This is an article for Liberator Magazine
For all intents and purposes, the Welsh Liberal Democrats are facing an existential crisis. For the first time since the Liberal Party was formed in the nineteenth century we no longer have an MP representing a Welsh constituency. Our once small but successful Welsh Assembly group has been reduced to a rump of one and our councillor base is smaller than it has been for some time.
The reality facing party officials is far removed from the heights we achieved in the previous decade. In the 2005 General Election we secured 18.4% of the vote and four MPs. Two years later we were on the verge of entering the Welsh Government for the second time, but in this instance as part of a rainbow coalition that would have excluded Labour, the dominant party in Wales for over a century. Whilst in local government during the period 2004-2012 we helped to run councils as diverse as Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Bridgend, Monmouthshire, Ceredigion, Conwy and Wrexham.
It is not the case that the party squandered these chances. The reluctance of several key individuals in the Welsh Party to get into bed with the Tories led to the rainbow coalition being rejected, and replaced instead by a Labour-Plaid Cymru Government. Whilst in terms of local government, we achieved a great deal in running things only to see the national tide turn against us. Those councillors who had won their seats on an anti-Labour swing failed to consolidate their gains properly and were swept away once the Liberal Democrats themselves became unpopular.
The fact is it is not easy being a Welsh Liberal Democrat. That is best illustrated by the 2005 General Election result. Across the UK, the Lib Dems secured 22.1% of the vote, nearly four per cent more than in Wales. That is a disparity that has been in-built for us as a party for a long time because what was then the third-party vote has always been split between us and Plaid Cymru.
We have few heartlands, mostly concentrated in rural mid-Wales where sheep outnumber people and community politics consists of candidates being seen at as many local funerals and church services that they can get to. Even there the traditional Liberal Democrat radical base has been eroded by incomers from outside Wales.
We have survived by ruthlessly squeezing Labour and Plaid Cymru votes to stop the Tories. In Ceredigion we squeezed the unionist vote to stop Plaid Cymru. In both cases that squeeze unravelled disastrously earlier this year as two-party politics reasserted itself.
Where we have built up an urban base through community politics-style campaigning we have relied too much on one or two individuals to do the work, we have failed to consolidate properly, resorted to tactical voting arguments instead of substantive and relevant policy positions and seen our advances lost through political misfortune outside our control.
Our other problem is one of identity. Unlike Scotland, Wales does not have a national media to speak of. The Western Mail, the so-called national newspaper of Wales is outsold by its more regional sister papers, the South Wales Evening Post and the South Wales Echo. There is no one Welsh newspaper that can be bought anywhere in Wales, whilst much of rural Wales relies on weeklies for their news and gossip. One of the biggest selling papers in Montgomeryshire is the Shropshire Star.
Most people rely on UK newspapers and UK TV and radio channels for their news. As with the rest of the world these traditional news outlets are declining in favour of internet based media. That is an area which the Federal Party is still playing catch-up on, the Welsh Party are decades behind them.
The upshot of this dearth of Welsh media is that it is harder for political parties to convey a distinctively Welsh message. Plaid Cymru of course are the exception to this. Their name translates as the Party of Wales. At Welsh Assembly elections they have a clear identity that is associated with Welsh governance. When they do well, the Welsh Liberal Democrats do less well.
In 2011, we only survived the anti-Clegg holocaust because the Plaid Cymru vote fell back. In 2016, Plaid advanced and UKIP arrived to sweep up what was left of the ‘third party protest vote’. Our representation in the Welsh Assembly was decimated.
It is fair to say that because of the circumstances outlined above, all the remaining political parties in Wales rely on their UK showings for their electoral success here. Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, Greens, even UKIP, have tried to rebrand themselves as Welsh parties, embracing the Welsh language, distinctive Welsh policies, and Federalist structures, but when it comes to voting in Assembly and local council elections, people have still largely relied on their instincts as to how we are doing across the UK.
That is not to say the UK parties do not operate this side of Offa’s Dyke as distinctively Welsh Parties with Welsh interests at heart, we do. But perception is important, and when we throw into the mix Wales’ non-conformist, radical political tendencies, it was inevitable that the Welsh Liberal Democrats association with a UK Tory-Lib Dem government would be disastrous for us, no matter how much we protested about some of the policies being implemented by them.
