Election special 2: Welsh Liberal Democrats press reset button

Peter Black finds that a deliberate abstention by voters to make a point cost his party the election across many parts of Wales


There is no getting away from the fact that last week’s local council elections were bad for the Welsh Liberal Democrats. Not only did we fall back from our high tide marks of 2004 and 2008, when we had benefitted from national swings against Labour, but we lost a lot more ground on top of that. Councils like Swansea, Cardiff and Wrexham, which we led for eight years and where it has been acknowledged that we had done a good job, were lost. In addition two Welsh Liberal Democrat Council leaders were unseated.

Welsh local elections 2012

In this series representatives from all four parties give their verdict on last week’s poll. On Monday Plaid’s Jonathan Edwards says his party’s challenge is to convince the people of Wales that Welsh democracy is better rather than changing the ruling clan at Westminster.

At the same time Welsh Liberal Democrats achieved one or two remarkable results. In Aberaeron for example, Elizabeth Evans polled 91 per cent of the vote against her Plaid Cymru rival. Nevertheless, it was a difficult and disappointing night for many candidates and councillors who had worked hard in their communities, often to very good effect. The final total for the Welsh Liberal Democrats was 74 Councillors, a net reduction of 92.

In Cardiff Welsh Liberal Democrats produced one of the lowest Council Tax rises across Wales over the four-year term. An average band D property pays just £936.53 in the capital city of Wales. That is in stark contrast to the rises that Labour-led Rhondda Cynon Taf have seen, with council tax increasing from a massive £998.12 in 2008 to an incredible £1148.82 this year.

Welsh Liberal Democrat-controlled Cardiff council was praised by the independent Wales Audit Office as showing “clear and firm leadership within the council and finances are managed effectively”. Cardiff has become a capital city to be proud of. Major developments include the new international sports village, with an Olympic sized swimming pool, ice rink and white water rafting centre, the city centre redevelopment and St David’s 2 which has the largest John Lewis outside of London. Tourists now flock to the City to shop.

Despite that, we lost 18 seats, including the Council leader and dropped to being the second largest party. Labour gained 33 seats to secure overall control.

In Swansea, Liberal Democrats froze the council tax this year, having previously kept rises at less than half the rate of the previous Labour administration. They reopened the Leisure Centre that had been closed due to Labour neglect, funded free bus travel for under 16-year-olds in the holidays, opened a new bus station, opened a new central library and contact centre as well as refurbishing and building new schools.

And yet they lost ten seats as Labour gained 22 to take control.

In Wrexham, the Wales Audit Office said that the Welsh Liberal Democrat-led Council “has strong and well developed financial management and a history of not overspending on its annual budget.”

Careful financial planning resulted in lower council tax bills, plus improved quality of life for those living in Wrexham. Regeneration of Wrexham town centre, reduced waiting lists and higher quality services were all benefits of the readjustments of the way money was spent.

Unfortunately, that record of success was not reflected in the way people voted. The Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader of the Council lost his seat and the party’s representation fell from 11 seats to four. For once Labour failed to take overall control, though they are the largest party.

What is surprising is how few activists saw this coming. The opinion polls were very clear, but the message on the doorstep was consistently that people liked our record locally and supported what we were doing. Yes, many were disillusioned with our role in government but it seemed that the message that this election was about local issues was getting through.

This was evident in my own ward. However, over 600 people who normally vote for the Welsh Liberal Democrats failed to come out to cast their vote. That was a pattern that repeated itself across Wales. This was not a turnout issue or apathy, it was a deliberate abstention to make a point and it cost the party dear.

The issue that exercised most people was the budget. Despite the fact that the rise in the income tax personal allowance contained in it will put £130 back in the pockets of over a million low and middle income workers in Wales, and will take a further 51,000 of the lowest paid people in Wales out of paying income tax altogether. But that message did not get through.

Instead, people focussed on the pasty tax and on the cut in the higher rate of tax to 45 per cent. The weeks of poor publicity around the measures announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer took their toll and people voted accordingly or, in many cases decided not to vote at all in protest.

Welsh Liberal Democrats have benefited in the past from protest votes. On 3 May we found out what it was like to be on the receiving end. We cannot ignore the views that have been expressed.

The UK Coalition and the Liberal Democrats Ministers in it need to listen. We need to reduce the deficit but we also have to recognise that there is a human cost to that and respond accordingly. Above all we need to revisit measures that might stimulate growth in the economy and get people back to work.

We can recover and rebuild our support and our local council base. But now we are a party of government we have to understand that local work and successes may no longer be enough. Listening and responding to concerns at a national as well as a local level is essential as we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and get back to campaigning. We have been at lower points than this and bounced back. We will do so again.

Peter Black is Welsh Liberal Democrat AM for South Wales West and the party’s local government spokesperson.