Opinion: The agony, then the ecstasy

Three months ago, there was a real sense of excitement in the Welsh Lib Dems. We were poised to make big gains in the third elections to the National Assembly, held on 3rd May.

The evident frustration of four years previously, in 2003, when we had stagnated on six seats out of 60 was sure to vanish this time, we thought, with the potential to win three or four extra seats in the Senedd. But, in what was a heart-breaking night for the party in Wales, we missed out on even one extra seat yet again.

Inevitably, the resulting frustration and anger, not to mention the carnage over coalition negotiations that followed, has led to the party wondering exactly where it is that we can go from here.

Much has been made of the need to reposition ourselves in Wales, to speak up, and show exactly what it is that we stand for. In my view, events outside the party have presented us with a golden opportunity to show what we are for.

Last week, Labour and Plaid Cymru finalised their coalition government, with Plaid gaining three cabinet seats. Many old-fashioned socialists have rejoiced at the prospect of what they see as a red-flagged paradise run from Cardiff Bay. They cheer at the prospect of policies free from Blairism, Brownism and Alun Michaelism. For them, Rhodri Morgan and Ieuan Wyn Jones will lead Wales into a socialist century that they have long dreamed of. However, what is clear to me is that this is a government that is doomed to fail the people of Wales.

As a liberal, and a Liberal Democrat, my natural distrust of nationalists has so far been proved correct.

Even before the election, Plaid made some massive back-peddling manoeuvres over nuclear power, all because their leader relies upon the votes of nuclear workers on Anglesey. For me, sustainability should be a non-negotiable red line, yet Plaid has given away all their green credentials for the glory of government.

Instead of progressive measures for a green, fair and free nation, this new government promises to be is a centralist, statist, Big Brother government, using out of date ideas to approach problems, many of which have been caused by Labour since 1999. It is essential that Liberal Democrats in Wales overcome our problems, and – come the next Assembly Elections – offer a credible, clear alternative to what I have no doubt will be, a very poor government indeed.

The problem that the Welsh Lib Dems have faced, in my opinion, is that during Assembly Elections, we are squeezed hard on the left by Plaid, which considers itself to be the only ‘Welsh’ party. In Westminster, we are the second largest party in Wales, and our share of the vote is consistently higher than for the Assembly. The truth is that we are not taken seriously for the Assembly, just as Plaid is not taken seriously for Westminster.

By zipping themselves to Labour, Plaid will ensure that, come the next elections in 2011, the Welsh Lib Dems will be in a unique and much stronger campaigning position than we were this time around. We will be the only centre-left alternative to a government, which by then will be squeezed hard by the spending review and a slowing economy.

As a Welsh party, we have nothing to be ashamed of and all to be proud of. We have consistently campaigned for the Welsh language and culture, for central government to recognise Wales’ individual needs and differences, for economic support for the South Wales Valleys and rural areas. Our problem has been that despite all this, we have still been seen as an English party.

Thanks to Plaid’s quest for power, this may no longer be the case.

* Dominic Hannigan was Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly candidate for Cardiff South and Penarth, and a member of the Welsh Party’s Campaigns Committee.

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5 Comments

  • Even now, almost two months later, if I stop to think about the election result in Wales I still can’t believe it. I know how much money we spent, I know how many leaflets were delivered in some areas and I know how hard people worked. And what do we have to show for it all? Not a sausage.

    In a way though, the result – the same six AM’s for another 4 years – has an advantage. It has at last forced us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, our party and its direction.

    If we had made a gain here or there, then we could have easily papered over the cracks, patted ourselves on the back and carried on. As it stands now we have no option but to confront the issues in our party.

    For too long the same few people have dictated our direction. Under them the Welsh party has become too introverted, too insecure, obsessed with courting the “cracach” and ignoring the grassroots.

    Discontent is rife. Little under a month after polling day, one of our candidates, and a local party chair, emailed me, to tell me they were resigning from the party. He said how he felt the party had had let him down, not supporting him when he needed it the most.

    Then a good friend of mine, someone who was very talented and a real asset to all levels of the party, has decided not to renew their membership. I’m saddened but not surprised. When we talked about it she told me how unhappy she was with the lack of professionalism in the Welsh party and the negative attitude and behaviour of established party figures towards staff and activists.

