It says something that I wondered whether this year I even needed to write a piece for this series about the Liberal Democrats. Hitherto, not talking about the party would have been inconceivable. But the Lib-Dems have had another electorally horrible year – on top of several previous similar ones. Whether they can still be considered a major party in Wales, and whether they will ever again come to be a significant force in Welsh politics, are both now open questions.
In my assessment of the party this time last year, I observed that “One of the more impressive features of the Liberal Democrats during and after the 2015 election was the good humour with which many in the party dealt with the prospect, and then the reality, of crushing defeat. Such good humour may be tested further in the months ahead. The bad times may not be over for the Welsh Liberal Democrats.”
But this was not the most difficult thing for ‘Mystic Rog’ to foresee. My words were written after the Welsh Lib-Dems had already endured a whole series of electoral calamities. After poor 2012 council results came an appalling outcome in Wales in the 2014 European election, and the devastating result in the 2015 general election. Given this background, and the party’s failure to make any significant recovery in the polls after the 2015 general election, it would have been a surprise for 2016 not to have recorded the Lib-Dems’ second successive worst-ever Assembly election result. And, in the end, we were not surprised.
Still, some of the statistics on the party’s Assembly election result are perhaps worth reviewing, if only to emphasise the scale of the electoral devastation wreaked on the Welsh Lib-Dems. Across most of Wales, the party no longer looked even remotely like a serious contender for voters. They lost their constituency deposits in 26 out of the 40 seats, and gained over half of their constituency votes from just four seats (the four which they had held at Westminster until 2010: Brecon and Radnor, Cardiff Central, Ceredigion and Montgomeryshire). There were only two seats where the Lib-Dems’ constituency vote share went up from that recorded in 2011: Brecon and Radnor, where Kirsty Williams recorded an impressive victory, and Clwyd South, where list AM Aled Roberts did well to secure a tiny rise in the vote – but still finished fifth.
Perhaps the most astounding statistic, though, concerns the Liberal Democrats across the UK. After May’s elections in both Wales and Scotland, there are now fewer elected Lib-Dems across the UK’s law-making parliaments (which includes Westminster, the devolved chambers and, for now, the European Parliament) than there are elected Plaid Cymru members. (There are 16 Plaid members, and 15 Lib-Dems).
Four of the five seats won by the Liberal Democrats in the National Assembly in 2011 had been list seats – and in all cases they had been won as the final list seat in their respective region. All were clearly vulnerable, and in the event none were even close to being retained.
The only survivor emerging from the wreckage was then-leader Kirsty Williams. Her personal victory was perhaps a deserved reward for several years of uphill struggle in horribly difficult circumstances on behalf of the party. But it was no great surprise that she quit soon after the election. She soon gathered in another reward – a Cabinet post, as Minister for Education.
But while Kirsty Williams not only survived but actually moved into ministerial office, what of her party? It no longer exists as an official Assembly party, and with Kirsty absorbed into the Cabinet there will be minimal visibility in the Assembly for any distinctive Liberal Democrats positions. With the Assembly party wiped out, nearly all party staff in Wales have now gone. The party in Wales had already been rather thinly-resourced, and subsidised from outside; since May the situation has become much worse.
Overall, Liberal Democrats prospects in Wales look distinctly bleak. Are there any bright signs for the party. Well, it has seen a small number of good local council by-election results in the last year, including one recent gain in Cardiff. However these advances have been less common than in England, and mostly concentrated in those areas where the party has some traditional strength.
There is some political space opening up for the party: between a Conservative UK government that appears primarily concerned at present to crowd out UKIP, and a Labour party that has moved towards the left. There ought to be some space for a moderate, pro-EU party. However, such ideological space may be less open in Scotland and Wales than in England.
But questions persist. Without Kirsty Williams, can the party have credible leadership in Wales? The mantle has fallen on Mark Williams – who has shown that he can be a very effective constituency MP in Ceredigion, but is yet to indicate the skills required to command the national political agenda. But leadership at the UK level also remains a question. Can Tim Farron cut through to the public more than he has done thus far? It remains to be seen.
The Welsh Lib-Dems’ immediate prospects for the next few months include the likelihood of some council gains in 2017. But the results are also likely to be patchy. And becoming a significant political force again will require a lot more than a few more council seats. For the Welsh Liberal Democrats, the road back to relevance looks long and hard.