Kirsty Williams' Speech to Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference Autumn 2010

October 19, 2010 9:45 AM

"Labour have stopped thinking. They have stopped even caring. Under Carwyn Jones' leadership they first started coasting and now they are drifting."

Thank you, It's fantastic to welcome you all to Brecon.

To my home. To my political home.

We're tremendously proud to be hosting the Welsh Liberal Democrat conference for the first time.

And it tremendously sad that my friend and colleague, Richard Livsey is not here. He would have loved to have welcomed you all to his beloved Breconshire.

Colleagues, next year is the year when we will, all of us, need to come together as never before.

'Next year', that makes it sound as if we have time on our side. But conference, it is just 19 weeks until the Welsh Assembly powers referendum.

Now, some people view that vote as a simple tidying up exercise, putting right the flawed process of law-making that Peter Hain delivered for Wales. A process that owed more to keeping the anti-devolutionists in the Labour Party happy than establishing a grown up democracy for our country.

In some ways they are right. This is a sensible step forward, it will make our law making system more efficient, it will save us money and it will tidy up Peter Hain's bodge job.

But this referendum is about more that. For Welsh Liberal Democrats, it is the next step on a journey started by Lloyd George and Cymru Fydd all those years ago.

A referendum of historic importance that could establish, for the first time in almost 500 years, that laws that affect only Wales are made only in Wales.

After a century as the consistent champions of Welsh Home Rule, we will deliver.

The extent to which other parties campaign enthusiastically for that yes vote will be a matter for them. I can say this though: No party will work harder and with more determination than the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

And conference, in May, we will be leading a referendum campaign to win fairer votes in the UK. Two referendums, coming at once it's like waiting for a London bus.

Under Labour, waiting for a referendum on PR was more like waiting for bus from Llanbadan to Llandod!

And today, I issue a challenge to the radicals and progressives across the political spectrum. Fair votes have been too long coming. This is our chance. I will work with people of all parties and none to build a campaign that can deliver a resounding 'yes' vote in Wales. I say to all the political leaders in Wales. Join me to help forge that consensus for a 'yes' vote.

All that excitement, even before the assembly elections take place!

I am proud to be leading the party into my first Welsh general election. We have every reason to be confident and we have every expectation that we will make gains next May.

To those in the media who obsess about electoral pacts with any party, least of all the Conservatives, I tell them to watch our campaign here in Brecon and Radnor and in Montgomeryshire. Ask our candidate, the local farmer and Welsh speaker if he will be fighting the Conservatives hard in Montgomeryshire. I know Wyn Williams will do us proud.

And Plaid Cymru too are worried about the Liberal Democrat advance. With their brightest stars out of action and with a record in Government of which they cannot be proud, Plaid Cymru are all too aware which party threatens them. They don't need to ask the Liberal Democrats in Ceredigion whether we will be fighting hard!

And we continue to fight Labour in South Wales, where whole communities have been let down for decade after decade.

In Cardiff Central, in Swansea West, in Newport East and elsewhere, Nigel Howells, Rob Speht, Ed Townsend and so many great candidates will be fighting Labour as hard as ever.

We won't sit back, we will go out to fight for every vote and for every seat.

And in next year's election we won't let Labour forget their record.

The tragedy of the Labour government is that Old or New, Labour failed. After thirteen years of Labour government, Wales has been left with one third of children living in poverty. A child's future is still determined by their parents' income. That is Old Labour failing in its historic goal of tackling poverty.

But remember what Gordon Brown used to say about prudence, about how he would run the economy? He left the country with the largest budget deficit in UK peacetime history. That is New Labour failing in its stated goal of showing that social justice can go together with economic prudence.

We should remember that record on Wednesday as the Comprehensive Spending Review is announced.

I am under no illusion that the decisions that are to be made will be painful.

Painful for families and for individuals. I know that people are worried. The memories of the 1980s run deep in Wales. Nick Clegg has been right to acknowledge those fears and of course he will be judged by how these savings are delivered.

But let us remember what Ed Miliband said in his conference speech:

There will be cuts and there would have been if Labour had been in government.

Some of them will be painful and would have been if Labour were in government.

Every cut that comes our way is a Labour cut and we should not and we will not let the country forget it.

