In Full: Kirsty Williams’ speech to Liberal Democrat Conference: A Britain without liberalism is a Britain that has lost its soul

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Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams gave her keynote speech to Conference yesterday and she did not mince her words.

She was candid about the failings of the coalition, saying that it looked like we’d never even tried to keep the pledge on tuition fees, and that our identity had been lost. 

She also said that one of the best ways to improve gender balance in parliamentarians was to help in Wales to make sure the Liberal Democrats did well as female candidates had been selected in many winnable seats.

She also set out her stall for the elections:

We believe in Freedom. Freedom of the individual, so everyone has the opportunity to be who they want to be and reach their full potential

We believe in Fairness – for diversity, against intolerance – the voice for the voiceless

And we believe in Community. Where we as individuals work together for the common good, where we empower communities to make decisions that work best for them

Most other parties can achieve some of those principles, but none combine them.

And what makes us unique is that we’re liberals

Feeling so strongly about something so positive gives us the power and confidence needed to take us forward:

The confidence to say immigration benefits our country

The confidence to say rehabilitation works better than prison

The confidence to say our voting systems, our institutions, our whole political system quite frankly stinks

The Human Rights Act, the green agenda, mental health – we fight for the underdog, we fight for what is right, leading on the issues that no-one else will.

Here is her speech in full:

Violet Bonham Carter’s words were in my mind the days following the General Election.

It was a devastating result.

That night, we in Wales lost two fantastic MPs

My good friend Roger Williams, a local champion who for over 15 years fought for rural communities

And Jenny Willott – a Welsh Liberal Democrat who fought at the heart of Government on behalf of small businesses and equality for women

Thankfully, we kept hold of Mark Williams. An anchor against a huge tide – Mark stood tall with his record of local delivery

But across the country we suffered

We all worked so hard – but it wasn’t enough

There’s been a lot of analysis of what went wrong

It’s often said that there was a fear factor, people were worried about the rise of the SNP – a potential alliance with Miliband.

I certainly heard that on the doorstep

But it would be wrong to blame all problems we faced on just that.

We can’t ignore the fact our party did badly in the polls almost from the beginning of coalition.

And I don’t think it’s right that I speak to you today without addressing what I think at least some of the problems were

Firstly, yes we were dealt a difficult hand, but we could have handled it better.

Intent on showing that coalition could work, we didn’t take enough ownership of our achievements until it was too late – it came across as ‘Team Coalition’, not ‘Team Lib Dem’. We were swallowed up.

And, of course, there’s tuition fees.

We lost a colossal amount of trust on this one issue

Not only did we break our pledge, but we never looked like we fought to keep it.

For the people already sceptical of the coalition, this was all the confirmation they needed

Details no longer mattered; from that moment, people simply stopped listening.

And maybe in the end, the biggest self-inflicted wound was that we appeared to the electorate to leap from a hard fought anchorage in one part of UK politics, to another, without so much as a by-your-leave

Over the years, we’d secured the support of growing numbers of people across the UK by projecting our progressive, reforming and radical politics

For many, it was clearly disorienting when we formed the coalition with the Tories

Don’t get me wrong: I am proud of what we achieved in Government and we must defend and promote our many achievements

Yet going forward, we must also acknowledge our failings

Now, people say adversity builds character. But it reveals it too

And it is how we as a party respond that matters

We in Wales have just months until the Assembly Elections

We don’t have time to mope, we don’t have time to lick our wounds – we must respond now

The Tories in Government are providing us with all the motivation we need

Unleashed, they are showing their true colours

Housing support for under 21s – gone;

Protection of child tax credits for larger families – gone;

Capping care costs for the elderly – gone;

Support for renewable energy – gone;

Tax-free childcare due to start only this month – gone;

Gone, gone… gone

Let alone their plans to water down the Freedom of Information Act,

– To scrap the Human Rights Act,

– And the contemptible way they talk of refugees ‘swarming’ our country as if these poor desperate people are sub-human

I’m ashamed such language comes from the Prime Minister of this country

This is a Government without Liberalism

Our values are needed now more than ever

Conference:The fight back ison.

In Wales, we have a Government – a Labour Government – that is overseeing the deterioration of our public services

Labour gloat they do things differently to the ‘wicked’ Tories in London – all while the poorest are let down by poor public services

You see, outcomes don’t matter to Labour, making faces at the Tories is all that counts

This negative, dated, tribal posturing continues to hold our great nation back

I am so proud of where I’m from

And the journey of devolution is still in its early years

But it doesn’t feel like that – it depresses me that, at times, we look like an old one party state

The Labour Government in Wales are bankrupt of ideas

Jeremy Corbyn looks to Wales as if it’s some kind of socialist utopia –

Socialism, maybe. But Jeremy, ‘Utopia’ it’s not.

