Opinion: Welsh Liberal Democrats need to be bolder in considering a coalition without Labour


This past week in Wales, political ears pricked up after Stephen Crabb (the Conservative Secretary of State for Wales) gave support to the idea of a Conservative, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrat coalition in the Senedd after the May 2016 elections.

The ‘rainbow coalition’ almost happened in 2007 – but has more recently seen to be off the table, so backing (as it were) from such a prominent politician has sparked off some debate.

However, it was of course Welsh Liberal Democrats who were discussing this idea first, thanks to a Liberal Reform fringe at Welsh Conference a couple of weekends back.  Baroness Jenny Randerson and Eluned Parrott AM discussed whether a liberal Wales could only come about through a Lib Dem-Tory coalition in Cardiff Bay.

What struck me most about that discussion, and in particular the questions that followed, was how it strayed back towards disenchantment with the ‘one-party state’ in Wales.  Criticism of Welsh Labour came comfortably, alongside the obvious negative impact on a party that doesn’t believe it can lose.  Many contributors were also prepared to discuss the impact on the third sector in Wales and its inability to speak out against a party it believes will always be in power.

These are all fair points, but there appeared to be (amongst audience members in particular) a lack of willingness to discuss what that actually means going forward: working with the Welsh Conservative party.  Or, at least, a greater willingness internally to consider it a viable option in the future.

With just five Assembly Members we have to be realistic about the fact that working with another party is the only way we are likely to be in government in Wales in the near future.  Working with Labour is an option, something we’ve done once before, but will that really offer the radical change that Wales needs?  Propping up the Welsh Labour party doesn’t tackle the issues above that we as a party are clear need to be addressed.

So, the challenge to the party in Wales is is it prepared to have that discussion about working with the Conservatives in Cardiff Bay? Are we, as members as well as politicians, willing to explore what common ground there might be? A recent Assembly debate on TTIP showed some broad points of economic agreement, while Labour and Plaid Cymru reverted back to discussing economic protectionism.  This was referenced by Eluned Parrott at the fringe discussion, while Baroness Randerson was willing to talk positively about some of her experiences as part of the government at Westminster.

After fifteen years of Labour government in Wales, there are significant issues with the economy, health services and education – as Kirsty Williams rightly highlighted at our conference.  It is not enough, however, just to criticise, we must be able to provide the people of Wales with a credible alternative government.  Stephen Crabb has laid down a challenge, we – as Welsh Liberal Democrats – must be willing to debate what that might mean.

* Matt is a former Chair of the Cardiff & Vale Liberal Democrats and was the party's candidate for Cardiff North at the 2017 General Election.

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  • Cadan ap Tomos 18th Mar '15 - 5:29pm

    While I agree we need to keep our doors open to other parties, in the immediate future any rainbow deal in Wales runs into two problems: Leanne Wood and Andrew RT Davies.

  • it was a shame there was no such coalition in 2007 – that mistake left Wales with the Lab-Plaid coalition then, and single party rule now.

  • @Caracatus
    “One of the first rules of interparty co-operation is you don’t tell the other party who they can and can’t have in various roles.”

    Just like the Lib Dems didn’t tell Labour that any deal in 2010 was contingent on Brown going???

  • Tsar Nicholas 18th Mar '15 - 8:58pm

    Opinion polls suggest the party will be down to two seats in the Senedd come May next year.

  • Tsar Nicholas

    I think the most recent poll – carried out this month – had the LibDems down to one seat in the Senedd. With no euro MP’s and a fairly good chance of no Westminister MP’s after the GE, why would anyone go into coalition with the LibDems?

  • Because Tory-Lib Dem coalitions have proved to be such a vote-winner for the Liberal Democrats, time after time.

  • Matt Hemsley
    You say —
    “….With just five Assembly Members we have to be realistic about the fact that working with another party is the only way we are likely to be in government in Wales in the near future.  ”

    I hope you will not join the Suicidal Tendency. No doubt in Wales there is a tiny faction of Liberal Democrats who think the only way into government is to strap concrete boots onto your feet, jump into Cardiff Bay at high tide and hope for the best.

    You are not the strongest of political swimmers you Welsh Liberal Democrats and I think Synchronised Swimming with the Wales Conservatives is not going to bring you a Commonsealth Gold Medal for political strategy.