If all of this sounds like an excuse, then it isn’t. For all their weaknesses the Welsh Liberal Democrats have made a substantial contribution to Wales. We were of course the original party of devolution, advocating a devolved Welsh administration nearly a hundred years ago. We had Federal structures and a distinct Welsh organisation and policy making process in place well before devolution and when the Welsh Assembly was established we were ready to contribute to it.
When devolution tottered on the brink in 1999-2000 under Blairite control-freakery and Labour impotence, it was the Welsh Liberal Democrats who entered a coalition with Rhodri Morgan’s nascent ministry, bringing with us over a hundred Welsh policies, most of which were implemented. We helped to cut class sizes, established the first all-Wales homeless strategy and set up a distinctive Welsh arts policy to name just a few of the successes of that first coalition.
And when in 2011, Labour again found themselves without an overall majority we negotiated budgets with them that set up a Welsh pupil premium and secured hundreds of millions of pounds for important projects. And again, in 2016 with Labour short of the 50% of seats needed to govern, Kirsty Williams, our sole AM, joined the government as a Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Secretary.
Under Kirsty, our pupil premium has continued to be made available to schools, a new curriculum is being introduced, higher and further education is being reformed and student finance is to be transformed with means-tested grants equivalent to the minimum wage being made available to Welsh students from 2018, whilst at the same time additional resources have been found for the HE sector. She is also investing in more support for teachers so they have more time dealing with pupils and less with administration, and putting in place a distinctive policy to protect rural schools.
Kirsty has not just concentrated on education though. The agreement she struck with Labour will see a Welsh rent to own scheme introduced next year to help those who can afford a mortgage but not the deposit, to get on the housing ladder. She is pushing government to introduce minimum and safe nursing levels in our hospitals, more money for mental health and some protection for our smaller councils from austerity cuts in their funding.
Our problem of course is communicating these successes and getting the credit for them. It brings us back to the lack of a Welsh media and our poor campaigning presence across Wales.
Like the rest of the party we have seen a surge in membership. Well over 50% of our members are new. All of them will have had the opportunity to vote for the new Welsh Party leader who, for the first time is not a Parliamentarian. That is a change that has been forced on us by electoral circumstances. The new leader faces an enormous task.
She will firstly need to establish proper support arrangements. She will not have the advantage enjoyed by Parliamentarians of staff to manage her diary, issue press releases and reply to correspondence. The Welsh Party will have to make those arrangements for her with the few staff they have left.
Secondly, she must address the huge skills deficit that exists across the party. We are fighting council by-elections blind. If we are to start winning again then we need to give these events the intensity they deserve, including high quality, relevant campaigning literature, full canvasses of voters, proper use of Connect and professional polling day operations. We cannot afford to continue being amateur in our approach to these elections.
And we need to make use of our new members to get out into our communities across Wales, talk to people and implement all-year round campaigning. The next elections may be four years away, but we cannot afford to wait. We must organise and build up support.
Obviously, the new leader cannot do all of this on her own. She will be part-time and working in a media vacuum. But she can establish a clear sense of direction for the party, find a distinctive narrative for us and motivate our membership into taking that message out into our communities. She can also work with party committees and officers to get candidates in place early, initiate training sessions and policy discussions, and use what expertise we do have to help get things started again in areas where we are weak.
If we suffered in Wales because of previous leaders then the new Federal leader offers an opportunity. The party has a man at the helm with gravitas and presence, we have a distinctive message on the key issue of the day which, despite Wales narrow support for Brexit, will resonate here with many communities, and we have the time to regroup. UKIP are in decline and, as our poll ratings start to recover so will the chance to recapture some of the successes of the recent past.
Wales may look like a disaster area for the Liberal Democrats but we have been at rock bottom before and we have recovered. Our nation needs a liberal, pro-European party that understands the needs of Wales and has ideas and solutions to our problems. That party is the Welsh Liberal Democrats. The path will be long and hard, but the opportunity is there if we take it. We can be the future Wales needs.