From the outset, this conference was all about unity. The Welsh Liberal Democrats, as they were all too willing to acknowledge, have “had a beating” during this decade, but with encouraging performances in national by-elections and a growing membership, delegates were keen to highlight the party’s resurgence in Swansea.
The Policy Committee also presented a motion on Sunday regarding the approach to negotiating a new relationship with Europe post-Brexit. Passed unanimously, the motion calls for the UK Government to fully inform Parliament on its negotiating strategy and to reconsider its stance on securing a ‘Hard Brexit’. Committee Chair Alec Dauncey said there would be calls to re-enter the EU in the future, stating that the party “has to be the vessel of that project because there will be a third referendum one day”.
Policy motions proposed by party members focused on: working closely with the student community; supporting the Right to Buy scheme; and supporting community banking.
It is indicative of the recent decline of the Liberal Democrats that this conference was held in the main hall of a Swansea high school, but that location became more symbolic as its single AM, Cabinet Secretary for Education (Kirsty Williams) gave her keynote speech.
Ms Williams focused on her portfolio; education. She listed many policies that the Welsh Liberal Democrats in the Fourth Assembly helped to implement, as well as the actions she has taken in her first ten months in Cabinet. Leadership, she said, would be key in raising educational standards and providing direction for Wales into the future.
She said that the link between poverty and low educational attainment is “heartbreaking” and vowed to continue the fight for education equality. On the political climate, Ms Williams said that “we are living in worrying times,” referring to the rise of UKIP in the Assembly, the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the USA, but she concluded that: "If we commit to listening and leading then we will create a Wales that is open and tolerant.”
The party’s leader Mark Williams MP (Ceredigion)(LD) praised Ms Williams’ work as Education Secretary during his own keynote speech, though he accused her larger partner in government, Welsh Labour, of implementing “terrible and illiberal policies”. Mr Williams summarised the day’s main theme in stating that “community politics” are crucial in securing the party’s revival.
The conference was opened by Cllr Chris Holley, who set the tone for the rest of the weekend by heralding the Liberal Democrat fightback across the UK and in Wales specifically, as the Swansea councillor noted that the party’s UK membership has doubled since the vote to leave the EU.
Speaking in his role as spokesperson for Finance, Local Government, Heritage, and Housing, former AM Cllr Peter Black touched on all areas of his portfolio. Cllr Black hit out at the Welsh Government’s “unaccountable” local government White Paper, while he also asserted that “every single empty property is a blight on the community”.
Cllr Bob Griffin said that business rates are killing Welsh high streets and called for them to be reduced in order to get local economies thriving once more. The Economy and Infrastructure spokesperson also alluded to the impact of Brexit on the Welsh economy and told the conference to “fight to ensure we are in single market,” proposing the retention of a Schengen Zone-style agreement between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
A topical motion expanded upon Peter Black’s comments on local government, with a number of speakers backing the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. The motion was approved, meaning STV will be used in future Welsh Lib Dem local authorities if Welsh Government plans to give councils autonomy on voting systems go ahead. There was a further topical motion on the potential job losses at the Bridgend Ford plant, with the conference calling for urgent action to protect the plant and workers. On Sunday, the party passed a third topical motion, which called for the introduction of a DRS scheme for all single-use drinks containers.
Farming, Environment and Rural Affairs spokesperson Cllr William Powell said it is “important to retain ties to Europe” to ensure lasting success in his portfolio, and backed projects such as the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon for Wales’ long-term energy future. President of the FUW, Gwyn Roberts, was then invited onto the stage, and he told the conference that Wales can ill-afford to be side-lined in Brexit negotiations, outlining the implications of this on the agriculture industry.
Baroness Randerson outlined actions she has taken to represent the Welsh Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, and said that the “impetus towards devolution has gone” with the current UK Government since Prime Minister (Theresa May) took office.
Cadan ap Tomos addressed the conference in his role as Young People, Equalities and Welsh Language spokesperson. He discussed the issues facing young people in Wales, including increasing their representation in politics and the scrapping of the Welsh Government’s MyTravelPass scheme. As the only party spokesperson to deliver his speech entirely in Welsh, he said that “we could always do more” to promote the Welsh language.
Communities and Social Justice spokesperson Cllr Jane Dodds asserted that Wales should “take some risks and look at whether we adopt” the Universal Basic Income, and she added that tackling poverty represents “the framework through which we see the level of social injustice we do in Wales”.
Baroness Humphreys, Skills and Lifelong Learning spokesperson, noted that 488 school-leavers go on to undertake apprenticeships on the completion of their studies, while 16,000 attend sixth form. She asserted that “the careers guidance system just doesn’t exist in the way that it used to anymore” and has moved away from a one-to-one approach. She criticised the “Anglo-centric” Apprenticeship Levy which sees more money channelled into England from Wales.
Party President Roger Williams closed the conference by stating that “the community is at the heart of our cause and having a school at the heart of our community is so important,” praising Kirsty Williams’ work on education in government. He called for “early certainty” for the future of EU nationals living in the UK and a referendum on the terms of Brexit, before wishing party members luck ahead of local government elections in May.
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Photo Credit: tiltshift1 // Flickr
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