Mark Williams: “I am not in the mood to countenance defeat”

MARK WILLIAMS, Ceredigion’s serving Member of Parliament, is gearing up for election season. He portrays himself as something of an independent, a crucial move given the unpopularity – even by his own admission – of the Liberal Democrats in recent opinion polls. A primary school teacher by trade, Mark has been involved with the Welsh Liberal Democrats since his time as a university student in Aberystwyth thirty years ago. It was, he says “a complete surprise” when he won the constituency in 2005, after twice being unsuccessful. He describes himself as hardworking and diligent, and, when asked why the people of Ceredigion should re-elect him, says: “You need somebody who is approachable and accessible, somebody who you can trust. People call this the new politics, but it’s nothing new to be approachable and accessible. I make representations on behalf of thousands of people, helping people navigate through the bureaucracy of government, whether it be benefit problems, pension problems, immigration problems or, dare I say it, student loan problems.”

Mark WilliamsHe is clearly proud of the Liberal Democrats’ achievements in government, emphasising taking people out of tax, pension reform, and the advancement of home rule for Wales. He is proud, too, of his reputation in Westminster as something of a rebel. “I got a letter last week from the party whips saying “why did you vote against the government on fracking?” Well, I voted against the government because I don’t believe in what they’re doing with fracking. My colleague Roger Williams and I went into the opposition lobby with one other liberal MP with the Labour Party to try to defeat the government, and I’m rather proud of that. I shall one day get some frames on the wall – I’ve got quite a lot of those letters that say I stood up for my constituents. People call that new politics – it isn’t new politics, it’s about principle, it’s about conviction, and there’s nothing new about that at all.”

Mark sees himself as a traditional Liberal, and describes the Liberal Democrats as a party that “respects individuals, sees a role for the state as the enabler in peoples’ lives, and sees education as the key to prosperity”. He is clearly uneasy in the coalition, however: “I haven’t been in my comfort zone, I’ve always seen myself on the progressive centre-left of British politics; therefore to find yourself sitting on a bench in front of the Tories is not helpful. It’s during debates about Europe when you sit there and hear the Tory Party making the case for a referendum, which I think would be a disaster particularly for this part of the world because we are beneficiaries of Europe, and indeed the UK as a whole – that I’m reminded that the Tory Party hasn’t changed.”

Mark voted against both the bedroom tax and raising tuition fees “as a point of principle”. “When I see something that’s going to adversely affect my constituents I will vote against it. The whips might come down on me like a ton of bricks, but at the end of the day you need somebody who will stand up against all those other pressures to vote on your behalf, and I like to think I’ve done that. I’m not there to do what my party says, I’m certainly not there to do what the coalition says; I am there to be responsive to Ceredigion.” He is keen, then, to fight on his own record, and to emphasise his independent-mindedness and clearly local issues are at the heart of his agenda.

It is public service cuts which Mark considers to be the greatest threat facing Ceredigion, particularly with regards to the future of Bronglais Hospital and the Hywel Dda health board. He emphasises the pressures of resources leaving Ceredigion for Pembrokeshire and Carmarthen, and in particular the “overnight” closure of Afallon Ward, Bronglais Hospital’s mental health ward, which was closed for alleged refurbishment and then never reopened. He clearly feels particularly strongly on this issue, and is particularly scathing of the problems within Hywel Dda when talking about the two vans catering for people who have psychotic episodes which now serve the entire area, with a police officer and a health professional in each. Police officers, he says, have made plain to him their unease with having to shut people with mental illnesses in cells in police stations, “and so they should be”. He lays the blame for the funding shortfalls that have led to this situation squarely at the feet of the National Assembly: “Yes, there is a 1% cut in funding to Cardiff, but when Cardiff divvy up the funding Ceredigion has a 4% cut. I would say that’s an indication that Labour in Cardiff, yet again, are keeping the money for the M4 corridor, for Cardiff and Swansea and the Valleys, and denying rural Wales the resources it desperately needs.”

Mark’s main challenge comes, of course, from Plaid Cymru, from whom he won his seat by the narrowest of margins – just 219 votes – in 2005. He extended his majority to 8324 votes at the last General Election, and is keen to highlight the differences between his own views and those of Plaid Cymru, underlining his desire for “home rule for Wales within a federal Britain”, as opposed to Plaid Cymru’s aim of an independent Wales. Mark wants, he stresses to look at ways of bringing new powers to Wales even before the General Election; “the ultimate destiny for Wales, for me, is home rule – Wales is strong as part of Britain”. He is keen to emphasise his own record as MP, given that he is now fighting the constituency for the fifth time. “I think I know this constituency inside out, I know what makes it tick. I’ve been knocking on doors talking to people, not just in the last few weeks, but every week of my working life for the last ten years.”

He is sceptical of Plaid Cymru’s ambitions to form an anti-austerity pact within government alongside the Scottish National Party and the Green Party; “a rainbow coalition; what’s the old phrase – rainbows only last whilst the sun shines. If there’s a pact between these three parties in the House of Commons it would be dominated by the Scottish Nationalists, and I’m not convinced that Wales will get quite the look-in in that agreement as Plaid are saying.”

Despite, then, Mark’s focus on his personal record and his obvious pride that he is seen as something of a rebel in Westminster, he is keen to stress the weight of numbers the Liberal Democrats hold, in comparison to Plaid Cymru. “If you want to influence the debate you need to have a strong group of people, and we can deliver that.”

He is anxious, also, to get young people involved and engaged in politics, particularly in the aftermath of the Liberal Democrats reneging on their pledge to vote against tuition fees. Mark voted against tuition fees, something he is avowedly proud of: “I benefitted from a free education. I wouldn’t have been able to go to university if the state hadn’t supported me, and I don’t believe in institutionalising debt in society”. He stands by his pledge against tuition fees, as one of only fourteen Liberal Democrats to rebel against the government. “Coming from things from a point of principle earns respect I think. If you connect with people and explain the politics of conviction and principle I think you will get their respect back.” It is clear too that he feels that the Liberal Democrats have received something of a raw deal from the media as coalition partners. They deserve more credit, Mark argues, for their role in enacting social changes such as gay marriage which “even Tony Blair didn’t countenance pursuing”. He wants to move away from the media portrayal of politics and politicians, and to see interaction between the people and politics on a deeper level than “turning on the TV to Prime Minister’s Questions”.

Despite this, he is anxious to point out that politics and politicians really can make a difference. He talks about the Serious Crime Bill, in which he was involved in defining in law the psychological and emotional abuse of children, to be subject to prosecution. “I did that” he says, “I influenced the process. It’s not just about joining Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth or campaigning groups, you can make a difference in politics and I just think we need to publicise that and show young people that.”

And if he doesn’t win? “I’m going to write a good book! I’ve got lots of stories to tell; I’ve had a wonderful ten years doing this job. But I do intend to win. I was here the night we lost the constituency in 1992, and it took me thirteen years to win it back. I’m not in the mood to countenance defeat.”