  • Energlyn Churchill 18th Mar ’15 – 7:55pm
    “….I’m suspicious of any discussion instigated by Liberal Vision. Their seeming adulation of the Tories suggests to me that they have more in common with them than Liberal Democrats.”

    This seems a bit unfair on the Tories.

    Most decent Conservatives would have nothing to do with a group whose principle people are self-declared “Libertarians” similar to The Tea Party.

    The overlap between the so-called “Liberal Vision” website and their spectacularly unsuccessful campaign to stop standardised packaging of cigarettes shows their true sympathies.

    Liberal Democrats might want to note that “Liberal Vision” has called on voters to vote against Liberal Democrat MPs at the next election because of last week’s decision on standardised packaging.

  • The Lib Dem vote is already well down in Wales, touting a coalition with the Tories there would, I respectfully suggest, not be the way to rebuild the party.

  • Matt Hemsley 19th Mar '15 - 9:44am

    Thanks for the comments, to quickly address a couple of points:

    Cadan – I think you’ve fallen into the trap of the easy answer. If we are really attempting to offer some kind of alternative government in Wales (which you presume we might be in the business of), then we have to make it seem that is is possible/credible. It may, of course, be after any election that a Welsh Labour/Lib Dem coalition is viable and in best interests. But it’s an odd narrative to suggest that Labour in Wales is bad (which is what we say), while being even more negative about the other parties in the Senedd. Add to that, RT Davies’ speech to Welsh Tory Conference clearly contained a move in this direction.

    I’ve tended to avoid numbers – in part because I think it all depends on numbers after 2016 – which a bolder narrative could and would impact on. But there is another point for discussion there, which is worth addressing in its own right.

    But I come back to the main thrust. Party members (and politicians) seem comfortable criticising the Welsh Labour Government, but uncomfortable in even considering what getting rid of them is likely to mean. If we want a radically different Wales, then the party must at least be willing to consider those options.

  • Caractacus – how would having Brown in place have helped? The country wanted Labour gone and Brown consistently polled below his party. Keeping him and being saddled to him would have been insane.

  • Simon McGrath 19th Mar '15 - 10:16am

    @ Energlyn Churchill “Finally, I’m suspicious of any discussion instigated by Liberal Vision. Their seeming adulation of the Tories suggests to me that they have more in common with them than Liberal Democrats. ”
    What have Liberal Vision to do with this meeting?
    @John Tilley “Liberal Democrats might want to note that “Liberal Vision” has called on voters to vote against Liberal Democrat MPs at the next election because of last week’s decision on standardised packaging.
    Can you give us a link to that please. A very serious accusation.

  • Tsar Nicholas 19th Mar '15 - 10:26am

    I think that there is a consensus about the truly dire straits the Welsh party is in, so how come every time there is a Kirsty thread there is a wave of adulatory posts? Does nobody hold her responsible?

  • @Caracatus
    I felt then and feel now that the current coalition was probably the only viable one. I have significant issues about how it has been approached but that is a different story.

    Even if the maths had worked, Brown would have had to go I just don’t feel it is the place of a potential coalition partner to dictate this (and certainly not as openly as it happened). It should always have been about policy not personalities. I don’t care if the cabinet love or loathe each other as long as they work productively together.

  • Tsar Nicholas – I don’t think there’s every been an article on this site about Wales without you strongly criticising Kirsty Williams. I find it odd, as surely you don’t actually think that the decline in Lib Dem popularity in Wales is to do with Kirsty Williams? I suppose Willie Rennie and Tavish Scott are to blame in Scotland? And Caroline Pidgeon for the party’s decline in the London Assembly too?

    I certainly don’t remember you constantly attacking Willie Rennie every time there is a blog on Scotland.

    Or do you think, that maybe, it could well be because, following going into coalition with the Tories, the LDs have suffered a decline in popularity across the the whole of the UK? Wales, like Scotland (and northern england), is generally left-leaning and traditionally Labour supporting. Is it any surprise that in those areas the LDs are doing worse following a coalition with the tories?

