Sunday, 1 March 2015

Thinking the unthinkable

Baroness Randerson, Eluned Parrott and Charles Kingsbury. Rene Kinzett empty-chaired.

I dropped in on the Liberal Reform fringe event at the Welsh Liberal Democrats conference in Cardiff yesterday, believing in my confusion that it would be about the balance between tax increases and welfare cuts. In the event, the subject was of more import to us in Wales: should we go into a coalition in Cardiff with a party other than Labour? 

Charlie Kingsbury, as Welsh Representative of Liberal Reform, chaired the discussion. He introduced government junior minister Baroness Randerson and, from the National Assembly, Eluned Parrott who holds several shadow portfolios for the LibDems. He apologised for the absence of a Conservative representative.

Jenny Randerson was well-placed to speak on the dynamics of coalition, having been a minister in the Labour/Liberal Democrat Partnership Welsh Government from 2000 to 2003 and being now a junior minister at the Welsh Office in the UK coalition. She said that she had been watching the other parties and concluded that they were more than ever "broad churches". There were more differences within the parties than there were between representatives of the different parties within the coalition. 

She saw the Labour Party as becoming more amorphous, uncertain of what it believed in, with no ambition or vision. Its tendency in Wales was to more centralisation, chipping away at the powers of local authorities, as opposed to the coalition in Westminster which was giving more power to councils*. It was swinging from one policy initiative to another. Kirsty in her speech had already drawn attention to what effect that had had on education in Wales. Jenny cited an example in health: Wales had gone from having some of the smallest local health authorities in Europe in 2000 to having some of the largest. 

Allied Labour's centralisation was control-freakery. Wales was not well-endowed with third-sector bodies, with the result that there were few independent organisations willing to speak truth to government. 

Eluned Parrott pointed to the philosophical barriers between Liberal Democrats and the other parties. We were very far from the Conservatives but we could be reconciled. Socialism was more difficult [but see remarks about amorphous Labour above]. The importance was to use an evidence base not emotion. The pupil premium, the fares deal and apprenticeships showed what could be achieved.

However, Eluned was also concerned that nation-sized "rotten boroughs" were being created.  There was no counter-balance to the state because the third sector was small and mostly dependent on government funding. Even representative commercial organisations were inhibited.

There was then a short but lively discussion.

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