In my comments this time last year about the Liberal Democrats, I observed that “[t]he next year for the Liberal Democrats will certainly be difficult. It could be very bloody indeed”. Well, I wasn’t wrong there.
In the build-up to the general election, I was a relative pessimist about the Lib-Dems’ chances compared to many other pundits and commentators. As their GB-wide poll rating stubbornly refused to improve, and as various polls of relevant marginal constituencies showed many of them looking difficult for the party to retain, I thought that the Lib-Dems would struggle to win the 25-30 seats that most other apparently-informed observers seemed to think was realistic. Still, I expected them to hang on to around twenty seats. And when Nick Clegg, late in the general election campaign, prophesied that the Liberal Democrats would be “the surprise story of this election”, I didn’t expect that his words would be proved correct in quite the manner in which they were…
It’s difficult to over-state just how awful was the Lib-Dems’ performance in the general election. Across Britain the party lost nearly two-thirds of the vote-share, and over 87% of the seats, that it had won in 2010. In Scotland, the Lib-Dems went from having eleven seats to just one: the Orkney and Shetland seat that they had held even through the dark days of the 1950s and 1960s. And even that seat was won by barely 800 votes, and with the successful candidate Alistair Carmichael having become embroiled post-election in controversy, and even lawsuits, that have done enormous damage to his political credibility. In England, a grand total of six seats were won, spread far and wide across the nation, while the party’s erstwhile south-west bastion was obliterated by the Tories.
Yet it was even worse in Wales. The Liberal Democrats’ 6.5% of the vote here was not only a drop of more than two-thirds from their performance in 2010, but was below even the miserable performances of the party in England and Scotland. Having saved every deposit in Wales in 2010 (and gained over 10% of the vote in every single seat except for Ynys Môn), the party now lost deposits in three-quarters of the Welsh seats. Two of the party’s three seats in Wales, Cardiff Central and Brecon & Radnor, were lost – and not just lost narrowly, but by pretty substantial margins. Only in Ceredigion did the party cling on, and there primarily because of the formidable local presence of Mark Williams, who nonetheless still saw his majority more than halved.
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the election result for the Lib-Dems is that they actually had quite a good general election campaign. The disaster might be easier to deal with if it could be readily blamed on a poor campaign. But such was not the case. Although the party’s televised Election Broadcasts were pretty dire, Nick Clegg performed well in the seven-way leaders’ debate, and on the campaign trail generally, while in the BBC Question Time special a week before polling day I thought he was clearly the most impressive performer. Five years on from Clegg-mania, what had changed was not the calibre of the messenger, but the willingness of the audience to listen to him, and to the party’s message. Here in Wales, Kirsty Williams showed us – as if we needed any reminding – that she is a class act. And yet all their efforts were for nothing. Dedicated Liberal Democrat MPs were swept away by the dozen; talented and hardworking candidates suffered abjectly humiliating results by the hundred.
So, where to from here? The inevitable resignation of Nick Clegg on May 8th pitched the party straight into a leadership contest. Somewhat remarkably, out of the seven Lib-Dem MPs who are not Nick Clegg, two credible leadership candidates emerged. Tim Farron’s clear victory in the contest was all the more creditable because he faced, in Norman Lamb, a plausible and articulate opponent. A new leader, who did not hold office in the coalition, should help the party turn the page on their electorally disastrous period in government. The Lib-Dems are also being helped by the actions of their erstwhile Conservative partners: many of those who doubted Nick Clegg’s protestations that the Lib-Dems were a significant moderating influence on the Tories in government might now be willing to concede that he did, in fact, have a point. The Conservatives’ agenda for government means that a pro-European, liberal party should have significant things to contribute to the political debate over the next few years.
Nonetheless, it looks like a long and difficult road back for the party across the UK. The huge losses suffered at the election means that they have few voices left in the Commons, while some of the few who do – including Mark Williams – will need to assume a greater national role in articulating the party’s message. The scale of the electoral losses will also have financial consequences, both direct (through limiting the ‘Short money’ the party is allocated) and indirect (through making the party less attractive to potential donors). Moreover, the party’s old role of being the home for voters disenchanted with the two largest parties is now much more crowded territory; protest voters can turn to UKIP or the Greens (or the SNP and Plaid) just as much as they can towards the Lib-Dems.
Meanwhile, the devolved elections loom ever larger. It is difficult to find causes for immediate optimism for Lib-Dem prospects. Although one or two of the small number of GB-wide polls reported since the election have suggested the party once again challenging UKIP for third place, our late-June Welsh Political Barometer poll actually showed a further fall since the general election – to a scarcely believable 4% for Westminster, and 5% on both ballots for the Assembly. Unless things improve (and September’s Barometer poll showed only the smallest possible rise in LibDem support), it is far from inconceivable that the party could be wiped out in Wales next May. Never mind fighting across Wales to revive her party, Kirsty Williams could have a major battle on her hands simply to retain her own seat.
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.