Leader article: 2008 for Liberalism in Wales

2008 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Welsh Liberal Democrats. May’s local government elections will offer a real test of Labour’s unpopularity. The Welsh Liberal Democrats are the main challengers to Labour in all our largest urban areas. While the first-past-the-post system remains in place, we will be pushing to strengthen our position in Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham and Bridgend – where we already lead the councils. Look out for Newport too, where – if as expected Labour lose overall control of the council – then all of Wales’ cities will have rejected their style of we-know-best politics.

It is Labour’s heavy hand on our lives that we reject. One of the themes that dominated Nick Clegg’s leadership campaign was his desire to see the party challenge the way decisions are made about us – for us not by us. I share that ambition.

But liberalism is more than just giving freedom to people to live their own lives without offending anyone else. Liberal Democrats are also a party of social justice – helping people to help themselves. Making sure that help is available when it is needed.

Reducing inequality is an important benchmark we must set ourselves. We’re the radical non-socialist alternative. Now more than ever we need a progressive force for change which is different from Labour. Liberal Democrats have their roots in fairness as well as freedom. That’s why we should re-examine our connections with the co-operative movement. A movement hijacked by Labour, but which shares many of our liberal ideals.

Here in Wales the agenda of the Labour and Plaid Cymru coalition is offering a centralising 1970s agenda of top down government. An agenda which talks explicitly about binding Wales together – not about freeing people to pursue their own lives, dreams, and ambitions.

While they are directing from the centre, the liberal ambition is to do the opposite. We want to give power away. Free up doctors and nurses to work with patients to decide what’s best for our health. Free up teachers to provide the best possible education in our classrooms. Free communities to have a bigger say in what happens in their area. That’s what localism is all about: giving people the power to make a real difference to our own lives, and the power to support those in need of a helping hand.

Of course, fairer taxes are one non-socialist way we can tackle poverty and inequality. As we promote the switch to greener taxes, we must ensure that those taxes are fairer at the same time. We want to save the planet for everyone, not just the rich.

Over the last year, three examples have given me the belief that it can be done.

Throughout 2007 I have been working with local campaigners to defend Blaenavon Swimming Pool. Their efforts to persuade the council to keep the pool open fell on deaf ears. When they offered to take over the management of the pool – based on successful models of community involvement we’d seen in Newcastle – the council again refused to listen.

The pool was created because a century ago the workers of Blaenavon came together and saved their pennies to provide a community facility which provided a safe alternative to the children who were drowning in the ponds and lakes surrounding the town. They didn’t look to the government for help. They came together to achieve their own dreams and ambitions. We need to rekindle that spirit of action.

Releasing the passion of local communities will only be possible if we give them the power and the means to make it so. In Sweden I visited a community which had taken over control of school caretaking, and was providing its own meals on wheels – a truly local service provided by local people, using the money that would otherwise have gone to the council. Where community groups, or community and town councils have the ability and the enthusiasm, we should be encouraging them to take on these kind of responsibilities.

Some of our Housing Associations are showing the way in this regard: third sector innovators, using their expertise to provide services and generate profit to reinvest in services. I think we can go even further in this area too. As councils look at stock transfer, why can’t they let tenants become their own landlords? Again, where people have the desire, and can demonstrate that they have the necessary expertise – or access to people who do – then we should set them free.

At the dawn of 2008, we can look forward with confidence. As champions of freedom and social justice, we have everything to gain.

Mike German is leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the party’s parliamentarians in the Welsh Assembly.

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