with new par­ties com­ing and go­ing. We are re­main­ing the Lib­eral Democrats and if peo­ple want to come and join us that’s fab­u­lous.” Bound­ary changes mean the numTack­ling lone­li­ness has been slated ber of MPs in Wales may be cut from as a top Lib Dem pri­or­ity. A per­sonal 40 to 29, but Ms Dodds is deter­mined pri­or­ity is cham­pi­oning mea­sures to to once again see this West Wales deal with lone­li­ness, such as the heart­land painted yel­low. ap­point­ment of a “lone­li­ness czar”

She said: “We are go­ing to be figh­t­and an end to cuts to ser­vices which ing, we hope, all 40 seats – or what­ever threaten to make the prob­lem worse. there’ll be – but we are pri­ori­tis­ing She said: “My mother suf­fered from Ceredi­gion. It’s the sec­ond most winde­men­tia. My fa­ther ac­tu­ally suf­fered nable seat in the whole of the UK... Alzheimer’s as well... They be­came

“So we are ab­so­lutely do­ing ev­eryvery lonely, very iso­lated in North thing we can to plan for that.” Wales...

The UK party could fol­low Wales’ “It is some­thing we have to ad­dress lead and be led by some­one out­side as a health is­sue. I want it to be part of the Com­mons. UK leader Vince Ca­ble a health agenda... has sug­gested the party could be led “Peo­ple go into hos­pi­tal. Someby a non-MP. times they dread go­ing home be­cause

Ms Dodds points out that Wales has they are go­ing to be on their own. al­ready blazed this trail, and hopes “We’ve got to do more.” such a move could lead to greater The party should be some­thing di­ver­sity at the top of the UK party. more than “mod­er­ate”, says Ms

She said: “Look at us in the Welsh Dodds, who is clearly Lib­eral Democrats. We’ve al­ready im­pa­tient at the pace of got the model of elect­ing ect­ing some­progress in the polls. body who’s not an MP or a “In my m view, we Welsh As­sem­bly Mem­ber. I should b be fur­ther for­think that’s re­ally pos­i­tive... itive... ward th than we are

“In the fed­eral Lib­eral eral De­mobe­cause we have got crats, we’ve never had ad a fe­male this oppo op­por­tu­nity,” she leader, like Labour. We’ve never said. “Labour “Lab are go­ing had a black leader, so o there’s poten­more left; the Con­serv­tial there for greater di­ver­sity and I atives are go­ing more think that’s re­ally ex­cit­in­gright.”and cit­in­gright.”and en­er­gis­ing.” How­ever, Ho she

She has no in­ter­est st in wants want the Lib the Lib Dems form­ing ga a Dems Dem to do more new party with cen­trist st than ap­peal to Labour and Con­servv“mod­er­ates”. “m ative MPs. She said: “I’m

“We’re not go­ing to o not no mad keen form an­other party,” on the word she said. “We’re de­fi­mod­er­ate... It nitely not go­ing to do sounds a bit that. There are dull d and bor- ing. We need to have a pro­gres­sive, ex­cit­ing, rad­i­cal agenda that makes sure that we ap­peal to those peo­ple who don’t want to be right-wing and don’t want to be to­tally left-wing ei­ther.”

De­spite the strength of Ms Dodds’ am­bi­tions for the Lib Dems in Wales, there are doubts that a re­vival in the party’s for­tunes is im­mi­nent.

The Lib Dems have ac­tu­ally done worse in Wales than in the rest of Great Bri­tain and Pro­fes­sor Roger Awan-Scully of Cardiff Univer­sity’s Wales Gov­er­nance Cen­tre, one of the na­tion’s most prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts, said the party’s “elec­toral fate still looks pretty grim at the mo­ment”.

He said: “[In] both the last two gen­eral elec­tions, the Lib Dems have ac­tu­ally done worse in Wales than in ei­ther Eng­land or Scot­land in terms of share of the vote. In the land of Lloyd Ge­orge, they have been do­ing worst of all...

“We don’t seen any signs in the polls of them stag­ing any sub­stan­tial Welsh re­cov­ery yet... At the mo­ment they are just flatlin­ing.”

The party won 23% of the UK vote in the 2010 elec­tion, which saw Nick Clegg take the party into coali­tion with David Cameron’s Con­ser­va­tives, but in 2017 they were backed by just 7.4% of vot­ers.

Prof Awan-Scully said: “It seems some­thing fairly cat­a­strophic hap­pened to their sup­port... A lot of vot­ers don’t seem will­ing to for­give them for that.

“Given the scale of the po­ten­tial prob­lems the UK is fac­ing with Brexit, not de­liv­er­ing on a prom­ise on tu­ition fees might well strike many peo­ple as rel­a­tively mi­nor but some­thing hap­pened to them, to the na­ture of the vote.

“I think a lot of peo­ple broadly on the cen­tre and the left ba­si­cally still have not for­given them for go­ing into coali­tion with the Con­ser­va­tives.”

He added: “We have a Labour Party that’s moved sig­nif­i­cantly to the left. We have a Con­ser­va­tive Party that in many re­spects seems to be more to the right than it was un­der David Cameron; there does seem to be a big yawn­ing gap in the mid­dle...

“But the Lib­eral Democrats don’t seem to be able to per­suade [mod­er­ate Labour and Con­ser­va­tive MPs] to de­fect or to per­suade many vot­ers to come with them.”

He was also cau­tious about the Lib Dems’ chances of tak­ing back Ceredi­gion, saying: “Plaid now have a young, very tal­ented, very en­gag­ing MP in place who, I sus­pect, will be grad­u­ally build­ing up a per­sonal vote in the same way that Mark did, so I think it will be pretty dif­fi­cult to win that seat back. Short of a ma­jor, na­tional Lib­eral re­vival I think they are go­ing to find it very dif­fi­cult to get back on the score­board at the next gen­eral elec­tion in Wales.

“They still to me rather re­sem­ble one of those car­toon char­ac­ters that’s run over by a steam­roller and is try­ing to push it­self back into shape prop­erly.”

For­mer Ceredi­gion MP Mark Wil­liams ad­mits the present sit­u­a­tion is “frus­trat­ing” but he says he can see ev­i­dence of Lib Dem mes­sages res­onat­ing with the pub­lic, par­tic­u­larly with the push for a sec­ond Brexit ref­er­en­dum.

He said: “I can re­mem­ber mak­ing very lonely speeches in the gen­eral elec­tion in those lead­ers’ hus­tings about that is­sue. Now, many more peo­ple from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum are talk­ing about that.

“But the frus­tra­tion is that, as a party, we are yet to pick up the div­i­dends of those im­por­tant mes­sages – but we per­se­vere.”


Welsh Lib­eral Demo­crat leader Jane Dodds


Pro­fes­sor Roger Awan-Scully

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