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60% v 40%

Betsan Powys | 19:46 UK time, Monday, 8 December 2008

The new leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the first woman to lead a political party in Wales is Kirsty Williams.

Let's wish her well because she has, to put it bluntly, one hell of a job.

The good news for the new leader is that she won comfortably. "It's the best possible result for the party" whispered one member of the executive committee rather loudly in Peter Black's ear. Because 60% v 40% - or 910 to 612 to put numbers on it - is the kind of result political parties like. There's a clear winner with a clear mandate. The "runner up" as the Lib Dems called Jenny Randerson today, gets a respectable vote but is well and truly in second place.

But hang on: to have a clear mandate, those who voted for you must have a clear idea of what it is you intend to change, in what direction you intend to take the party.

Kirsty Williams was absolutely clear in this campaign that she intends to change the party. She intends to change the relationship between the leader and grassroots members and put in place a structure that makes communication with ordinary members more direct. She wants to smash the "Cardiff Bay bubble". She could do that.

She was equally clear that she wants the party to have a clear message to communicate, one that voters will identify with the Lib Dems, one that will appeal to them, one they'll talk about and one that will deliver to the party seats in Swansea and Newport that they've talked about for too long and where they've failed, in the end, to make a big enough impression. That message will have to be found on the journey on which she has pledged to take the party - the journey "back to its radical, liberal roots". That, she will inevitably find much harder to achieve.

But then you ask the 910 people who voted for Kirsty Williams what they have given her a mandate to achieve and I'm pretty sure most would give you a far simpler answer: they just want her to make a mark, to stand out as a different leader, to get people interested in Lib Dem politics, interested in politics full stop, to score genuine hits against the government, to get their voice heard, to take hold of the party and lead it from the front.

The other three party leaders know that this 37 year old mother of three looks nothing like them, sounds nothing like them. She will stand out. As Rhodri Morgan put it a little earlier, when another party elects a leader who is younger than any one of your children, then you know it's about time - maybe - to move on. Note the stubborn maybe.

But they're not afraid of her. They're not at all afraid of what she can throw at them, not afraid of the impact she will have on her party, not afraid of the impact she will have come the next time we vote.

All three leaders will be wondering, though, what this means for future coalitions. This, after all, is the woman who voted against the rainbow coalition with Plaid and the Tories last year, the woman who fought this election carrying the "rainbow wrecker" label, the woman who all the same won 60% of the leadership vote.

At the Labour Party conference in Manchester this Autumn one public affairs man and Labour supporter had it all worked out. Kirsty Williams would win, unite the party, talk coalition with Labour and Plaid would be out on their noses in no time.

I didn't believe it then and I'm no more convinced now. Let me add that his prediction at Plaid's conference in Newport back in March was that only one of the candidates - Republican or Democrat - could simply not win the US Presidency.

And that was Barack Obama.


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