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.

9 thoughts on “Election special 2: Welsh Liberal Democrats press reset button

  1. I can only agree with Peter Black. In Rhyl there is a widespread and deeply routed feeling that Labour has let the town down and that it has gone from being a pleasant seaside town to a neglected and run down town centre and a beach ruined by inappropriate development. And yet on turnouts of around 28% Labour gained when on their record they should have lost. Liberal Democrats have campaigned long and hard at local level and it is a tragedy for Local Government that both Labour & the Conservatives see local elections as a chance to hit whoever is in power at Westminster. I have no doubt that as a result Rhyl has another 4 years of neglect and decay ahead of it.

    The situation is not helped by the Coalition continuing to shoot itself in the foot. The snooping law proposed in the Queens speech is another example of that. However necessary it is to know what the bad guys are up to snooping on the good guys is how this will be, and is, presented. I believe, as a Liberal Democrat and as a British citizen, that it is the first duty of government to protect my liberty and freedoms without being spied on by the faceless ones. Without a change of heart on this issue we can only look forward to more Labour gains next time round and more Lib Dem abstensions.

  2. I also agree in principal with David. However there is no read across here in Anglesey where we have been disenfranchised by postponed council election and our council continues to be run by non-elected individuals. I cannot say that there is any significant improvement in the services here and certainly local issues do not seem to be being addressed with any real impetus. It may be that democracy is better than a dictatorship, yet an open book here in Anglesey, but we are hamstrung in reality by the news media and the negative national party politics which detract from resolving local issues which is the traditional high ground for the Lib Dems.

  3. I also agree with Peter on his analysis. I think Swansea is going to regret this in the years to come. Labour is likely to take Swansea back to the 1970’s. I mean, you only have to travel to Neath to see what decades and decades of Labour domination achieves (or fails to achieve more to the point) and what we, in Swansea, have to look forward to with trepidation in the coming years. Travelling from Swansea to Neath is like travelling back in time – several decades! To be quite honest with you I am absolutely gutted and fearful of what lays ahead for my hometown that I love so much. What short memories people have.

  4. As one of the Newport Liberal Democrat Councillors who lost last Thursday, Peter neatly summarises the situation that happened. We did canvassing in our ward and got both a good response and recognition for our hard work throughout. More importantly, there was no great desire amongst the electorate for Labour councillors and a Labour Council even when we canvassed ‘hard’. Yet on Friday morning, we got both.

    Interestingly, we now have had two elections in Wales where the election has been about Westminster rather than what the election was actually about. You could always argue that has always been the case but local factors in the past have had a more important effect in determining the choice of representative.

    Until the Westminster situation is resolved this will of course hide Labour’s real failures in Wales. Having seen Newport Labour in close proximity, I despair at their lack of vision for the city and this is confirmed by a weak manifesto with flimsy ideas. Unfortunately that is the legacy that Newportians will have to live with for the next five years.

    The real challenge for Welsh politics remains as ever. The maturing of the Welsh Government and Assembly requires more local scrutiny and challenge by the Welsh media and the Welsh public. If this can be achieved, then the nature of elections will change.

  5. The Lib Dems still don’t get it.

    Regarding national issues, it wasn’t the pasty tax that did for them. As a public sector worker my job is under threat, my pension contribution has just gone up by £75 a month, I have got a pay freeze and I am facing the introduction of regional pay ie continued pay freeze for years to come.

    In Cardiff the education reorganisation has been a disaster. The attempted closure of Whitchurch High School led to the school opting out of local authority control. Another set of attempted closures at Llanrumney and Rumney high schools stalled after months of preparation. While the closure of Llanedyrn High School in favour of a faith based school, means pupils are now bused across the city.

    If the Lib Dems are going to survive the next four years, they are going to have to take a good hard look at reality and not kid themselves that everything will be ok in the end.

  6. You did not learn anything from the time you were in coalition with labour in Wales, Plaid have learned a lesson hard, now you have. 2010 I voted Liberal this time it was worthless three parties all looking at the Middle class you all forgot us at the bottom, you cannot blame the voters.

  7. This contribution by Mr Black reads more like party propaganda than honest analysis. All three local authorities mentioned lost their way badly and were far from being beacons of high level performance. A common trait was a reliance upon gimmicks as a substitute for actual progress. None showed the necessary electoral resilience you would equate with local authorities held in high regard by their electors. Unlike Richard, I think that Swansea will thrive under a new administration and work effectively towards city region status.

  8. I think you have missed the point in Ceredigion, Elizabeth Evans indeed had a resounding win, as was to be expected against a candidate from outside the ward who didn’t do much canvassing. You know as well as I do that political parties put up candidates who don’t have much chance but do keep sitting members busy and away from other more competitive wards. The real Lib Dem story in Ceredigion is twofold, firstly two Lib Dem Cabinet members lost their seats for no particular reason other than they were past their sell by date. You make no mention of this cruicial point, there is a value in experience but there comes a point….. Secondly, the proportion of Lib Dem vote in Ceredigion is way ahead of the number of councillors elected, and as advocates of PR both you and I should be concerned.

  9. But Lib Dems your fate was in your own hands! The Welsh party had only to say publicly that the policies of the coalition government were misguided in principle and incompetent in execution and that the Welsh party demurred and had no truck with them. You did not do it. In fact your leaders routinely try and defend the coalition, usually by irrelevant references to the alleged failures of the last Labour administration at Westminster. Party loyalty triumphed over the convictions of the majority of Lib Dems in Wales and you paid the price. Please spare us the breast-beating.

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