And we must remember we are in a coalition. Some decisions will go our way and will bear the fingerprints of our Liberal Democrat colleagues.

Some decisions are more likely to raise applause at a Conservative conference than our own. In a coalition, we will not win them all.

Mind you, I saw a poll the other day that I did rather like. 60% of Tory members agreed with the statement "Cameron is giving the Liberal Democrats too many concessions on things like Europe, prisons and nuclear power".

But we can be proud not just of reigning in Tory excesses but of the positive achievements of our colleagues in London:

Raising the income tax threshold to lift 50,000 people in Wales out of income tax altogether;

restoring the pensions link with earnings;

increasing pay for 89,000 public sector workers in Wales;

scrapping ID cards;

don't let anyone tell you we are not making a difference.

Now, some people in the media have asked me what my strategy will be as we approach next year's elections. They say that a clever strategy is to disown the coalition and renounce Nick Clegg. To declare UDI. It isn't a subtle trap and it isn't a strategy. It is an exercise in self-delusion and we should not be tempted.

Others have given me rather different advice. They say we should support the government at all costs. To fall into line behind the leader. 'I agree with Nick' the only phrase that should pass our lips in the next seven months. Conference, that is not a strategy either. And you know what, being a cheerleader has never been my style.

In Liverpool, I set out my approach. Let me repeat what I said then.

"The people of Wales have had thirteen years of a Labour government in Cardiff that wouldn't say boo to the Labour government in Westminster. They don't want a nodding dog. They want to elect leader who will speak up for Wales.

"I will always speak up for Wales and I will always speak up for my beliefs and my values."

And the Welsh people understand that we can't pretend that the pain can be stopped at the Severn Bridge. Wales needs to do its bit. Savings have to be made both by the Welsh Government and the Westminster Government: That is the only road to recovery.

It is our job as Liberal Democrats to ensure it is a road that leads to fairness too and that those savings are made fairly and equitably.

Fair to the poorest parts of society, fair to the decent, tax paying majority, fair to Wales.

Meet that test, and the government, whether in Wales or Westminster will have our support.

So when the Welsh Assembly Government looked at options for merging the Countryside Council for Wales with the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission, the Welsh Liberal Democrats gave them our support.

But, as with Westminster's flawed proposal to close the Newport passport office or with the Welsh Government's plan to cut funding for Special Educational Needs , if a proposal fails to meet that test, the people of Wales know that in me they will find a strong voice and a determined champion.

The campaigning cannot stop. The people who needed our support six months ago against those cuts to SEN funding. They still need Liberal Democrats to speak up for them, they expect us to speak up for them. And under my leadership we will always speak up for them

As our Government, in London, makes tough decisions to put the UK back on the right track, we should remember that Labour walked off the field.

Long before they had lost the last election, they had given up the will to win. The senior players more interested in their biographies and their place in history. Signing contracts that they didn't have the money to deliver, in order to lay 'traps' for a future government.

That attitude, that lack of responsibility, is now all pervading and it has become the guiding principle of Carwyn Jones: A man who should be leading Wales forward but who now seems all too happy to sit back and blame London for every problem.

When I ask him at First Minister's questions why, under his leadership, the NHS in Wales spends more per head than in England but delivers a worse service, he doesn't defend his record, he attacks London for 'cuts'.

When I ask him why, after all the boom years, spending for pupil in Wales in lower than in England, he doesn't defend his record, he blames London for cuts.

Conference, Labour have stopped thinking. They have stopped even caring. Under Carwyn Jones' leadership they first started coasting and now they are drifting.

They think the reprise 'it's your government's fault' is such an easy answer for every problem that they don't have to fight for Wales. That they don't need to work harder to improve our health service or children's education or to kickstart our economy.

What kind of an argument is that for devolution as we approach the referendum next year? Are they really only happy to make devolution work when they are in charge in both Cardiff and London?

That is not good enough. Wales needs a First Minister and Government that will play the best hand they can with the cards they have been dealt.

Blaming everyone else is weak and it is lazy and I say to the First Minister, if he can't be grown up enough to work with others, it is time to get off the stage and let someone else have a go.

So at the next Welsh election, the people will be looking for leadership, for confidence and for vision. They will need to look beyond the Labour party.

