A PREDICTABLE DISASTER
With Jane Dodds elected on the regional list, Welsh liberalism isn’t quite dead yet. But the result in Wales is still nothing to be proud of.
It’s true that the pandemic has dominated the news agenda above all else over the past year and has also meant we’ve been unable to do our usual level of on the ground campaigning. It’s also the case that the UK party is still struggling to emerge from the shadow of coalition. Across the UK: it’s not clear what we stand for, we frequently have nothing to say on major issues, many of our natural supporters have drifted over to other progressive parties, we’ve hindered our recovery with some very poor strategic decisions and election campaigns in recent years, and we probably chose the wrong leader.
In Scotland we’re now at minor party status after losing a seat. In London we came in 4th place to the Greens by some margin in both the Mayoral and Assembly votes, and in many areas of historic strength at a local level we not only haven’t recovered from coalition but have slipped further back as other parties have grown in strength.
Despite that, we did hold most council seats, made significant gains in some areas (including some unexpected ones), and are emerging as clear challengers to the Tories in parts of southern England. There’s a clear path to increasing our parliamentary party at the next General Election. Even with our severe decline in Scotland, we held our four constituencies comfortably and came very close in another seat. There are serious problems but still a base to build from, and with the independence/unionist dynamic of Scottish politics there is at least a partial excuse.
We can’t say that for Wales. And we can’t blame anybody else. The fault lies squarely on the shoulders of the Welsh party.
Poor leadership, vacuous messaging, a weak manifesto, no strategy for gaining votes to speak of, a poor digital presence and not even any freepost literature in most constituencies – whilst deeply sad for many hardworking candidates and campaigners, for the party as a whole the results were deserved.
They were also entirely predictable. We have failed to learn anything whatsoever from election results in Wales at all levels of government over the past 10 years. The party has made many mistakes in this time and arguably before that but has chosen to hide from them rather than address them. We can do this no longer.
As the Senedd results indicate, if Plaid Cymru has been shouting Yes Cymru! into an online echo chamber, then we’ve been whispering nothing so much into a void.
OUR POLICY PITCH
Our pitch to the electorate was little more than a shopping list of vaguely worded policies – which, to borrow a marketing concept, were presented as features rather than benefits.
Our slogan was ‘Put recovery first’, but in all honestly, I already can’t quite remember exactly how we were planning to do that. It failed to cut through. It wasn’t obvious why exactly the other parties couldn’t be trusted to help Wales recover – particularly as Mark Drakeford’s Labour party were widely considered to have done a good job in managing the pandemic, or how a party expected to gain 1 or 2 elected members at most would be able to deliver this. Genuinely held perhaps, but it wasn’t a unique selling point. Any other party could have said it and sounded like they meant it. It was evidently not cutting through, but we had nothing else and stuck with it regardless.
There are good policies in our manifesto – there always are. But aside from the simple fact that most people will never read it, the key messages failed to resonate and were never likely to. A party emphasising its bold plan for communities they’ve allowed themselves to all but disappear from, there’s a credibility issue.
Aside from ‘put recovery first’, the only things that sunk in for me were that we had a policy for 24-hour mental health services, without being entirely sure of what the details were, and a Welsh Language Act, without having any idea of what the details were. I’m aware we wanted free bus travel for the under 25s, but you know, nobody has been using buses for the past year anyway. I also know we want to devolve the justice system, but I think I only remember that last one simply because I’m not sure if I agree with the policy (it’s not clear to me from our manifesto that we truly understand the practical reality of doing so, nor is it something we put any effort into arguing for during the campaign).
And I’m someone who has been paying attention.
Mental health is incredibly important and right for us to have clear policy on, but I don’t think we ever really made clear why only the Welsh Liberal Democrats could tackle this and why anyone should consider it a key factor in how they vote.
The same goes for our commitment to a federal UK. It’s something I strongly support, but I’ve yet to see the party make any real case for it. Even when directly asked the question in the leader’s debate, Jane Dodds managed to evade giving any explanation as to what we actually mean by federalism, what impact it would have on people’s day to day lives, or how it aligns with our values.
It feels a lot like the problem we had with the EU before the referendum, in that the Liberal Democrats never really told the public why we believed in it or what the benefits were. In fact, we did our best to avoid doing so – which allowed others to frame the debate. It’s true that independence would be a ‘distraction’, but as a message it simply isn’t good enough on its own, particularly if that message is already effectively co-opted by other parties. Just look at how it’s worked out for our party in Scotland.
WHAT DO WE REALLY BELIEVE IN?
For a long time, we have failed to make clear what it is exactly that Welsh Liberal Democrats believe in – what our values are and what our vision is for Wales and its place in the UK. We’ve failed to inspire any real sense of feeling towards the party in Wales and have failed to articulate what exactly makes us different and better than any of the other parties. It was the same again in this election.
If I wasn’t already a Liberal Democrat, I can’t think of any reason why I would want to vote for the party in Wales. Our UK brand has problems, but they’re even more acute here. It’s harsh to say, but if we had been wiped out, who would have noticed?
On major policy areas – transport, housing, justice, even education, despite us running the department for 5 years – yes, I know we have policies, but I’m not always sure entirely what they are or what we really stand for. And if I’m a bit sketchy on it, what then for the general public?
The party’s long held tendency to ignore issues that aren’t directly applicable to the Senedd, as if the public always makes the distinction, doesn’t help much either. On social media, issues such as the policing bill, unsafe cladding, vaccine passports, UK Labour’s reversion to ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric and examples of Priti Patel’s ongoing disdain for human rights and international law, to name just a few, were largely left to pass us by.
