Wales politics

Welsh Lib Dems: Party at 'turning point' says Williams

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Media captionBBC Wales political editor Betsan Powys interviewed Kirsty Williams at the conference

Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams has told party members it has reached a "crucial turning point" in its history.

On the second day of its Welsh spring conference, she said the Eastleigh by-election showed the party could win in tough circumstances.

But she also admitted the party had been battered by relentless criticism from opponents.

However, she insisted the Welsh party had "rediscovered" its courage.

The Liberal Democrats retained their seat in Eastleigh in February in a by-election called following the party's former cabinet minister Chris Huhne's resignation as an MP, after admitting he had perverted the course of justice over driving licence points.

At the conference in Cardiff, Ms Williams claimed the fact the Lib Dems retained third place in the Cardiff South and Penarth by-election last November, albeit with a much reduced share of the vote, was a "sign post that things were changing" for the party.

"Eastleigh was a turning point," she said.

"Yes, the criticisms of our opponents have been relentless, strong and unyielding. It knocked our confidence. It knocked my confidence.

"But the reason we won Eastleigh, and the reason we held our own in Cardiff South and Penarth is because members rediscovered their courage to get back out there and knock on doors and talk to people."

Describing the days before the Liberal Democrats formed the first post-war UK coalition government, with the Conservatives, as "the utopia of opposition", she said that before May 2010 her party was "powerless, without influences, on the sidelines".

Defending the record of Lib Democrat ministers since, Ms Williams said they had blocked Conservative plans to cut inheritance tax and "ensured the richest in society paid five times more of their wealth in tax".

Highlighting plans to electrify the Great Western rail line and valley line services in south Wales, the raising of the income tax threshold and state pension level, she repeated the party's slogan that "only the Liberal Democrats could ensure "a stronger economy and a fairer society".

"We are now longer the third party scooping up the anti-politics and protest vote."

Echoing a recent warning by former prime minister Tony Blair to his party, Ms Williams described Labour as now the "repository for anger and not the politics of ideas" in both Westminster and Cardiff Bay.

"Carwyn Jones is the embodiment of that, cashing in on anger rather than using his power to make a difference in Wales," she claimed.

"Every week at first minister's questions the absence of ambition is astounding, the lack of ideas alarming."

The Welsh Liberal Democrat leader contrasted a Labour Welsh government "bankrupt of ideas" with what she called her party's "sensible and practical" policies.

She said Labour ministers had agreed to introduce schemes to help home buyers and poorer school pupils to secure Lib Dem support to get the Welsh government's budget through the assembly.

But Ms Williams said the New Buy scheme had been "abandoned" whilst the "pupil premium" had not been given the funding increases that apply across the border in England.

"Right policy, wrong government," she argued.

On Saturday, Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg insisted the UK government would not "lurch to the right" in the wake of Lady Thatcher's death and called for a "proper debate" on devolving more powers to the Welsh assembly.

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