Rodney Berman, Welsh Liberal Democrat councillor and candidate for Cardiff Central in the Senedd elections, spoke to Sam Feierabend about the differences he has made to the local area, his party’s plans for Wales, and why former Labour voters should consider giving their vote to him.
SF: I’m here today speaking to Rodney Berman, Liberal Democrat candidate for Cardiff Central in the upcoming Welsh Government elections. First of all Rodney, thank you for taking time out of what must be a hectic schedule to come and speak to us today. So how do you feel campaigning has gone so far and what kind of feedback are you getting from constituents?
RB: Well it’s going very well. We’re getting a very positive reception from everyone. It’s been a very strange campaign because until just a couple of weeks ago we weren’t actually able to knock doors due to COVID restrictions, so we’ve not been working how we normally would in a campaign like this. But people have been very receptive to our message. There is an appetite for change, there is an appetite for making sure that Cardiff Central has a very strong representative who’s going to stand up for the community, fight for them on local issues, and I’m getting a lot of recognition for the work that I have been putting in in recent years in that regard, so, yes, very happy with the way things are going at the moment.
SF: Historically in Senedd elections, Labour have been very successful in the past. You yourself are contesting a Labour seat. What plea would you give to voters who have voted Labour in the past to potentially reconsider their vote, and turn it to you?
RB: Cardiff Central has either elected Liberal Democrat Senedd members or Labour ones, so it’s fluctuated between the two. At the last election, it was very close between Labour and the Liberal Democrats and all the indications that we’re picking up is that it’s going to be the same again. So voters in Cardiff Central do have a clear choice as to what party they want to represent them. And what I would say to a lot of people is do they feel perhaps that they’ve been a little bit taken for granted by Labour, by the current representative – a lot of people feel that they don’t hear from her too much between elections; they’re hearing from her more now because she wants their vote, but they haven’t maybe seen her getting involved with campaigns such as the campaigns I’ve been involved with – fighting against unpopular development proposals, fighting to save banks and post offices, fighting for improvements in local parks, fighting for a recovery plan for our shopping streets and high streets. And I think that people are realising that if they want a very strong representative who will fight for them in the Senedd and put the COVID recovery first and foremost but also pick up on the local issues that matter in Cardiff Central, that you know, they have a good reason to make a considered change and vote for me.
SF: Your party has committed to trialling things like universal basic income in Wales. Where has this idea stemmed from? Is it a tangible solution to a problem that exists already, or is it more of a vote winner, with politicians in the U.S. getting some traction with it, like Andrew Yang, for example?
RB: Well, I think it’s always a fine thing to say do you put a policy forward because it’s a vote winner. Obviously, you put forward policies that you think people will be interested in and want to vote for. So yeah, I suppose all policies come into that regard. But this is about the fact that we have got a problem with regard to the number of people in poverty, and that has been getting more acute in recent years. I think the disparities between those who are reasonably well-off and those who have been struggling financially have been growing, and we’ve seen the burden of some of the problems of recent years falling disproportionately on some of the most disadvantaged in society. So what we’re saying is can we have a safety net that we’d make sure that everybody can at least be entitled to a minimum level of income. So that’s why we think it’s a good policy, but there’s been a lot of groups that have lobbied us as a party and as individual politicians to support this idea.
We think it is a good idea – whether or not we can bring it forward could well be dependent on the Westminster Government giving permission. So what we’ve said is we’d very much like to see Wales trialling this policy, but ultimately the tory gov in Westminster could block us from doing that.
You’ve got to look at other issues that affect poor communities and one of the things that I’m very passionate about is addressing the health inequalities that affect some of our poorer communities. It’s really wrong that if you’re born and brought up in one of the most deprived parts of Wales that you might live 10 or 11 years less than if you were brought up in a better-off area, and that’s something we need to address. This disparity has been around for a long time, but yet we’ve had 24 years of continuous Labour health ministers in Wales – you know, one after the other – and none of them have been able to address this, sort this out – so it’s time that we really had a focus on trying to address that. And that’s why I’m very supportive of the Welsh Liberal Democrat plans to set up a task force: we’re going to bring in outside expertise that’s going to look out how we can adopt a policy framework across the board to really start to change this in the next Senedd term. It’s not going to be done overnight, but at the moment we’re going in the wrong direction and we need to change that.
SF: You’ve also committed to expanding degree apprenticeships and shaking up the curriculum. What do you feel is wrong with the education system in Wales?
RB: We have actually changed it and what we’ve done is put in a much more modern curriculum. Kirsty Williams has been the Welsh Liberal Democrat Education Minister in the last Senedd term and she’s done an awful lot to transform education. The new national curriculum was recently agreed. It’s going to put teachers more in the driving seat and less having a rigorous dictated system from the centre – and I know that’s something that’s very much welcome by those in the teaching profession. We’ve got to move on from the system that has been enshrined since the 1980s – the days of the Thatcher government. We’ve got to have something that’s fit for purpose in the 21st century.
SF: Many students are feeling left behind in the current circumstances, or that the government in Westminster have ignored university students especially. Many are stuck online and not seeing their peers. What would your message of reassurance be for students in the coming years as we recover from COVID?
RB: It’s been a very difficult year for all of us but I know it’s been particularly difficult for certain groups. Students who’ve come to university at the beginning of the last academic year then found really rapidly we went into lockdown and they’ve been just having online learning, perhaps being away from home as well. We’ve got to think about what support can we give to local students and universities. The real hope is that now as we’re beginning to come out of lockdown is that it holds and we don’t have to go back into lockdown again.
