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Lib Dems face a fight for survival

April 8, 2016

 

Wales goes to the polls in May to choose a Welsh Assembly. We asked Evening Post columnist and public affairs specialist Lawrence Bailey to sketch out the state of the parties, their policies and how they might fare.

 

His six-part series continues with the WELSH LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

 

 

To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumours of a Liberal Democrat wipe-out in Wales may have been somewhat exaggerated.

 

The party’s recent electoral experiences admittedly read like a rags-to-riches-to-rags kind of tale, sprinkled with plot twists and tragedies.

 

After making steady progress over a decade, a series of bad choices at Westminster triggered collateral damage in Wales and elsewhere.

 

The impact on the party’s Assembly standings in 2011 was less severe than expected. Welsh leader Kirsty Williams will be hoping that history repeats itself in that respect at least.

 

Polling predictions don’t always tell the whole story, but the chances of an entirely happy ending are pretty remote.

 

"Welsh Liberal Democrats have been fighting for fairness for our communities. We will continue to listen, so we can deliver a Wales that works for you."

 

Kirsty Williams, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader

 

 

Have voters forgiven the Lib Dems?

 

A popular graphic used in election leaflets is a bar-chart showing the standings of respective parties. Usually you see an arrow pointing to one of them, accompanied by the maxim “Can’t win here”.

 

As far as Welsh Liberal Democrats are concerned, that assessment can probably be applied in all but two of the 40 Welsh constituencies.

 

Even then, as a recently commissioned poll confirmed, there would need to be some qualified mathematical conditions in play.

 

Having benefited greatly in the past from the proportional representation system used in Welsh Assembly elections, the party now seem destined to be its victim. This is likely to be at the hands of UKIP.

 

A view among a few academics – and political opponents – is that the relative popularity of Welsh Liberal Democrats is determined by events that happen elsewhere rather than ones of their own making. It’s an elegant theory but not entirely accurate.

 

The party prospered as an Assembly force under the leadership of Mike German, even enjoying a spell in shared government with Labour (2001-2003). Somehow though, they never quite made the breakthrough achieved by their local government counterparts.

 

Conversely, their AMs avoided the kind of thumping meted out eight years later by council voters determined to deliver punishment by proxy over tuition fees and other broken Westminster pledges.

 

It has been the job of current Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams to pick up the pieces following a similarly disastrous general election result. She still appears very much up to the task.

 

I heard her speak at a recent leaders’ debate in Swansea where she reminded the audience how this Powys farmer’s wife had a childhood bedroom that looked out over Trostre tinplate works.

 

In fairness, it didn’t sound like an effort on her part to invoke the all-things-to-all-people approach that has managed to make Liberal Democrats both likeable and electable in the past.

 

Although her critics condemn her for it, Williams is one of those politicians with a shrewd grasp of the possible in terms of inter-party negotiations.

 

This came across with the publication of the manifesto. The clear intention at the launch was to press home the message that a Liberal Democrat influence would see more nurses, smaller class sizes and better economic opportunities for employment and assisted home-buying.

 

The question for voters is whether they are prepared to give the party enough clout to make it happen.

 

Lib Dems have not wasted effort on attempting to repackage the party. There are few signs of them re-embracing the kind of pavement politics which once distinguished them as community champions.

 

Occasionally I hear the view that the party may well have been a mitigating influence upon Conservative excesses during the Westminster coalition. It was a theme fostered by the Liberal Democrats at the time and I’m no more convinced by it now than I was then.

 

Nonetheless, there is a perceptible sense of forgiveness out there coupled with a large increase in Liberal Democrat membership. It could be a factor.

 

My instinct is that the likelihood of voter sympathy translating into actual support is doubtful – but I’m the first to admit that stranger things have happened in elections.

 

 

 

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