Like most members of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, I've been thinking about this leadership contest for quite some time. It's safe to say that nothing in the two Federal leadership races I've experienced could have prepared me for how different this race feels.
Those two races were of course fairly abstract for me. In 2006 I was just Chair of Manchester Universities Liberal Democrats so I was thinking about it in terms of how it would energise my new members. A year later I at least had a candidate to be passionate about, but even so, as a target council candidate in Cardiff and someone on the edge of the blogosphere the consequences of my decision were not much more than statistical in the grand scheme of things.
A Welsh leadership contest is a different beast entirely, however. Now I'm one of 159 councillors and writing from a small but select blogosphere. What's more, I've worked with and for both candidates in the Assembly, so the experience I have to base my decision on is much deeper than it has been before. And let's be clear, the one thing that experience has at least assured me of is that both Jenny Randerson and Kirsty Williams would be outstanding leaders of our party.
But where are we asking that person to lead us from and, indeed, to? Right now, every party in Wales has its vulnerabilities. Labour have the mess of Her Majesty's Government hanging round their necks and a distinct lack of new energy driving them onwards (I mean, seriously, if Edwina Hart is a credible contender for the leadership of your party, you're absolutely nowhere...) Plaid are struggling to deliver anything from their seats at the big boys table for either their nationalist or communist wings, while also struggling to reconcile those wings into a coherent national package. And while Dave manages to keep the Tories on his side of the daffodil curtain away from their nastiness, on this side the waning influence of Nick Bourne (the man who was a Cameroony before Cameron himself) looks to be leaving the door open for a tougher brand of Conservatism that is both uncomfortable with the idea of Wales and ignorant of the damage it did the last time.
So the first requirement to my mind is a leader who will take the attack to the arrogance and complacency of the other parties. As a party we massively undervalue the ability of our members in the chamber, in the place they're actually employed to work; my belief in Nick Clegg's ability to do well in that arena was a big factor in my support for him and the benefits of that are starting to become apparent.
More importantly, however, I did say that every party in Wales has its vulnerabilities and it is the Liberal Democrats own vulnerabilities that must be addressed by any new leader. I would identify two particular areas of concern;
- While individual AM's are known for their own campaigns and called upon by the media to speak on them (Peter Black on fuel poverty, Jenny Randerson on health, Mike German on Severn Bridge tolls, and so forth) there is no great sense that we cover everything and can speak to everything. They may not do it as regularly as we would like, but the media certainly call on Nick Clegg on just about any matter, and I suspect the same was true of Nicol Stephen in Scotland. Through no real fault of his own, however, Mike German has not been called upon in that sense, certainly since Ieuan Wyn became the second centre of power in the Government. Those appearances are crucial to winning the air war and reaching out to areas with no tradition of voting Lib Dem.
- The Liberal Democrat Group is now pretty stagnant in terms of its membership, which hasn't changed in any way since March of 2001. I'm seeing an example of the results of that right now in Cardiff, where Labour have only two newly-elected councillors in a group of thirteen and only one councillor who might be described as young; the lack of energy driving that group forward is palpable. Things in our Assembly Group aren't by any means that bad (such places tending as they do to draw in the energetic) and the ongoing policy reviews will help on the ideas front, but the need for voltage is still there.
What we need from our new leader, then, is a positive, combative attitude and a blast of fresh energy in both policy and personality.
Which is why I'm supporting Kirsty Williams.
Kirsty has already shown that desire to take the other parties on, to break the pseudo-socialist consensus and return Wales to its liberal roots. She has the character to take us forward in the chamber and the ideas to take us forward in the hearts and minds of people across the length and breadth of this country. We need nothing short of a sea change from our leader, and Kirsty is the person to deliver it.