The Electoral State of the Parties 3: the Liberal Democrats

Roger Scully intrudes on the private grief of a party threatened by electoral meltdown

Oh dear. What can be said of the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ current electoral fortunes that is not utterly devastating? How can one avoid the feeling of intruding on private grief? What can be said about a political party comprised mostly of moderate, sensible and decent human beings that currently finds themselves the object of serious hostility from significant numbers of people? I haven’t much enjoyed writing this post. I doubt many Liberal Democrats would much enjoy reading it.

State of the Welsh Parties


This is the third in a series of posts we’re publishing this week considering the current electoral standing of the political parties in the National Assembly.


  • Tomorrow: Plaid Cymru’s main problem is a resurgent ‘Welshed-up’ competitor.

Of course, look back far enough into history and you can find the glory years, the period when the Liberals were one of the two great British parties and Wales was the Liberal heartland. From 1885 until the very last pre-World War I election in December 1910, the Liberals won an absolute majority of both votes and parliamentary seats in Wales at every general election. But one cannot revisit this history without also being aware of what followed: division and a long, sad decline that reached its low point in the 1950s, when the Liberals appeared to be heading nowhere but oblivion.

That the party endured was in significant part due to a Welshman. Clement Davies, MP for Montgomeryshire, is a most unlikely political hero. A reluctant Liberal leader from 1945-56 he apparently regarded himself as a political failure, and not without good reason. Yet it was the determination of Davies and others in the 1950s to maintain the Liberals’ independent existence even when the outlook seemed utterly bleak that meant there was still a party of sorts left for Jo Grimond to begin reviving from the late-1950s on.

Since then the road has often been bumpy and difficult – most notably during the merger fiasco of 1987-88, when the current Liberal Democrats were created. Nevertheless, the broad trend, from the late 1950s to 2010, has been upwards. As the once iron grip of the Conservative-Labour duopoly on British party politics has lessened, the Lib-Dems have been prominent among those taking advantage. They have developed a serious presence in local government, in the devolved and European chambers, and even in Westminster. In both Scotland and Wales, Liberal Democrats held power as government ministers for several years. And for a few heady days in the 2010 election campaign an even greater leap forwards seemed possible.

How strange and distant those days of ‘Clegg-mania’ seem now. With a fair chunk of the Lib-Dems’ 2010 electoral support coming from alienated former Labour supporters, entering a coalition in London with the Conservatives was always going to leave the party facing an electoral backlash. And this backlash has hit the party hardest in those parts of Britain most hostile to the Tories: Scotland, the north of England, and Wales.

After a strong performance in the 2010 UK general election – marred only by the self-induced loss of Montgomeryshire – it very swiftly became clear that the electoral climate had changed for the Liberal Democrats. The party’s poll ratings in Wales began to fall significantly. Already discomforted by finding themselves in coalition with a party that did not feel like a natural partner to most Liberal Democrats, many party members began to find themselves experiencing a hitherto largely unfamiliar antagonism when campaigning. Examining public attitudes to the parties from surveys conducted after the 2010 and 2011 elections, one is immediately struck by the huge decline in positive sentiments towards the Lib-Dems over these twelve months, and the equally large growth in hostility.

The one reasonably bright light in 2011 concerned public attitudes to the party’s Welsh leader. Batting on the most difficult of wickets, Kirsty Williams managed to come over quite well. One wonders how much better she might have managed in more favourable circumstances. As it was, by the skin of their teeth (winning one regional list seat by 54 votes and another by 198) the Liberal Democrats escaped the 2011 National Assembly election with a net loss of only one seat.

Luck and leadership, then, have kept the Welsh Liberal Democrats in the game for now. Despite continuing difficult circumstances – and in stark contrast to the risible figure of Willie Rennie in Scotland – Kirsty Williams remains an effective public face and voice for the party. At First Minister’s questions, her icy-cool interrogations are notably more effective in discomforting Carwyn Jones than the blustering of the official Leader of the Opposition.

Yet as long as they remain tethered to the Conservatives in London, the prospects for the Welsh Liberal Democrats look bleak. I suppose one saving grace for many Liberal Democrats is that, in some senses, they have been here before. They know what chronically low polling numbers are like because they have experienced them previously. To those few still able to remember the 1950s Liberal dog days, or the rather greater number who can recall the national laughing stock they became during the 1980s merger, perhaps their current predicament does not appear quite so bad.

Resilience will surely be needed in the next months and years. The 2014 European elections are unlikely to bring the Welsh Lib-Dems anything beyond further humiliation, possibly on a similar scale to that of the recent Ynys Môn by-election, while the general election will be a battle simply to hold onto their current three seats. A recent YouGov poll projected the party to lose both Cardiff Central (to Labour) and Brecon and Radnor (to the Tories), holding only Ceredigion. After 2015, if freed from entanglements with the Tories in London, the way may finally be clear for the party to begin to de-toxify itself with the Welsh electorate. They can only hope to find some voters willing to begin listening to them once more.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University. His regular commentary on Welsh politics can be accessed at Elections in Wales

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