I am not sure if you heard the Welsh Labour leader's speech to his party conference. He said:

"We do it differently in Wales. We do it our way - and we make no apologies for that."

Different.

Have you ever bought someone a present that they described as 'different'?

Yes, Carwyn, your government is, well, different.

But seriously, a Welsh government making decisions for the people of Wales is the whole point of devolution. So of course, the Welsh solution will often differ to the one in England or in Scotland. Our solutions should be rooted in our communities, in our culture and our values

But what does 'different' actually mean for Labour? What is Carwyn Jones so proud of?

Too often, it means standing still, whilst the rest of the world moves forward. It means old Labour stubbornly clinging to their ideological prejudices. It means Jurassic Labour, more interested in structures and control than in people and results.

In education, the difference is that education spending in Wales is over £500 lower per pupil than in England. The difference is that now GCSE and A Level students educated in England outperform their Welsh peers. Proud to be different?

In health, the difference, conference, as highlighted by Cancer Research UK, is that Wales is lagging behind England and Scotland in its approach to cancer prevention and treatment. Whilst Wales has a higher incidence of bowel cancer than in England, it is English cancer patients who will benefit from the latest cancer screening technology.

The latest targeted radiotherapy has been available in England for the last five years. 42 per cent of cancer patients in England receive this treatment but only two patients a month with head, neck and prostate cancer can receive the treatment in Wales.

There are real fears now that that experienced radiotherapists and doctors will leave Wales to work in England where the latest treatments are available. And Wales risks getting left further behind. Proud to be different?

On the environment, the difference is that the Labour-Plaid government says in their coalition agreement that they will reduce carbon emissions by 3 per cent a year. But when, three years later, they finally publish a climate change strategy, the actual emissions the Welsh Assembly Government take responsibility for is more like one per cent a year.

The difference is that they are presiding over the creation of the bureaucratic disaster for farmers and rural communities that is the Glastir scheme. Proud to be different?

On the economy, the difference is that Wales is falling behind other parts of the UK. As exports rise across the UK, Wales is suffering the highest drop in exports of any region or nation.

The difference is that Wales has won just half a million pounds worth of Olympic contracts, compared to £17 million for Northern Ireland and £22 million for Scotland. And the Economic Development Minister hasn't even written or met with Lord Coe to back Welsh businesses. Still proud to be different?

For Labour 'doing it our way', too often means doing nothing. As England push through reforms, Wales sits on the fence, stalls progress without offering an alternative.

Our task is to develop that Welsh alternative. Radical, progressive and not stuck in the past. While Labour seems happy to settle for mediocrity. We must strive for excellence.

It is an alternative that is needed now more than ever, because whilst Labour are desperate to escape their past and avoid their record in the UK, they are still wreaking havoc in Wales.

As we in Government in the UK take steps to sort out the financial mess we inherited, Roger Williams this morning was right to remind us of the things that Labour-Plaid government do find the money for: the taxi fares, the consultancy bills, one billion pounds, one fifth of the health budget, being misspent.

Conference, when every individual, every family and every business is cutting costs, we need a government that can achieve more with less but we have a Labour-Plaid Government that achieves less with more.

Plaid Cymru. Remember them?

The party that said they would win Aberconwy at the election and then came fourth.

That would win Ceredigion and came 8 000 votes behind.

The party that said they would give Welsh official Language status - but it is the Liberal Democrats who are dragging them kicking and screaming towards fulfilling that promise.

When the Liberal Democrats introduce a Bill to ensure equal representation at Westminster, they attack us because it will reduce the number of Welsh MPs!

Plaid Cymru, the party that has spent its entire existence trying to ensure that there are no Welsh MPs at Westminster!

And what can the Conservatives offer Wales? Time and time again they threaten to change only to hold back, too scared to let go of the prejudices they have held onto for so long.

Despite all the recent sloganeering about voting blue to go green, it was just the other week that the Conservatives failed to support a motion condemning the internal air link.

It is the Liberal Democrats who have ensured that the UK Government has now given the Welsh Government the powers to tackle homelessness and to suspend the right to buy where needed to defend the supply of affordable housing. We got there in the end.

But not before the Conservatives had voted against the measures in the Assembly and threatened to hold the powers in Westminster - just in case the Welsh Government implemented a policy they didn't approve of!

