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.

16 thoughts on “Selling the Welsh Liberals

  1. So, Lib Dem politics as a supermarket. New packaging, new product lines, new logo. and brisk change of management. No longer the disgraced Cable & Clegg’s but Kirsty’s local Corner Mart.

    A shame so many people have only memories of food poisoning.

  2. In US politics, the term ‘Liberal’ has a completely different meaning than in the UK. The right leaning political groups (like the Tea Party) use ‘liberalism’ as the ultimate form of abuse. It is really quite dangerous to be labelled a ‘liberal’ in the US and the label is avoided by even the most ‘liberal’ (in a UK sense) of politicians and certainly by the Democrats. To be a ‘liberal’ in the US implies you are some sort of drug taking, sandal wearing, socialist (Arghhh!), sponging off welfare, unamerican hippy!
    Therefore, it might be a good idea to consider a name change if you don’t want the american view to seep into the UK voter’s consciousness by default. What’s wrong with just ‘Democrats’?

  3. An honest analysis but not sure about the possible solution points. I think 2 and 6 are important points, though I would add a 7 – Get into Welsh Government with Labour in 2016 at any cost in order to help detoxify the former Conservative link.

  4. Undoubtedly the end of Liberalism, as Wales moves rapidly towards English right-wing conformity.

  5. Historically, whenever the Liberals were in coalition with the Conservatives, they tended to split soon afterwards between ‘National Liberals’ who wanted to carry on with the Conservatives, like Winston Churchill and Gwilym Lloyd George, and rump Liberals who preferred to stay as a protest group on the left, like Asquith. As soon as the Coalition was formed in 2010, it was not difficult to foresee a similar split coming between Clegg Liberals and Cable Liberals. In the event, the party has not split but its base has. The Liberals were always an uneasy mix of leftist activists and centrist, even slightly right-of-centre voters in some regions.

    Ceredigion may have survived because it is a bastion of the old-style Welsh Liberal tradition, which is Gladstonian and therefore attractive to many who might vote Conservative in other seats, in contrast to the more modernist ‘Liberal SDP Alliance’ tradition in urban seats like Cardiff Central. The figures suggest that people who would have voted Conservative elsewhere might have voted Liberal tactically in Ceredigion to keep out particularly unacceptable Plaid and Labour candidates.

    A return to these old Liberal roots might be the best strategy for the party. Unless they are suicidal, Labour must return to the centre for the next General Election and will fight the Conservatives there, leaving no room for a tainted third party. Neither is there room for a protest party of the left, where the Greens have taken over the Liberals’ previous role. There might however be a role for a genuinely Liberal or libertarian party that builds on the Liberals’ honourable tradition of defending civil liberties.

    One hopes so.

  6. In UK politics the Liberals have nowhere distinctive to go economically or socially. Their one distinction could come from the increasing illiberality of the two bigger parties when it comes to personal freedom and privacy. Tories and Labour have surrendered to the surveillance state and the security apparatus from a misplaced cowardice about terrorism – though it is much less serious than the IRA threat forty years ago. They cannot be trusted with our liberties and the Libdems could become the personal freedom party. UKIP does not seem likely to bid for that role since right-wing traditionalists are usually rather autocratic and intolerant. Right now the public does not care about its freedoms but events may arouse public concern and the Libdems could capitalise if they are true to their heritage and maintain a bold pro-freedom stance now. Since criminal law, internet regulation and security are not devolved matters I don’t think the Libdems have anywhere to go in Wales.

  7. “Undoubtedly the end of Liberalism, as Wales moves rapidly towards English right-wing conformity. ”

    hmm maybe…. but we’d get a better education system, economy and a properly funded NHS as a result

  8. The course set out by R.Tredwyn has helped rebuild the Liberals in the past. Defending the Human Rights Act, as they are doing, is a very good place to start.

    Maybe some sort of tactical alliance between Plaid and the Lib Dems also has merit. Despite the Stalingrad scrap in Ceredigion, the two parties have historically much to unite them, especially if the last five years are discounted. Maybe in many seats in Wales they are well placed to appeal to different electorates, not least in Cardiff where they made a coalition a relative success (especially when compared to the current shambles of a single party administration that looks more like a disfunctional coalition than anything else).

    Further, wonder if an alliance with the Greens could help either the Lib Dems or Plaid build further? Certainly the clearest message I heard from their Welsh leader in the election was to vote Plaid Cymru, a point emphasised in the context of UK debates.