The progress we’ve made with the vaccination programme has got to be maintained, we’ve got to make sure that we carry on with our vigilance in the way that we lift restrictions, and just make sure that we are following the science at all times. [There is] very encouraging news coming out almost on a daily basis about the progress of vaccination. As we’re doing this interview, we’ve been hearing today that vaccination is actually reducing your chances of passing on COVID – even after you’ve caught it after you’ve had the vaccine.
I think we can be hopeful that we can put a lot of the past year behind us and start to rebuild… one of the things the Welsh Liberal Democrats want us to focus on is mental health because we’ve all been affected to a greater or lesser degree by what we’ve gone through in the past year, and what were conscious of is there isn’t always support for people who have a mental health crisis when they need it and it could be that they’re waiting months to get the treatments. So we want to get more funding and more support in, making sure that people don’t have to wait so long for treatment. One of the things that were promising is to bring in a 24/7 mental health crisis service so that if you have one, you can get help fairly quickly, but also, you know, you shouldn’t be having to wait too long for the kind of therapies you need to get back on track. So we’ve got to put that very much front and centre of our plans to recover our health service.
SF: Given the fact that your party have been in coalition with Labour since 2016 and a lot of people have now the mindset that all politicians are the same – how would you distinguish yourself from the current crop?
RB: I think people do have a choice about how they want wales to come out of COVID and how they want it to recover. And a lot of the commentators are saying that Labour’s manifesto is rather timid, it doesn’t offer many bold promises and I think that there is an appetite for change, for maybe a slightly more radical viewpoint having had continuous Labour governments in Wales since Tony Blair came to power since 1997 and then subsequently through devolution. So what the Welsh Liberal Democrats offer is some fresh new ideas, we would offer a much stronger focus for instance on the environment.
So as we try to recover the economy, can we put more funding into making sure that we can create new jobs in green sectors… that could be in areas like more investment in insulating people’s homes. We have considerably old housing stock in Wales which could certainly be improved. We could do more with renewable energy schemes, the generation of electricity at home for instance… we’d like to put more effort into diversity and tackling the nature crisis. So it’s one of the things we want to put first and foremost, but the way we would do that is making sure that we focus on the spending going forward and measures that could tackle the climate crisis.
We want to spend a billion pounds a year on environmental measures and that would be a culmination of public money but also levering in private sector money and part of that would be done by refocusing existing spending, making sure that the spending that the Welsh Government does undertake is focused on green measures that can boost the environment. Just to give you one example, we’d make sure at least 10 percent of the transport budget was spent on promoting active travel infrastructure, like things that can help you cycle more – and we’d do that across the board. So there is an opportunity to make a greener, a fairer, a more caring Wales, and we have a raft of policies to do that.
I think that contrasts with Labour, who have been a bit timid – but also the Conservatives and some of the right-wing parties who want to focus some of their efforts in the next Senedd term on hauling back devolution. It also contrasts with Plaid Cymru who would want to focus on looking at independence. We don’t think this is the time for that sort of change and we’ve got to be concentrating all our efforts in the next five years on how we recover from COVID, how we regrow the economy, how we repair the education system, how we repair the health service and the backlog that has been building up whilst the NHS has been focussing correctly on COVID and its consequences. There’s a heck of a lot to do. [We’re] also not finished dealing with some of the consequences of having come out of the EU – I think a lot of the downsides have been masked a little by all the focus on COVID in our news coverage. What we can’t afford to do is spend more time on constitutional issues when we’ve got to be focusing on our recovery.
SF: As a former council leader in Cardiff for eight years, you know this constituency as well as anyone. What differences do you feel you’ve made to the local area in your time here?
RB: Well I’ve been a councillor within the Cardiff Central constituency for 16 years and I’ve lived here for 27 years – for almost half my life – so I do know it well. I do know what the issues are that matter. I would be a strong advocate across the board for all sorts of issues. I’ve been running campaigns in recent years on things like improving road junctions, where residents have contacted me because they’re worried about safety and inability to cross at certain points.
Just by way of an example from the campaigning me and my colleagues have been doing in the ward I currently represent in Pen-y-lan, we’ve actually secured £1m of Welsh Government funding that’s going to be spent on improvements to road junctions in the coming year. So that’s just a flavour of what I’ve been able to do in one ward, and I’d like to be able to do that similar thing across the constituency. Looking at things like getting a proper recovery plan for our local shopping streets, whether that’s Albany Road, Salisbury Road… making sure we can focus on extra help for businesses to recover and get away from the empty shopping units that have sadly grown over the time of COVID. Of course, we’ve got to remember that our city centre also needs a boost. There areas that have been neglected – things like cleaning up Roath Park lake – badly in need of being dredged, it’s been resulting in frequent outbreaks of gloopy algae in the summer which has meant that boating has to be suspended. So issues like that need to be dealt with, we’ve had problems with closures of post offices, local bank branches. And there are wider problems with crime, anti-social behaviour in certain parts.
SF: You have a very decorated political career. What are your future ambitions for your career in politics?
RB: I’m focused on trying to get into the Senedd at the moment and make sure that the Cardiff Central area has a good, strong representative. I very much value being a local representative, as I say I’ve been a councillor for a long time. Even if it’s just helping an individual with some problem that they’ve not been able to sort for themselves – that to me is always very rewarding, but very worthwhile – and it doesn’t matter if it’s a small problem or a big problem. I just want to make sure that people have someone they can turn to that will be responsive and can help them out. So my focus is to make sure that our area gets the representation it deserves in the Senedd.