    This situation is unsustainable and the future of the Welsh party is bleak if it doesn’t get its act together soon.

    The good news is that there is hope. New, talented people are emerging – like Dominic himself – who have the potential to breathe fresh life into the party. The trend of white, middle aged, middle-class men running the party needs to end.

    Now it is our responsibility to make the necessary changes to our party and ensure that, at the next election, we are fully ready and able to exploit the unique and strong campaigning position that Plaid Cymru has gifted us.

  • Good to see that Wales has appeared on the Lib Dem Voice radar. Sad to see that no-one outside of Wales has made a comment yet.

    I too was saddened by the results of the election, then devastated by the collapse of the rainbow coalition. Half hour ago I stumbled upon a plaid leaflet from Ceredigion. It said this:

    “Only Plaid Cymru can provide an alternative government to Labour”

    Compare with our leaflets for the next general election (certainly any that I am writing):

    “Plaid were the only party to prop up the Labour government. The Lib Dems are the only progressive alternative to Labour in Wales”.

    There are many problems in the Welsh party and this is a real opportunity to deal with them.

    PS. Comments from Scottish or English members welcome

  • Hywel Morgan 26th Jul '07 - 10:41pm

    How far were we off winning extra seats this time. I know we nearly won one of the Newports but that would presumably have just cost us Mike German’s list seat.

  • dominic hannigan 27th Jul '07 - 8:35am

    The closest we came was in South Wales Central where we missed a regional list seat by about 800 votes across 8 constituencies. That was the closest really.
    Newport East would have taken Mike’s seat away.

    Aside from them we were miles off really.

    It’s worth noting some good new second places in constituencies which will hopefully continue to develop.

    Newport East
    Merthyr
    Pontypridd
    Swansea West

    I was particularly pleased to see the results in Merthyr and Ponty, they both show that we can win in the valleys when the work is put in. Labour got particularly rattled in Merthyr.

  • I think that we seriously need to reconsider our targeting strategy for the next Assembly election.

    This time so much emphasis was put onto picking up extra regional seats, certainly 4 of our top 5 seats were regional ones. Reasons for this include under-developed constituencies and the interests of incumbents on the list.

    The Tories had a much better, simpler strategy, targeting constituencies (duh!) – even if they were only winnable in a cycle or so’s time. And it paid off. At a glance it looks like the Tories only made 1 gain, however, in reality they exchanged 3 list seats for 3 constituency seats AND picked up a 4th constituency seat. This puts then in an excellent position for the next General Election, where they will probably pick up the Vale of Glamorgan too.

    Plaid has set out its list of constituency targets for 2011, citing seats where they hope to make constituency gains. Some of these include Neath, Swansea West, Ogmore, Rhondda, Cynon Valley, Pontypridd, Cardiff West, Caerphilly and Islwyn. * Most of these will not be winnable for Plaid in 2011, but it does show the scope of Plaid’s electoral ambition.

    If we are to make progress in 2011 we need to be bolder. We need to realise that specifically targeting list seats is merely a numbers game and one that is very difficult to influence. If we had managed to pick up Newport East this time for example, we would have lost the list seat in that region and still have had 6 AM’s.

    Any 2011 targeting plan needs to factor in that, if we are to make net gains, we will need to target at least 2 constituencies in each region where we currently have list representation. This means 2 seats in South Wales East, South Wales West and North Wales and 1 or 2 seats in South Wales Central (not including Cardiff Central). We can continue to challenge in Ceredigion and even another seat in the Mid and West region as well. Furthermore, even if we miss out by a small margin in one constituency or the other, we stand a better chance of picking up that elusive extra regional seat anyway.

    This kind of strategy would also feed into the General Election cycle much better as well, as there would be less shift of focus between elections.

    We have some excellent medium / long term prospects in Wales. Dom listed some excellent examples, but there are others too. If the effort I’ve seen in places such as Wrexham, Cardiff South and even Monmouthshire continues and we get good candidates willing to work hard then I see no reason why we won’t be able to pick up these seats in a few cycles time.

    * http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/0100news/newspolitics/tm_method=full%26objectid=19085928%26siteid=50082-name_page.html

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