Liberal Democrat Party President Baroness Sal Brinton delivered a keynote speech to Welsh Liberal Democrat Spring Conference this weekend.
Good morning Conference.
I want to start with the overnight news that Theresa May has ordered air strikes on Syria. I absolutely agree with Vince’s call last week that she could and should have recalled Parliament, to seek a mandate from the representatives of the British people, and hear the debate both for and against.
Liberal Democrats stood ready to assess the evidence and objectives for any action and, if it were properly planned and justified, to support a military response.
At this moment our thoughts are with British and allied troops. But the Government’s decision fatally undermines the integrity of this mission. It shows a weak UK Government putting short term political expediency before democracy and in so doing further diminishing the standing of Britain in the world.
It is fantastic to be back in Wales, and to see you, our Welsh members so upbeat and positive. There’s no denying that here in Wales you have been through a rough time – perhaps even more than the rest of us across the UK. But it is important that we celebrate your spirit, determination and commitment to fighting back, and I’m convinced you’ve also achieved an enormous amount, despite the challenges.
Here in Wales we are in Government – the only place in an Assembly or Parliament in the UK where we are able to enact liberal policies, through the fantastic work of our Welsh Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams.
Kirsty is leading our national mission of education reform to give our young people the best start in life by reducing the attainment gap and raising standards across our schools, wherever in Wales they are.
From cutting infant class sizes and investing more money in raising the aspirations of our least well-off children, to delivering a fair funding arrangements for university students and Wales’ universities – Kirsty is proving the Welsh Liberal Democrats to be the party with the ideas and drive to get things done. She remains a real inspiration to me, and I know, to many of you too!
And I know that Kirsty would be the first to say that so many of you have been working immensely hard over the last two years to revive our Party’s fortunes in Wales, and we are now on the brink of a fantastic opportunity.
And I absolutely agree with her!
Here in Wales, your next Assembly elections coming up in 2021. Now that may seem far away, but look at the electoral fortunes of UKIP. That flash in the pan party has plummeted in support. Just two years after the last assembly elections, they are a spent force, and they’re not coming back. They are fielding so few candidates, that they aren’t entitled to a parliamentary party broadcast, only contesting just over 10% of the seats up for election and not even bothering to stand in many of the seats they currently hold.
Meanwhile we have a Tory Party which is still - forty years on, still riven by the EU. I mean, who ever thought that ‘Having your cake and eating it’ was ever a serious proposition from senior cabinet ministers like Boris Johnson and David Davis. But they both prattle away about it, as if it is realistic and possible. More damagingly, let’s be generous here and call it self deceit, rather than deliberate, is lurching the UK towards a hard Brexit disaster, whilst they sing loudly with their fingers in their ears and with blindfolds on.
But it isn’t just the Tories - there are the splits in the Labour Party, perhaps best typified by the Welsh Leader completely at odds with its Westminster Leader, and plagued by internal rifts, and even the nationalists Plaid Cymru riven with factionalism, unsure about what Wales’ future holds.
That Chinese curse ‘May you live in interesting times’ seems to be with us in abundance!
Contrast that to our Welsh Liberal Democrat vision for Wales:
a Wales proud of its heritage,
* Committed and optimistic for the future,
* committed to our young people,
* committed to maintaining our international ties both within Europe and beyond.
All of us are united around that vision. All of us are committed to a revival in this, the land of liberalism. We aren’t looking back to the grand old days of Lloyd George (although his Liberal heritage of care for our land and care for our people still lies at the heart of our values).
We are confidently looking forward: striving to make a better future for Wales, a more Liberal future for Wales.
I come to Wales regularly, because every time I come I am amazed by the enthusiasm and the dedication of you, our Welsh members.
Against all the odds we have seen new members coming to the fore, perhaps best personified by Donna Lalek and her team in the Alyn and Deeside by election. I saw first hand how she and the energetic new local members group took what other parties would regard as a hopeless cause, and showed the rest of us how it’s done:
tripling the vote
and moving us from fifth to third place on a cold February day.
They were supported by a raft of experienced members who, despite all the knock backs we’ve had, have ensured the Welsh Party is on a firm footing.
With that combination I know that the future of the Welsh Party is in great hands.
Thanks to you, we can now look to the future – we can fight for a liberal vision for Wales – and we can win.
Because be under no illusions, now is the time to start building up our Party to ensure we can *be* the difference Wales needs at the next Assembly elections.
I know for many of us, that adage of where we work we win rang very hollow during and after Coalition, but I bring you good news.
We have already proved across the UK that once again, where we work we win – with strong, local campaigns, run by volunteers which have been winning by-election,
and not just in the areas we might think.
I’m not talking about our old haunts of the South West, or North Norfolk, or Kingston-upon-Thames.
I’m talking about some of the most unexpected hot spots of liberalism. Sunderland, Gainsborough, Gosport, Northchurch, Westhoughton –
and two weeks ago, in Aylesbury with the fantastic Waheed Raja –
And last week in Mallaig and Caol in the Highlands of Scotland,
to Dr Kate O’Kelly’s wonderful victory in the Rogate ward of Chichester on Thursday night on the true blue southern coast of England where we went from 0% to 55% in one go. And there have been many other victories everywhere in between. Believe me, the Liberal Democrats are winning again.
