Selling the Welsh Liberals

Following Thursday’s election, Russell Deacon looks at the options for the future of the Liberal Democrats in Wales.

“Vote Conservative if you like the coalition government!”, “vote Labour if you don’t.” That was the general summary of Welsh Liberal Democrat fortunes in their key seats at the 2015 general election. As result the political clock has been set back to 1979 for the party with Ceredigion once again being their sole parliamentary seat. But the Liberals are an old party with long roots and have been here before. In October 1922 the last major Conservative- Liberal coalition, led by David Lloyd George ended. Preceding it was the Newport by-election in which the sitting coalition Liberal MP had died and this by-election was won by a Conservative, putting the Liberal candidate into third place behind Labour. At the time the Liberals couldn’t understand why the electorate should punish them for being the junior party of a coalition government, whilst at the same time rewarding the Conservatives, who were the largest party in the coalition. They had, however, missed the point. The electorate actually were voting for the party they felt best placed to stand up directly to the threat of a potential Labour Government. Nearly a century later, history is repeating itself in most of the Liberal Democrats Welsh and English domains.  In 1922 Liberalism as a political brand had failed and Socialism, Nationalism and Conservatism had become the products most voters wanted to have. It would seem this also is being repeated.

About a decade ago Liberalism seemed to be coming back onto the voters political ladder once more. In 2005 on visiting the Welsh Liberal Democrats spring conference the Welsh man and then party President Simon Hughes MP challenged the Welsh Liberal Democrats to double their parliamentary representation from four to eight at the next election. In the run up the 2010 general election, at the height of Cleggmania, this seemed highly probable as seats from Newport to Swansea looked like falling to the Liberal Democrats for the first time in almost a hundred years. Yet it was not to be, they failed to break through and although their share of the vote rose to almost a thirty year high they actually lost one seat in Montgomeryshire. Yet they lost no deposits and went into the coalition government happily enough that Liberalism was back in the market place for political products. Yet it seems that the voters weren’t interested in the contents of the Liberal package but merely attracted by the cover of the box. The box which offered an idealised better world of politics and an opportunity to reject the two main political parties previous failures in government. When they became part of this system their Liberal Democrats votes transferred almost straight away en masse to the next most visible anti Westminster establishment party, UKIP and in Scotland this product choice was filled by the SNP.

So how unpopular is Liberalism now in Wales? Well, last Thursday in over 80 per cent of Welsh seats they are by far the least popular political party, of any party which has elected parliamentary representatives in Wales. Whereas 2010 was one of the best elections in recent times, with them getting over one-in-five votes, now in most Welsh seats they get between one-in-twenty to one-in-fifty. For any political party that ever aspires to remain as a Wales wide entity this is lack of support is not sustainable for long. They will run out of money, candidates and also most importantly credibility if they continue to remain this unpopular. There must be a reversal of fortunes to at least to the 2011 Welsh Assembly result if they are not to go into the political backwaters for a generation in Wales.

Virtually ever political trick in the book has been tried by the Liberal Democrats to try to reverse their fortunes with non seeming to work. The final trick was to concentrate only on winning their existing and previously lost (Cardiff Central, Brecon and Radnor, Montgomeryshire and Ceredigion). This tactic is known as entrenchment. The other near misses of 2010 had long since been abandoned as no hopers along with the other 32 seats in Wales. Yet even in three of these four target seats, in a campaign unmatched for political professionalism, resource input and shear manpower the party could not sell itself to anywhere near enough voters. So what can Liberals now when they are left selling a product that almost no one wants to buy anymore and they need to massively boost their sales once more?

1.     A change of federal leader – this will happen anyway and the new leader is unlikely to be seen as part of the past. This is due to the fact that nearly all of the big coalition figures have now lost their seats and will not be eligible or credible to stand. A new leader may bring a new perspective on the party nationally that will once more appeal to voters.

2.     Rebuild the party’s morale as part of the campaign to stay in Europe during the in-out referendum of 2017. One thing that has always united Liberals in Wales is their commitment to internationalism and the Euro referendum might be the ideal way to bring them together on a cause they actually stand a very good chance of winning on and defeating their UKIP and Tory Eurosceptic rivals on.

3.     They can hope the Tory government implodes quickly, as the Major government did in 1992. However, in Wales as this mainly benefitted Labour then and won’t help them regain Cardiff Central.

4.     They could find a popular theme and stick with it, hoping no one else lays claim to it. They have done this in the past with their proposed 3 p tax rise to spend on education. But finding the golden policy in today’s crowded electoral market place may be too big an order.

5.     They could change their name or amend it slightly to distance themselves from their resent past. New Liberals, Progressive Democrats or just going back to plain Liberals. They may help but then even the change to Liberal Democrats left the party in political limbo for almost three years, so this may not improve matters.

6.     Become truly radical and take on the vested interests in Wales and elsewhere. Become once more the party of protest. There still remains great inequalities and injustices within our society that could be exposed and tackled, which could gain back this protest vote once more.

The party, however, needs to get thinking quickly if it is to have any chance of keeping its seats in the Welsh Assembly election of 2016. This is because the newer protest parties have now overtaken them in the popularity stakes in most Welsh seats. One major foe, UKIP, is also now much better funded and with greater fighting morale and still gaining substantially from the protest vote. Although they have been here before, the next decade is likely to be a long hard climb. As they do so there will also be bitter memory of the voters rejection of their part in the coalition government. This also serving as a sad reminder that protest voters may in reality never wish to see them actually deliver those policies they will be campaigning for.

Professor Russell Deacon is a visiting Professor at the University of South Wales, lecturer at Coleg Gwent and Administrative Director of the Welsh think tank Gorwel. He has also written extensively on the history and political develops of the Liberal Party in Wales and has also been an active campaigner with the party since 1992.

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