  9. Following Daran’s point it would be interesting to do a manifesto check (and no I’m not going to read 180 pages of guff to do it myself) to see the levels of similarity or difference between the Lib Dems, Greens and PC… I bet they are greater than either the Lib Dems or Plaid would feel comfortable about!

  10. There can be little doubt that the Welsh Liberal Democrats are facing a perfect storm in the form of an electoral meltdown in the General Election, limited resources, National Assembly Elections in twelve months time and a growing existential crisis. Turning it round will require clear and radical strategic thinking combined with inspired leadership.

    As you say, the future seemed bright in the period between 2005 and 2010 when the Party positioned itself as the voice of the progressive left and centre-left as against a Brown-led Labour Party in London and the Welsh Labour-Plaid Cymru One Wales Coalition in Cardiff Bay. However, the 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition at Westminster shattered that, put the Party on the wrong side of the political spectrum and, as you say, propelled the Party back to a situation similar to that in 1922.

    If we come back to 2015, the World has, of course, changed since 2010. The option to return to the Party to a position based on the progressive left will now be difficult if not impossible. That space is now filled by Plaid Cymru (now freed from its Coalition with Welsh Labour) and the newly emergent Green Party. The only space left is on the progressive centre-left. However, a Party consisting purely of social liberals will look more like a sect of true believers than a credible political party.

    All successful political parties are internal coalitions and, if the Welsh Liberal Democrats are to have any future, it must lie in assembling some sort of progressive coalition that can appeal to a significant section of the Welsh electorate. For me, the greatest block to political progress and a progressive agenda in Wales is not the Conservative Party, it is the Welsh Labour Party with its status quo conservatism and lack of either vision or ambition. Yes, the election of a majority Conservative Government in London is bad news all round for progressives. However, in the context of Wales, I cannot conceive that any progressive alliance could include the Labour Party.

    However, the Welsh Liberal Democrats seem to ignore the progressive centre and centre-right. This group is currently largely marginalised in Welsh politics with support spread between the Welsh Liberal Democrats (especially in rural areas) and the Welsh Conservatives. Perhaps a real home for this section of the electorate can be made in the Welsh Liberal Democrats or a Welsh Liberal Party? So, the Welsh Liberal Democrats need to assemble a political coalition of centre-left, centre and centre-right progressives underpinned by clear Liberal values. The opportunity is there. As David Taylor comments elsewhere on ClickonWales (in the context of an analysis of the issues facing the Labour Party): “Wales is not becoming more Welsh or more left wing, it is becoming more centrist”. Do the Welsh Liberal Democrats have the political vision and courage to seize the initiative? This will be huge task but is the only realistic way forward for Welsh Liberalism – otherwise, the future looks bleak.

  11. “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.”

    I don’t want to disappoint you but there is already a (The) Liberal Party and there has been since 1999! Based in Liverpool and fronted by Steve Radford who seems to make more sense than the Lib-Dems but that wouldn’t be difficult IMHO… So I suggest that anybody who still wants to be a real Liberal should go join the existing Liberal Party and let the Lib-Dems fade away quietly!

    The Liberal Party even has a Welsh name to make it really easy for Welsh Lib-Dems to be liberal – Plaid Rhyddfrydol Cymru.

    My guess is the Electoral Commission would block any attempt by the Lib-Dems to change their name to anything which could cause confusion with an existing party – it seems that too many people are already confused enough!

  12. Jack Rawls is right. Liberalism is dying – thank heavens. Perhaps we can now concentrate on strengthening our border and making the country free through breaking the chains that bind us to the European Union.

  13. With Liberalism (liberalism?) dead and our relations with our neighbors ruptured we can then go on to elect a real strong man to make the trains run on time and stamp out inconvenient Celtic identities.

  14. Those who delight in the tsunami that harmed the Liberal Dmocrats last week might consider Alan Paton,s words –
    “This is Liberalism. It is the enshrinement of those ideals and beliefs and attitudes that are inseparable from truly human life … a tolerance of others, an attempt to understand otherness, a championship of the rights of others … a reverence for the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a love of liberty and equality before the law. If Liberalism died, then freedom would perish from the earth. Humanity wouldn’t be human any more.” A million thanks to all those who in so many different ways share this vision.

  15. John R Walker refers to the ‘Radford Liberals’. They started out as a rump who refused to join the Lib Dems when they merged with SDP in 1988. Anyone who has followed Liverpool politics of late will know all about them but they are hardly a UK party.

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