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The Electoral State of the Parties, 4: the Liberal Democrats

 

Last year’s review of the electoral fortunes of the Welsh Liberal Democrats started with the words ‘Oh dear’, before going on to detail the many electoral misfortunes of the party. Twelve months on, it is difficult to see that things have in any way improved; indeed, one might plausibly suggest that things have actually worsened.

The party’s current travails can be traced very precisely back to May 2010. The party going into coalition at the UK level with the Conservatives was always likely to impose some electoral costs on their Welsh arm: beyond the electoral price that is typically paid for being a junior coalition partner was the damage from being so closely associated with a Conservative party that has long been anathema to many Welsh voters. What must seem very unfair to many Welsh Liberal Democrats, however, is that while support levels for their coalition partners have remained notably resilient, the junior partners have taken, and continue to take, such a serious hit in terms of lost votes and lost popularity. Acting as a human shield for the Tories was not what most Lib-Dems thought they were signing up for in 2010.

What has followed has been a series of electoral setbacks and humiliations, with no signs at all yet that things are improving or that a corner has been turned. This year’s European election saw the party hit a new nadir. Sure, the party was never very likely to win an MEP in Wales – having failed to do so in 1999, 2004 and 2009, none in the party can have harboured any illusions that success was likely in 2014. But to gain merely 4% of the vote in the land of Lloyd George was utterly abject. Nor could Liberal Democrats take much comfort from a substantially better performance in a few bastions: their ‘relatively good’ performances in Ceredigion and Powys meant that they actually scraped into double-figures in percentage share of the vote there. Nonetheless, the party still came fourth in both counties. Cardiff was the only other local authority area in which they gained more than 5% of the vote, but this still meant a sixth place finish.

Of course, European elections are rather strange events (and arguably have become steadily stranger over time). But the opinion polls do not paint much better a picture for the Liberal Democrats in Wales – indeed, if anything they have worsened this year from an already poor position in 2013.

 

General Election

Assembly Constit.

2012

6.0

7.0

2013

8.3

9.0

2014

6.6

6.7

So is there any room for optimism? Well, just a little, perhaps. One positive is that, amidst their manifold difficulties over the last few years, the party has largely remained united. Within Wales, the only remotely significant figure making sustained public criticism of the party’s leadership and strategy has been the former MP for Montgomery – a figure sufficiently discredited by his own behaviour that he would probably do more harm to the leadership by offering ostentatious praise… A colleague attending the party’s Welsh conference this spring observed how striking was the loyalty that delegates showed, even in private conversations, both for the coalition and for the party leadership. But, of course, those showing such loyalty are the people that have stayed in the party. Many others have quietly drifted away, and the other main impression my colleague drew from the conference was simply how small it was in scale. Outside the main strongholds of Ceredigion, Powys and Cardiff, party membership in Wales must now be in the low hundreds; much of Wales simply does not have serious Liberal Democrat constituency parties.

A second possible cause for optimism concerns key personnel. Even in such a difficult political environment, Kirsty Williams has steadily grown in stature as an effective leader for the party in Wales. Several of her Assembly colleagues have also impressed; despite their small numbers, the Lib-Dems have arguably been the most effective party ‘pound-for-pound’ during the current Assembly term. Both individually and collectively, they have carved out profiles on a number of specific issues, and been able to deliver identifiable results on several occasions – although it is far from clear that such work will have any significant electoral pay-offs. Perhaps of greater, and certainly more immediate, electoral relevance have been the efforts of their MPs to develop their personal profile as constituency representatives. That Mark Williams, for instance, will start the election as favourite to hold off Plaid Cymru in Ceredigion is almost entirely down to his own reputation within the seat.

So what of Liberal Democrat prospects for next May’s general election? They won’t need me to tell them that things look difficult. I suppose the one benefit of this is that is clarifies the party’s objectives greatly. The strategy will, one assumes, be pretty much the complete opposite of 2010, where ‘Clegg-mania’ led to the party over-optimistically spreading its resources too thinly. In 2015 we will witness what my friend Phil Cowley of Nottingham University has – in somewhat questionable taste – termed the ‘Zulu’ strategy: like the redcoats at Rourke’s Drift, the Liberal Democrats, pushed back to the ‘last round of mealie bags’, will simply aim to cling on to their core strongholds. Unless the political context changes in some unforeseeable and dramatic way – Clegg-mania II, anyone? – the party will surely be reduced to running ‘paper’ candidates and virtually non-existent campaigns, outside around 40-45 seats across Britain that are realistically defensible. The campaigns in those last redoubts, moreover, will surely focus heavily on local candidates and constituency representation rather than the UK-wide picture. If this is done in a disciplined and effective manner, if neither Labour nor the Conservatives have any great momentum behind them, and with UKIP siphoning some support from both, then it is possible to imagine the Liberal Democrats escaping from the general election with a greatly reduced vote share but still with 35 or so MPs, 2 or 3 of whom could come from Wales.

Then, in a new political landscape and probably under new leadership (and with Kirsty Williams perhaps being called upon to play an increasing role UK-wide?), the party may be able to begin to renew itself while still having a significant parliamentary basis on which to build. But this, we should note, is the optimistic scenario! The next year for the Liberal Democrats will certainly be difficult. It could be very bloody indeed.

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