Where next for the Liberal Democrats in Wales?

 

The 2017 General Election was a strange one for the Liberal Democrats. Up in seats, down in votes, another leader now out the door. The state of the party in Wales, however, is less questionable. We are in a bad place. Losing our remaining MP in Ceredigion, losing ground in other seats, hammered into third in Cardiff Central.

The party has been in decline for some years now and, unlike in England and Scotland, where seeds of recovery are more evident, here in Wales things don’t seem to be getting any better. Decline is not inevitable, but neither is our continued existence. It is all very well saying liberal values are needed now more than ever (they are!), but the question is how do we make them relevant to the people of Wales and what do we need to do in Wales to have any chance of regrouping.

Firstly, we have to resist the temptation to become a party that only talks about local things. The challenge between promoting a national liberal vision and community politics has been a question for decades (one Jo Grimond wrestled with, in fact). But there is nothing particularly liberal about working hard locally. From canvassing in multiple recent elections there can be no doubt that people respect our hard work on the local scene. However, when it comes to a national election they vote differently. We must make sure we are consistently promoting a liberal vision at a national level, alongside local work, or we will not rebuild.

It is often said that politics in Wales is slightly to the left of that of England. The left-right axis has long died, in its place a new battle between open and closed. We must be willing to move away from the territory occupied by Labour and Plaid rather than seek to try and match them there. We are liberals and should, instead, be the party promoting bold ideas on the market economy and civil liberties. We must become the clear supporters of small business, individualism, personal choice and freedoms. We should oppose the Welsh Government becoming too prescriptive in our economy and we should champion public sector reform. Moving ‘left’ should be resisted, in favour of a bold, new, liberal vision for Wales.

To present it we now need a new generation of voices. There is nothing inherently wrong with what party grandees (for want of a better term) say in the Welsh media, but they are the faces of the past, and faces now associated with losing. There are talented people within the party. Some were candidates in the General Election or the preceding Assembly Election. Some are Councillors. The party, however, must now change who it is putting in front of the cameras and the radio microphones, providing new voices for Welsh liberalism. The old voices will not be listened to, will be associated with decline. The need for new voices is obvious.

Selecting candidates should, in my view, not be an immediate priority. We have some space and we need to encourage new people, some not yet members, that the Liberal Democrats are the party for them. When we come to it, we must ask seats to find two people, one for Parliament and one for Assembly. While on the defensive we clung on to name recognition, having people stand in some seats three times in two years. That has to change, showing we have a pool of talented and ambitious people, while also providing two committed people to inspire and activate in each seat.

Finally, and most importantly perhaps, we need to become the party of ideas. Welsh Conferences, however well meaning, see too many debates where the result is not in question, where people won’t speak against ‘big names’, where new thinking does not always seem welcome if it is outside the orthodox. In my experience there has been little meaningful debate on visionary policy.

This is not just a conference issue, of course, it applies right down to the grass roots. Why do we not have public events where, for example, members of groups such as the Open Rights Group want to engage with us? Online and offline fora need to provide more space for robust liberal discussion that promotes ideas and different thinking, encouraging new voices to speak out and challenging perceived norms. In doing so, we will find the ideas that can inspire us back to relevancy. If we don’t, the future could be bleak.

 

* 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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10 Comments

  • From what I’ve heard the Welsh party seriously needs a leader who can step up and rebuild the regional party from scratch. A focus on the core mid-Wales area (Ceredigion/Monty/BnR) is major but work has to be done at council level as well.

    Finding that leader is going to be a real challenge, I think.

  • paul barker 26th Jun '17 - 1:11pm

    Much of what Matt has to say is relevant to The Party across The UK. In particular we have to accept that the relationship between our Local & Westminster performance has changed. We always did better locally but our GB vote share used to be about 4/5ths of our our share in Local Elections, now its about half. Clear The Libdem “Recovery” so far hasnt gone as far or as deep as we had hoped.

  • Joseph Bourke 26th Jun '17 - 2:13pm

    Matt,

    why was there such a difference in the results in Brecon and Radnorshire for the 2016 Assembly elections and 2017 Parliamentary election?

  • The party in Wales has been in terminal decline for years. For too long run by a cabal that is utterly incapable of coping with any sort of internal debate and who seem to act genuinely surprised when we do badly at subsequent elections.

  • Joseph – don’t know anything about the local campaign there but the two obvious reasons are:

    1) Kirsty Williams was our candidate in the Welsh assembly elections – immensely popular locally and our party leader at the time. We had a new parliamentary candidate who would have had less name recognition, so did well to retain as much as Roger Williams got the last time in 2015 (who despite being well known and generally liked as most of our mps tend to be, simply wasn’t to the same extent as Kirsty).

    2) The difference in turnout between the 2 elections was about 20%. Welsh assembly elections are still second order elections in comparison to the General. Different people turn out to vote and people vote on different issues with different motivations. We were squeezed nationally and our party’s messages didn’t really resonate anywhere – the places we held or gained were in quite specific circumstances – so there was simply no reason for us to expect to do as well as 2016 here in this election.

  • It is no different to vaste swathes of England. There is nothing there. It will be 2025 before we see anything going again. Hope I am still alive.

  • “Losing our remaining MP in Ceredigion” – didn’t he have to distance himself from his campaign days before the vote? Lib Dems don’t often get local campaigning so wrong however this was a clear incident where they did.

    “hammered into third in Cardiff Central.” – the candidate made a big deal about Brexit when the existing MP before the election was called had an almost faultless record in representing the remain voting Cardiff Central. It was the wrong line to take and/or possibly the wrong constituency to stand in.

    What to do next? If Kirsty Williams can make a success of Welsh education then people can be drawn back to the Lib Dems. Every Lib Dem at a local, Welsh national and UK national position should try their best to ensure she can.

  • As someone who lives fairly close to Wales though not in it, perhaps I can suggest that you could appeal to those who would like it to maintain their cultural entity though this would mean taking on the nationalists and their ground.

  • Simon Banks 26th Sep '17 - 7:47pm

    The left-right axis is still around and still relevant to issues like how to raise taxes, what priority to give to defeating homelessness and whether health and safety at work is “red tape”. Unfortunately many commentators can’t think beyond left/right and as you say, open-shut issues belong on a different axis. In fact there’s a third – green versus whatever the opposite of green is in politics. Studies of voters and potential voters show our ground is moderate left, strongly open, green.

    As for the failure to transfer local votes to national or Westminster levels, one simple action is for Focus editors to ask themselves regularly, “Does this issue have a wider dimension? If so, do we have a distinctive policy and can I work it in?” Another, of course, is to persuade people they understand basically who we are and what we stand for. This was working reasonably well up to the coalition.

    I’m sorry none of that is specific to Wales. Being 1/4 Welsh and a lover of Wales, I’m very sorry to see Liberalism so down.

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