Health, education, economy – all behind the rest of the UK

I say to people, if you want to see a Corbyn vision of a health service, look to Labour’s Wales where over 440,000 people are on a waiting list

For a Corbyn economy, look to Labour’s Wales where unemployment is rising

And for Corbyn’s vision on education, look to Labour’s Wales where we are bottom in the UK for reading, maths and science

That isn’t utopia, it’s failure.

Doing things differently to the Tories isn’t enough,

Wales needs fresh ideas, ambition, and dynamism

Not the same old Labour Ministers making the same old decisions

They’ve spent years listening to vested interests, but ignoring the people

Making the easy decisions, not the right decisions

Doing what is right for Party, rather than the pupils, parents, patients

The Welsh Liberal Democrats will provide a vision that that puts people first

Making government work for people.

Health

And we’ll start with our struggling health service

For too long patients’ views have been side-lined

I’m fed up of the onslaught of negative stories about the Welsh NHS in the media

I’ll be honest: it hurts my sense of national pride,

I hate seeing Wales portrayed in this way,

But the reality is that, under Labour, our NHS is indeed behind the rest

We have targets for urgent cancer patients that haven’t been met for 7 years

Over 46% of young mental health patients wait over four months just to begin their treatment

And our ambulance response times are so dire that Ministers find it easier to scrap their targets, than to actually improve the service

I want Wales to lead the way, not be the go-to place for bad news stories

That is why I’m promoting my More Nurses Bill,

A new law to ensure a safe number of nurses on every ward in Wales

The Tories in England have ducked this issue

They’ve stripped the independent watchdog NICE of its responsibility for staffing levels

We refuse to let Labour do likewise

This is too important for that

No more families fighting for loved ones to be treated with dignity,

Or overworked staff powerless to deliver decent care,

Or patients ignored as if they’re not there,

We’ll make Wales thefirstcountry in the UK to put a legal duty on safe staffing levels

Conference: We’ll deliver this good news story

Wales leading the way

That’s my ambition, and we can achieve it together.

Now, Wales’ struggling health service may grab the headlines, but that doesn’t mean Labour’s poor record ends there.

Labour’s First Minster admitted he ‘took his eye off the ball’ on education

That’s our children’s future he’s talking about

The poverty of ambition is astounding

It never used to be like this,

We were the nation that put education first:

Pioneers of state schools, high standards and one of the first universities open to all – championed by radical Welsh Liberals like Lloyd George and Tom Ellis

Those days are gone.

We have 45,000 children taught by education authorities in special measures

45,000.

Under Labour, the poorest children get a worse deal than anywhere else in the UK

And that holds us all back: A competitive country must let talent and hard work be the reason for success – not a person’s name, their background, or where they live

And I repeat: under Labour is where the poorest do worse

That’s why my colleagues and I in the Assembly: Peter Black, Eluned Parrott, William Powell and Aled Roberts all fought for the Welsh Pupil Premium

Secured in exchange for allowing the Welsh Government’s Budgets to pass

Worth over a thousand pounds per pupil on free school meals.

And I tell you conference: I will never grow tired of hearing of the homework clubs, the one-to-one tuition, the extra resources that children are getting because of us.

Every child deserves a fair start in life

That’s our liberal vision – a vision being put into practise.

An excellent teacher can transform the lives of children

And I tell you, the power of a good teacher stays with you forever

Not too long ago I made a speech at our Welsh Party Conference

When I got home that night and checked my emails, I had one from Mr Burree – a teacher who had inspired me when I was a pupil.

He wrote that he happened to catch the speech on TV, that he was proud and that he always knew I could do it

This simple email, only a few words, overwhelmed me

After all these years, his words still meant more to me than pretty much anyone else

Even now, he gave me the lift, the self-belief, and the inspiration I needed.

That is the power of a good teacher.

Too often teachers don’t feel empowered to deal with the challenges they face,

Welsh Liberal Democrats will provide more freedom for teachers,

We will deliver smaller class sizes so they can devote their time to every child,

And we’ll give greater flexibility to our schools, rather than politicians dictating from an office miles away

While Labour’s snoozing at the back of the class, we’ll showwe’re the party of ideas ready to put them to the test

It’s time to let teachers teach and let leaders lead

And Conference: it’s only the Welsh Liberal Democrats that will do it

Now, I think we can all agree the Labour leadership contest was extraordinary – (to put it lightly!)

