At some time on the weekend of the 11th to 12th October the current leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Mike German, will stand up to make a speech to our national conference and conclude it by announcing that he is to stand down from that position with immediate effect.
Although Mike only assumed the mantle of party leader just under a year ago, he has led the Welsh Assembly Liberal Democrat group from day one. He will therefore have served nine years in the post, ten if you count the leadership role he was elected to in the run-up to the 1999 Assembly elections.
In that time Mike has taken the party into government as part of the 2000-2003 Welsh Liberal Democrat-Labour Partnership Government and led us through three Assembly elections.
It would be churlish on my part if I did not take this opportunity to acknowledge the contribution that Mike has made to the party in Wales. He was a councillor for many years and joint leader of Cardiff City Council. He ran a number of our general election campaigns and guided the party’s campaigning efforts in the run up to the 1999 elections, including our contribution to the 1997 Assembly Referendum campaign. He more than deserved the OBE he received for services to politics.
However, after the 2007 Assembly elections the Welsh Party found that they had made no progress on 1999 and 2003 in terms of seats. Mike attempted to lead us into a rainbow coalition with Plaid and the Tories, but failed to convince key members of the party of the wisdom of that move, including a third of the Assembly group, three quarters of the Welsh MPs, most of our Lords and the Welsh National Executive. By the time of the special conference vote, which accepted the coalition arrangement, it was too late to salvage the deal.
Mike announced to the Autumn Conference that he was intending to stand down as soon as possible after the local Council elections in May 2008. He was rewarded with our best ever local government election results across Wales, though these were largely down to the hard work and effort of our activists on the ground and the national swing against Labour. However, he then reneged on his promise and decided to stay until October 2008 which takes us to where we are now.
The race for leader has not really started. I know that I will not be a candidate and it is likely that Montgomeryshire AM, Mick Bates will sit out this contest as well. Inevitably then, the Welsh Liberal Democrats will become the first party in Wales to elect a woman as Assembly Leader, and if Conference merges the two posts, as leader of the Welsh Party too.
This is important, not only because it places a woman into a high profile post but it offers the party a unique selling point that distinguishes us from the grey-haired leaders of old. What is more important is that who we choose as our next leader will have the opportunity to break with the past and offer a new vision for the future.
We need to broaden our appeal. The advent of the Assembly has seen Cardiff dominate much of our politics and left whole regions of Wales feeling ignored and neglected. Our choice of leader can demonstrate that we recognise that and want to do something about it.
People want change and they want leaders who will offer it to them. That is one reason why we need to look to a new generation for our leadership. But above all it is the reason why we need to change our rhetoric as a party and focus our campaigning on the needs of individual communities as well as Wales as a whole.
The limited powers available to the Welsh Assembly has meant that all the parties have focussed on gimmicks and giveaways as a means to distinguish themselves from the others. Some of these, such as free bus passes for the elderly, have had a purpose. But others, such as free laptops for school children, grants for first time buyers, and even our own free toothbrushes for youngsters, have been more symbolic than valid policy goals. The downside is that they have all cost money and that has meant less for key services such as health and education.
I would like to see the Welsh Liberal Democrats going into the next Assembly elections as the ‘no frills party’, emphasising our commitment to invest in basic services and getting them up to scratch instead of indulging in giveaway gimmicks. We cannot afford to continue to allow our health and education services to fall behind those of our neighbours in terms of funding and outputs. We cannot neglect the need to invest in public transport rather than fancy new dual carriageways which quickly fill up with cars. And we cannot ignore the needs of those seeking their first home only to find that there is nothing they can afford in the area they want to live in.
Whoever is elected as Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader will have a short opportunity to grab the attention of the public by taking the party in a new direction. They will be able to outline a vision of a party committed to empowering communities, improving our liberties and our democratic processes and of investing in key services. We can be the no-frills party fighting for local communities, a party that will provide the change we need.
* Peter Black is the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for South Wales West and is not a candidate for his party’s leadership.