The Conservative leader, Nick Bourne recently issued what he called his Bourne doctrine. I think he liked the name.

I have known Nick Bourne since he ran the 'No' campaign back in the referendum in 1997. We've beaten him twice here in Brecon and Radnorshire! And to be fair, he and the Conservative group have come a long way to support devolution since those days.

But I read in the papers today that Conservatives in Newport are eagerly campaigning for a 'No' vote. So it's not the Bourne doctrine I am interested in, it's the Bourne Identity!

And here's a Bourne Ultimatum. Get your Conservative Party to officially back a 'yes' vote in March.

So what do the Welsh Liberal Democrats bring to the table?

New thinking; a radical cutting edge. A commitment to fairness but also to freedom.

Vast experience in local Government, where we now have a stake in administrations which deliver services for 1.5 million people, half the population of Wales. We, you should be proud of that success.

And it means that the political map of Wales has been transformed from the picture we saw just ten years ago, when almost every council was still dominated by the old Labour Party.

But conference this time, we bring something more. For we are now a party of government at Westminster. That brings responsibility and it brings challenges but most of all it brings a credibility that, if we are honest, we haven't always had before.

We've always known that we would one day achieve the chance to put our policies and principles into practice in Westminster, as we have before in Cardiff. But perhaps not many people believed that when the moment came, we would take that responsibility.

They used to say that voting Liberal Democrat is a wasted vote. Not any longer.

And as Labour leaves the stage, gives up on grown on politics, retreats to its Punch and Judy show of blaming everyone else for their record. We must step up to the plate.

I know that there are those that are worried that we may not be the receptacle for protest votes that we have sometimes been in the past but that gives us a huge opportunity, to be a positive choice.

In this election we will set out a clear vision for Wales.

We have ambitions far beyond simply managing Wales better than the current administration but be in no doubt that we would manage things better than the current administration.

We need to get Wales moving, to create a new beginning for our economy, where profits and ideas benefit the communities where they were developed. To put the fire back in the furnaces of the Welsh economy.

We need to transform living standards by giving power back to our entrepreneurs who can create the jobs and prosperity Wales needs.

We need radical measures to ensure that Wales competes in a global marketplace and to encourage our own home grown business. A dragon economy that competes on the world stage.

We need to challenge the political elite in Wales that has hoarded power for itself. Councils are restricted, communities held back.

Did you know that, charged with a breach of the code of Conduct, the First Minister, is the only politician in Wales responsible for investigating himself?

Wales needs radical reform with power and resources passed from government in Cardiff Bay to local communities across Wales.

We will continue to ensure that Welsh democracy matures, taking more responsibility for its decisions, not passing the buck up to London or down to councils.

We need to put the environment at the heart of our government. Not just setting targets to reduce carbon emissions but to give those targets credibility by taking action to insulate our homes, especially those of the vulnerable to keep them warm in winter.

It is the Liberal Democrats who can ensure that the voice of rural Wales is heard at the heart of Government.

After decades of Labour rule, Wales is crippled by inequality. Just yesterday, a new study showed that children born in Wales this century are more likely to be living below the poverty line than their peers in the rest of the UK.

We will finally tackle the gross unfairness, created in the Thatcher years and shamefully sustained by Labour. We'll give teachers and doctors the freedom they need to succeed so that everyone in Wales has the same life chances regardless of where they were born.

We will close Labour's education funding gap, targeting money at the pupils who need it most, when they need it most.

We will get rid of the myriad grants and ring fenced funds, giving schools the ability to put the money where they need it. And I make this pledge: We will put the quality of teaching at the very heart of what we do. Supporting and training the best teachers throughout their careers, so that they can inspire our children.

And conference, we won't stand by and watch as the Welsh Government spends more and more per head on the NHS whilst our health service slips further behind England, with higher cancer rates, higher spending but lower levels of treatment.

Wales deserves better than that. The Liberal Democrats can do better than that. The people of Wales have been let down for too long.

It is time for a new vision: A radical vision that is rooted in our Welsh liberal values, focused on the needs of Wales. It is time for a vision of self-confidence and optimism. Welsh Liberal Democrats are proud of our country and our people.

We are determined to deliver.

What would you like to do next?