He may have won, but not many Labour MPs actually endorsed Mr Corbyn

In contrast, Labour Assembly Members were quick off the blocks to pledge their support

They actually think his policies are the future, rather than the past

Labour is moving ever closer to an anti-business, anti-personal achievement and even anti-EU agenda:

The exact opposite of what we need

Wales is crying out for a government that combines fairness with a pro-enterprise agenda

Labour started their leadership contest talking about ‘aspiration’ – Immediately it became a dirty word

It shouldn’t be.

We will spend the next 7 months showing that we are a party that means business.

Wales was once a manufacturing powerhouse

We will be again with the right drive and motivation

I want to see manufacturing in Wales reborn, to see us exporting our goods to the world once again.

That is why, in government, we will scrap business rates on plant and machinery,

We’ll stop businesses being punished for investing in new equipment

The current system is a tax on ambition: we will end this madness by making clear that Wales is open for business.

Our plans don’t end there:

Welsh Ministers now have powers over business rates – but devolution mustn’t end at Cardiff Bay

We will give local government powers to be flexible with business rates to reflect local needs,

We will encourage them to invest in economic development by letting them keep half of any increases they generate through their own hard work.

And we will support small business – the lifeblood of the British economy, and nowhere more so than Wales:

We will help them grow by creating a Small Business Administration, in a new Welsh Development Bank,

This will bring independent advice and finance together, giving growing businesses the best chance of success.

It’s time we had a party that embraces business, that understands business, that supports people who have ambition and ideas

We are that party:

We know public and private investment aren’t the enemy of one another, instead they should work together

We know it’s not just Government that creates jobs, but business too

We know in the real world even our brightest need support to create and innovate

Wales needs the vision, the ideas and the aspiration to help get our economy moving

Conference: Under the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Wales will be competitive again

Now, I can’t talk about our economy without touching on the issue of gender balance

More than 40 years on from the Equal Pay Act, the labour market remains stacked against women.

Over a million women are ‘missing’ from the UK workforce – as financially, it doesn’t make sense for them to go back to work.

But conference, excluding these women doesn’t make economic sense either

Liberal Democrats in Government, particularly Jo, Jenny and Nick did immense work on this issue:

Providing more affordable child-care,

Liberalising parental leave,

Allowing flexible working arrangements,

This will boost participation of women

Yet, while our achievements will be to the benefit of many across the UK, we must also lead by example

Our party must improve.

It pains me to say that we still don’t have enough female representatives. This must change.

But I should point out that in Wales, we have female candidates in every single one of our most winnable constituency seats:

You know about me in Brecon and Radnorshire, but there’s also:

Eluned Parrott in Cardiff Central

Elizabeth Evans in Ceredigion

Jane Dodds in Montgomeryshire

And Veronica German leading the regional list in South East Wales

All seats we want to win.

Conference, Iet me be clear:

If you want to re-balance our party,

If you want a party that reflects the society we seek to represent,

If you’re sick to death about the lack of women in frontline politics – then please, we need your support,

Come to Wales, help us, and make a fundamental change to the way we do our politics

If Welsh Liberal Democrats win, then women win.

Now, while the General Election was difficult, I know our party has the grit and resilience to turn things around

Even at the most challenging points, we’ve never lost sight of who we are and what we stand for:

We believe in Freedom. Freedom of the individual, so everyone has the opportunity to be who they want to be and reach their full potential

We believe in Fairness – for diversity, against intolerance – the voice for the voiceless

And we believe in Community. Where we as individuals work together for the common good, where we empower communities to make decisions that work best for them

Most other parties can achieve some of those principles, but none combine them.

And what makes us unique is that we’re liberals

Feeling so strongly about something so positive gives us the power and confidence needed to take us forward:

The confidence to say immigration benefits our country

The confidence to say rehabilitation works better than prison

The confidence to say our voting systems, our institutions, our whole political system quite frankly stinks

The Human Rights Act, the green agenda, mental health – we fight for the underdog, we fight for what is right, leading on the issues that no-one else will

Conference: We’re fighting back, not just because it’s what our party needs,

We’re fighting back, because it’s what our country needs.

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15 Comments

  • This has definitely been the most inspiring speech so far!

  • This is a really great speech. Heck if Kirsty was leader of the Lib Dems , even I might consider re-joining the Party!