Why? Because we are the only Party which knows what we stand for. We stand for our values, not an ideology.
We are prepared to be unpopular if we need to be, although often people change their views to join us once they truly understand.
We are the only Party across the UK with the courage of our convictions over Brexit – fighting for an Exit from Brexit. Here in Wales a very narrow win for Leave has been replaced with real concern about the future of agriculture, the future of major companies like Airbus, and - with the Tory Government trying to slip Henry VIII powers through Parliament which would reduce your hard won devolution.
We Liberal Democrats will fight to stop that happening.
Watch out for votes in the Lords over the next few weeks!
And there will be other victories too - every Monday and Wednesday till mid-May, under Dick Newby’s leadership in the Lords, we will be working cross party to beat the Government’s pathetic attempt at trying to get to a Brexit deal.
That is why Vince Cable is absolutely right to say we have to fight for an Exit from Brexit. But we are also fighting for the rights to self determination in Wales because we fundamentally believe in devolution.
And it is astonishing that in recent polls one third of Leave voters are now saying that the people need to have a say on the final deal, with close to 60% saying that the Government is making a total Horlicks of the negotiations. As with Charles Kennedy’s principled stand on the invasion of Iraq, I am proud that our Federal Leader is standing up to fight for our place in the EU.
One of the most depressing things about Parliament at the moment is the way that the Conservative Government and their civil servants say that nothing else can be done, other than the Brexit negotiations. You would think that small but specific things like amending bus regulations to strengthen the power of drivers to get wheelchair users into the wheelchair spaces could be slipped through, or the Tory commitment in their Manifesto in 2015 and 2017 to strengthen the Victims Code could be found some space. But no. Civil Servants and Ministers are forbidden to go off the Brexit piste.
And we are not going to let them get away with that. We are the only Party committed to proper funding for our NHS, saying that our NHS is so important we believe we should pay a penny more on the pound in income tax matched by increases in the Barnett formula for Wales.
We are the only Party which recognises that if we are going to build a Wales fit for the future, we need to invest in our children, and give our teachers the support they need to get on with the job.
We are the only Party which has consistently advocated innovative green policies in Government, supporting projects like the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon. It is not by chance that since May 2015 the Conservative Government have either killed or savaged many of our best environmental achievements in Coalition.
Conference we all know why we’re Liberal Democrats. We all know the change which Wales needs to see if it’s going to be a country we can be proud of, fit for the 21st century. It’s our job to get out there, and say it.
For too long, large swathes of Wales have been governed by a one party state under Labour. A Labour Party which has taken the people of Wales for granted. Kirsty Williams is challenging them in Government to think more radically, but we all know old Labour. An old Labour that takes voters for granted, that assumes it is owed power, and an old Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn lurching to the left, a hard-line puritanically socialist vision straight out of the 1970s. That’s not what Wales needs.
It falls to the Welsh Liberal Democrats to show Wales the future it could have, and it gives me great pleasure to be here supporting your recently elected leader, Jane Dodds, who I know will be doing just that.
but I just want to pause a moment and consider what an outstanding contest your competition for the leadership was: between two fantastic women, Jane Dodds and Cllr Liz Evans. Wales really is showing the way when it comes to women leaders in our Party. To have had Kirsty lead the party for so long until Mark Williams took on the mantle in 2016 when she joined the Welsh Government, but then on top of that have a field of fantastic female candidates – from Liz Evans and Jane Dodds through to Eluned Parrott in Cardiff.
You also elected Carole O’Toole as Chair of the Welsh NEC – making it for the first time a clean slate of female leaders across the Party, alongside Liz Leffman in England and now Sheila Ritchie, succeeding Sheila Thomson in Scotland. Wales has always led the way when it comes to progressive policies, but you are also an inspiration for women in the Liberal Democrats across the UK. Under Jane Dodds, I know that that will continue.
I have had the privilege of not only coming to support Jane in her campaigns from 2015 onwards, but also of working alongside her as your former Welsh representative on the Party’s Federal Board. Jane is an incredibly hard worker, as you all know, and completely dedicated to the cause of Liberal Democracy. But more than that – Jane is someone who has devoted her life to fighting for the rights of some of the most oppressed and vulnerable in our society. Jane knows just how hard life can be for some, and she’s been helping support those vulnerable people for much of her life. Her first-hand experience, on the front line, is what drives her passion to seek change for the whole of Wales, and that passion has been self-evident ever since the first time we met.
I have had the privilege of campaigning alongside her in Montgomeryshire, and her knowledge of her area and her people, her dedication to campaigning all the year round, as well as being Lib Dem to her very finger tips, just shows me you have made the right decision.
Conference, we now have a great opportunity ahead of us. With three years to prepare, I know you can make all the difference. We have an aspirational vision for Wales, we have the opportunity, and we have the ambition to succeed.
I know each and every one of you here today is committed to making our vision for Wales a reality.
We know from elections across the UK, that where we have that vision, a clear message, and committed volunteers, we are unstoppable.
Welsh Liberal Democrats – we’re here to stay, and we’re here to win!