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

6 thoughts on “The Electoral State of the Parties 3: the Liberal Democrats

  1. Kirsty Williams is a tragic figure. Any dispassionate observer would class her as by far the best of the four party leaders in the Assembly, showing energy and being trenchant and witty in debate. But she has made two errors of judgement that have crashed her party and her own career. First she scuppers the rainbow coalition by stopping the Liberals from joining it, second she could have simply declared UDI from the London coalition, saying the Welsh party did not support it. Instead she remained loyal to the centre despite many humiliations. In the next Assembly she could be a leader without a party.

  2. Tredwyn’s polemics against the Lib Dems continue, I see. It’s an interesting argument that Kirsty Williams’ mistakes were apparently to not support a coalition with the Tories, and to support a coalition with the Tories.

    I don’t buy the predictions of a Lib Dem annihilation at the next Assembly elections. By then, we will have (probably) had a change of government at Westminster, and the Lib Dem campaign machine on the ground might have regained its mojo. The original post made reference to how close the Lib Dems were to losing two list seats – but of course, they weren’t far from retaining Cardiff Central, and they still have a reasonable campaigning base in Montgomeryshire.

    It’s also worth stating that the party in the Assembly punch well above their weight in debates – not just because of Kirsty Williams, but also very competant performers like Eluned Parrott and Aled Roberts.

  3. Interesting article, agree with most of it.
    Assuming they will hold on to Ceredigion, I don’t think the outlook for the two Powys seat is as bleak as many seem to think.
    They have the benefit of incumbency in B&R, and both Williams’ are popular locally. They also have the benefit of facing the other half of the coalition, and a weak Tory candidate.
    Naturally Montgomeryshire will be more tricky. However, the extent to which the Conservatives have allied themselves with the area’s anti-wind minority, and appear to be actively trying to drive out all the inward investment and jobs renewable energy can bring, will naturally leave the door open to the Lib Dems if they adopt a more moderate pro-jobs approach.
    Cardiff Central is clearly the toughest of the lot given the student population. Nevertheless, the numbers in 2011 were not as dismal as many suspected. Another benefit it that they are apparently facing a Unite selected Labour candidate, and all the baggage that bring with it.

  4. One coalition would have been Plaid led. The other is Tory dominated. Big difference. On most issues except Europe, Clegg is a closet Tory anyway.

  5. The one thing Roger didn’t mention is that the electorate do not seem to understand what the Lib-Dems stand for. Basically they don’t understand what a political “Liberal” is.

    The Labour Party stole their clothes at the begining of the 20th Century, because of infighting between Lloyd George and the rest of the Liberal Party, and they’ve been unable to establish an identity since.

  6. Whatever other differences R. Tredwyn and I may have, I agree with him that the Welsh Liberals missed a trick in not leaving the UK Liberal umbrella in 2011.

    There would be nothing inconsistent for a federalist party like the Liberals to have genuinely independent parties in Wales and Scotland with different policy positions to the English party. They could have sat outside the government whip at Westminster on a confidence and supply basis and played the ‘critical friend’ role to their hearts content. On matters of central Welsh party ‘principle’ it would be perfectly acceptable for them to vote against the Government (to exercise their sovereignty in the federalist speak) whilst supporting it where principle was shared. Given the arithmetic, this Parliament more than any other would have been the perfect opportunity to do this.

    I agree that the Assembly Liberal Democrats are generally very impressive (much more so than swathes of the Labour back bench) and I would not exclude William Powell from that assessment. However, they have been hamstrung in Wales by a socio-economic English party position that they do not, and never could, support, and what’s more, an English party which doesn’t even need their support (either in terms of ideological consistency or practice).

    If you believe the Silk polling, the Welsh Liberals represent the majority view in Wales on the constitution and with the right elbow room could make hay on social and economic policy. You do feel rather that they could wipe Labour off the map in some geographies and in some demographics and certainly pin back the Conservatives to a genuine rump as in Scotland. Whilst they are tied to a policy position dictated by the needs of Daily Mail England, they will always under-perform in Wales.

    The irony for the Welsh Liberals is that for them, more than any other UK party, it simply doesn’t have to be that way. Walking the federalist walk has absolutely no relation to abandoning unionism or government in the national interest.

    With two years to go to a Westminster GE and three to an Assembly GE, it’s not too late Kirsty… (or as the Presiding Officer calls her “Kersty”…). But then again maybe she’s not that interested in Welsh politics anymore and fancies a tilt at the top table?

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