  • Dave Orbison 22nd Sep '15 - 4:29pm

    What a thoroughly depressing speech. Corbyn attacked 5 times, Labour attacked 22 times and the Tory Government twice, but even then only tangentially.
    The ending of the speech “The Human Rights Act, the green agenda, mental health – we [only LibDems] fight for the underdog, we fight for what is right, leading on the issues that no-one else will”. Seriously, do you honestly believe this is true? Can you say with hand on heart you believe a Corbyn-led Labour Party has no interest in green issues or Human Rights. Even more ludicrous having appointed a Mental Health Minister to the Shadow Cabinet and having taken the decisions underline the importance of mental health in his first PMQ, do LibDems honestly believe Corbyn does not care about mental health? Oh, I forgot to mention re the speech, that Corbyn it seems, does not care for the underdog too?
    This sort of speech may be great for the converts but it leaves me cold. I want to say to the LibDems who think this is great stuff – stop, please stop and just think what you are doing. You are giving the Tories and Cameron a free pass, yet it is they, the Government who by any meaningful analysis are the villains of the piece in relation to the issues identified at the end of this speech, rightly in my opinion, as key issues facing the people, not just of Wales, but the whole of the UK.
    I expect the LibDems to disagree with Labour over some policies. But where there is common ground can’t you just accept this and work together. It seems a supreme irony to me that the LibDems as a party has, for several years, talked about the benefits of coalition. Yet they seem incapable of adopting an open mind to any prospect of an informal coalition on issues of specific policy with a Corbyn-led Labour Party. The Greens have signalled a willingness to work with Labour and so have the SNP. Modern politics – so it is so desperately sad that the LibDems appear to be moving organically moving to a position based on opportunistic policies and to be much more comfortable attacking Labour (via the supposed Corbyn Achilles) than frankly, in my opinion, being grown-up.

  • The man that is happy to re-open coal mines is ‘green’?! http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/labour-leadership-hopeful-jeremy-corbyn-9815780

  • Peter Watson 22nd Sep '15 - 5:48pm

    @Dave Orbison “Even more ludicrous having appointed a Mental Health Minister to the Shadow Cabinet and having taken the decisions underline the importance of mental health in his first PMQ, do LibDems honestly believe Corbyn does not care about mental health? ”
    As far as I am aware (though I’m sure someone can link to a post I have missed) this is the first time that the new shadow “minister for mental health” has been mentioned on this site. The Lib Dem priority of mental health seemed to evaporate after the leadership contest, but even so, in spite of all of the Corbyn-bashing I would have expected to hear somebody welcoming his position on this issue.

  • Peter Watson 22nd Sep '15 - 5:55pm

    @Han “The man that is happy to re-open coal mines is ‘green’?!”
    Did you actually read the article to which you linked?
    Corbyn simply says, “… maybe there will be a case for what is actually very high quality coal, particularly in South Wales, being mined again. But if there’s to be substantial coal fire generation it’s got to be clean burn technology, it’s got to have carbon filters on it, it’s got to be carbon neutral. I’ve looked at it, I’ve discussed it, I’ve heard about it. It’s complicated. At one level it looks very expensive. But the advantages also look quite attractive.”
    He appears to be calling for evidence-based decision making rather than announcing that he is “happy to re-open coal mines”. Rather than blindly join the Corbyn bashathon it would be more constructive if you read and posted links to scientifically credible sites that explain whether or not such use and extraction of coal is feasible.

  • ‘The Greens have signalled a willingness to work with Labour’. This IMO is more a case for their own survival. The last GE should have been their big chance, but they blow it. They will return to 1…2% in the Polls & their vote in local elections By-elections is well down (I think by 50%…. please correct me). BTW most Green activists I know are left wingers who may (and may have already) returned to the Labour fold. The few Liberals in the Greens may also throw in the towel and join the Lib Dems……… this may be delayed because of the Nuke vote though.

  • John Tilley 22nd Sep '15 - 6:22pm

    Peter Watson 22nd Sep ’15 – 5:48pm
    “The Lib Dem priority of mental health seemed to evaporate after the leadership contest…”

    This is an interesting point. I have never seen an accurate report of exactly what was achieved during the coalition on mental health. There have been lots of ill-informed assertions and grandiose claims by people who are clearly unaware of the facts. I have even seen references to Norman Lamb’s FIVE years as a health minister!

    If there is an objective (or even a subjective) report detailing what was actually done first by Paul Burstow as junior health minister and then by his replacement Norman Lamb, please someone provide a link.

    I do remember a number of initiatives by Paul Burstow, some of which were followed up by Norman Lamb.

    The problem with over-selling your “successes” as a minister is that eventually the facts catch up with you. I have listened to Norman Lamb and others on his behalf make some grand-sounding claims, especially in relation to mental health.