  • Passingthrough 19th Mar '15 - 11:56am

    @Simon McGrath


    and this one:-


    which ends “Come May 7th, you know what to do…”

    That’s a pretty clear call for the readers of “Liberal Vision” to punish/reward MPs on May 7th on the basis of their votes on plain packaging and so by extension is calling on the 37 LDs MPs who voted for it to be voted out.

    If you were to remove any explicit mentions of the LDs from that website you would struggle to identify them as being in any way connected to the Liberal Democrats. UKIP certainly or the whackier fringes of the Conservatives perhaps but Liberal Democrat?

    I’m not overly impressed by the “stronger economy, fairer society, opportunity for all” slogan, viewing it as a highly platidinous mantra which could equally plausibly be claimed by about 95% of the political spectrum, however their own “vision” http://www.liberal-vision.org/vision/ is one of the few political statements I’ve seen which couldn’t also claim that. It has lots about rolling back the state and reducing taxes and nothing at all about fairness or opportunity. I think they may be in the wrong party.

  • Tsar Nicholas 19th Mar '15 - 12:09pm


    I live in Wales and feel more emotionally connected to the party here than in Scotland.

  • Simon McGrath

    Here is what I suppose must be the relevant link: it doesn’t specifically call for LDs to vote LDs out, but it doesn’t rate those who voted for plain packaging very highly.

    Neither do I, I must say.

  • Simon McGrath 19th Mar '15 - 12:27pm

    @Energlyn – which bits of the LR website ( thanks for admitting your mistake by the way) leading you to the conclusion it has an ‘adulation of the Tories’ ?

    @David – thanks for the link – as you say it doesn’t call for people to vote against Lib Dem MPs at the election. It must be something else John Tilley has in mind for his very specific comment. Perhaps he could enlighten us?

  • “….367 parliamentarians (of all colours ) voted in favour of plain packaging yesterday. Be it on their conscience. Let’s look forward. What can we the average punter do?
    Well, we can vote them out come May 7th – not just on the issue of plain packaging – but to send a message once and for all that we are frankly fed up with soulless zombies doing what the Whips tell them to …”

    These are some of the words from the Liberal Vision website. I will leave it to others in this thread how they interpret the words — “… vote them out come May 7th ”

    They seem clear to me and I guess they would be clear to the majority of Liberal Democrat MPs who voted for standardised packs for cigarettes.

  • Max Wilkinson 19th Mar '15 - 2:28pm

    I congratulate Matt Hemsley on his bold, liberal thinking.

  • Energlyn Churchill 19th Mar ’15 – 12:13pm
    “Mind you, having just looked at Liberal Reform’s website, the same caveats might apply.”

    Energlyn Churchill,
    Following your comment I had a look at the Liberal Reform website.

    A page entitled “Liberal Reform in The Media” (just follow the drop down menu on their Home Page) has a picture of Nick Thornsby and a list links to articles.
    Top of the list, in prime position, is this article by Harry Phibbs.  This is what he wrote in December 2013 yet it is till top of the list of links 

    “…Lib Dems lurch to the Left in selection choices
    Lib Dem Voice have published an update on Lib Dem candidates chosen to fight the next General Election. They include three candidates to replace sitting Lib Dem MPs who are standing down. Julie Pörksen has been chosen in Berwick-upon-Tweed as the candidate to replace Alan Beith. Vikki Slade has been chosen in Mid Dorset and North Poole where Annette Brooke is standing down and Lisa Smart is the Lib Dem candidate to succeed Andrew Stunell in Hazel Grove.

    Miss Pörksen and Miss Slade seem to have little time for the policies of the coalition government. Both appear to be ideologically closer to socialism than to classical liberalism and to have views that would make them quite at home in the Labour Party….

    In fairness it should be acknowledged that Miss Smart offers aless statist tone. 

    She is sympathetic to Liberal Reform – who have been winning the ideological argument in the Party.

    Voters in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Mid Dorset and North Poole who are proud of what the Coalition Government has achieved should not vote Lib Dem at the next election.”

    I am guessing that our campaign teams in Berwick, Dorset and especially Hazel Grove would prefer it if this link was removed.

  • Stephen Hesketh 20th Mar '15 - 5:32am

    Energlyn Churchill 19th Mar ’15 – 8:35pm

    “In spite of the falied Orange Book project of the current leadership, we ostensibly remain a Social Liberal party.”


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