    Yet I have also been made aware of what happened to the spending on mental health services whilst Norman Lamb was a minister. If there is evidence to the contrary I am surprised that Lamb’s supporters during the general election and also during the leadership election did not broadcast that evidence in neon lights.

  • Excellent speech, and showed a sound grasp of the situation in Wales, as well as naturally and genuinely liberal.
    If Kirsty can’t be leader nationally, could she run for deputy, when we get one?

  • @ dave orbison
    the situation in Wales IS depressing, sadly. The number of criticisms of Labour by Kirsty which you reference are probably because they govern Wales, and have done since 1997. There is nowhere for Labour to hide here any more, which is why they failed in May to pick up ‘easy’ target seats like the Vale and Cardiff North, and even lost seats to the Tories in the north-east and shockingly, Gower.

  • Dave Orbison 23rd Sep '15 - 7:05am

    @Johnmc. Disagree. I grew up in Wales between 1960’s-1990’s. To suggest that the problems in Wales, health, housing, social and economic are somehow the result of mismanagement by Labour through the Welsh Assembley with limited powers is just silly. Well it’s more than that it’s disingenuous. It simply apes what Cameron has done in PMQ ‘s. Labour is not the problem . I see a LibDem councillor has defected to Labour in Richmond. So what? Well how about more people have joined Labour since Corbyn has been elected than there are LibDems? The speech attacks Labour then identifies important areas of policy where Corbyn is 100% on board. Yet the LibDems continue to woe authoritarian Blair Brownites for opportunist reasons. It makes no sense.

  • Dave Orbison 23rd Sep '15 - 7:42am

    @ Greenfield your analysis may be right but nonetheless The Greens and SNP maturity in recognising, that despite policy differences in some areas, there is much to welcome in a Corbyn-led Labour Party is in sharp contrast to the opportunism of the LibDem leadership. In fact if your analysis of the Greens is correct one might expect the Greens to act less favourably towards Corbyn fearing he would, as you suggest, take votes away from them. All the more credit then to the Greens. Their behaviour in sharp contrast to the LibDems – rather see the potential that could be gained from a united opposition to the Tories in areas such as Human Rights, the environment, mental health and foreign policy – the LibDems are wooing the authoritarian wing of Labour – those who supported Iraq, curtailment of civil liberties, against an investigation into the Iraq war etc. This can only be seen as naked opportunism. One would have thought having had their fingers so badly burnt last time, lessons would have been learnt. There is I fear a very arrogant and self-congratulatory theme than runs through some contributors to LDV that they know best. That their tea leaves are more accurate than mine or others. They were confident that the Coalition was a great leap forward – one might expect with the nation’s verdict resulting in just 8 MP’s that there would be a little humility and pause for thought in their self-confidence. All I can say is well done the Greens and SNP – and how disappointing that the LibDems appear, once more, to be going down a cul-de-sac.

  • Charles Rothwell 23rd Sep '15 - 7:52am

    Great speech. The Party is lucky to have such a talented communicator I wish her every success in rebuilding the Party’s fortunes in what, for generations, was one of its “natural” homelands. If anyone can believe that the future of Wales should lie in the hands of the London-obsessed Tories, the backwards-orientated Labour Party or the SNP Mini-me of Plaid Cymru, it is entirely beyond me!

  • Thanks, Kirsty. For your inspiring thoughts, obviously, but also your reference to your past, specifically your influential teacher.

    As the first Lib Dem candidate for the Welsh Assembly for Llanelli, I also benefited from the advice and help of Nick Burree, and his brother, Jonathan. The Burree family were indeed a power in the (small) land of Llanelli Liberal Democrats, and while we have largely lost touch now, I still look back fondly at those times, what might have been. In reality in 1999, Plaid Cymru were challenging Labour for hegemony across the traditional industrial areas of South and West Wales, and although we fought a valiant, if short campaign, we managed for the first time for many years to beat the Tories, and have an effect on the winning Plaid vote (an electoral earthquake, not unrelated to the extremely negative effect created in the area by New Labour and its perceived “Old Tory” policies).

    At that point, Kirsty wa a talented young politician from Llanelli – not the only plitical leader from the town, I have to say! She has gone on to become one of the radical hopes of the Party in dark times, and an effective leader.

    Good luck to you, Kirsty, stick to your radicalism, and hopefully the flame will stay burning in Wales next May!

  • Stephen Hesketh 23rd Sep '15 - 11:25am

    Great speech Kirsty.

    Not one mention of either the ‘C’ or ‘M’ word – Fantastic 🙂

    We are not the status quo-accepting Moderate Centrist Party.

    We are the status quo-challenging Social Liberal Democrats.

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