Whilst we have managed to articulate our views on some issues quite well on a few niche political news websites, the problem is that most people are simply not seeing it. That’s partly a consequence of a weaker Welsh media and our perceived irrelevance owing to our lack of elected representatives, but it’s still a problem. On Brexit and our renewed stance in favour of a better deal with Europe, we had little to say in public, despite an obvious gap in the political market and the absence of anything else to say. Our pitch for Universal Basic Income consisted of a likely little seen YouTube video with Jane Dodds a few weeks before the election. Quite often we seem to do policies in isolation, as if as long as we present them nicely on our website, then voters will join the dots and see the significance all by themselves. It’s perhaps a bit naïve.
I just don’t know who exactly we are hoping to vote for us and why we think they should. Other than rural voters in Mid Wales and LGBT+ students, who is the party aiming for? Who precisely do we think we’re talking to?
A DISTINCTIVE VOICE
At the same time as not often having much to say on UK wide political issues or things the federal party is doing, the Welsh party also lacks any real distinctive voice of its own.
Weaker party organisation and limited financial means have meant we’ve always been very reliant on the federal party for both resources and brand identity. Since coalition and the wider decline in party fortunes, that reliance has been a serious problem. During the coalition years, little effort was made to show any divergence in thought between the Welsh party and the federal one and now with no unique political offering in a crowded centre-left field in Wales, after being punished we’re simply being ignored.
The annual pre-election news article about how the party is looking for a revival or that we’re on our way back in Wales, they never really explain why it’s important that we do. Because the reason why is not evident.
Carwyn Jones has just said of Plaid Cymru’s disappointing election result that they simply don’t reflect back a version of Wales that most people recognise. That’s true. But are we reflecting much in the way of anything at all?
We could be quite accurately described as a loose association of local parties, with pockets of strength in parts of the country but absent entirely from most of it. Arguably then we simply no longer register as a serious consideration for voters when deciding on what they want the whole country to look like.
Simply putting Welsh in front of the party’s name is not an identity. In our historic areas of liberal affinity in rural Mid Wales, the ties have weakened. Nor are rural issues in Mid Wales of huge significance to the majority of the population living in more urbanised parts of Wales. And without wishing to downplay their importance to many people, Welsh language schools, transgenderism, and Erasmus are not the most pressing issues facing the country. Whilst council services are important in local elections, nor are bin collections and potholes. So, what do we stand for?
With many other parties sharing policies and strands of ideology with us in Wales, it’s hard to stand out. But we also have a tendency – prevalent in the federal party too – to either effectively cede policies to other parties entirely or change them for the sake of distinctiveness. On many projects specific to Wales, such as the South Wales Metro, regional city deals, the M4 relief road, the Swansea Tidal Lagoon, despite having opinions on them (arguably only vocally made in the latter example), there’s never really been any association with us. It rarely feels that our positions on them are part of any overarching vision for the nation or a clear statement of our values and priorities.
The limited consultation over coalition in 2010, or over the remain pact in 2019, and the carelessness of some federal campaign communications and even literature – none of that suggests that Wales is ever at the forefront of the party’s mind in London, let alone well understood. But, who in Wales is fighting our case? How much influence are the Welsh Liberal Democrats exerting on the direction of the federal party? If we lack a distinctive voice even within the party, is it any wonder that the Welsh electorate fail to recognise one too?
I don’t want to take anything away from those who worked hard to put our mini youth manifesto together, but I do have to ask who exactly it was for? Much of its content had little obvious relevance to young people. 16 and 17-year old first-time voters are mentioned in Jane Dodds’ introduction but how does ‘put recovery first’ resonate with them? Recover from what? The impact on their education, their future career prospects, being able to socialise with friends and do the things that they would normally be able to, the loss of family members?
It’s a shame, because we had a lot of young candidates standing, with a lot of enthusiasm. If we do this again next time, our young members should take the opportunity to put together something a bit more personal on issues that matter to them and other young people, even if they aren’t explicit policies in our main manifesto or even if they aren’t devolved – drug law reform, the rental market, LGBT+ issues, the need to regain EU freedom of movement, Kirsty’s Erasmus replacement, the impact vaccine passports would have on young people if implemented – there’s a lot that the party could have promoted. It would be good to see that sort of thing outside of election time too. If the central party’s digital campaigning remains lacklustre, then why not give them something to promote.
It’s easy to simply say we need to be better online. Harder to implement. But it is a fact that our digital presence is extremely poor and has been for some time.
Progress has been made since a few years ago when many local party websites and social media accounts lay dormant, in some cases being up to a year out of date – even in areas where we had strong local parties. But we’re still not there yet.
Many Twitter posts from the Welsh party are barely getting more than a handful of likes. Our Facebook pages and internal groups aren’t exactly engaging. There’s little use of the Lib Dem Voice website beyond the occasional bland press release. Online surveys, although largely intended to capture email addresses, still require better questions than those we typically put out. Many of our graphics are quite badly proofread – a mix of grammatical errors, bland or unclear wording, poor design choices, and some that aren’t even checked at all (last week a graphic titled climate emergency went out with a picture that I presume was supposed to be about mental health). A lot of the party’s posts also seem to have been about reminding people how to vote rather than a pitch to vote for us, which is a strange approach considering we’re a political party not a public service. At one point in the campaign we even posted a Pokemon gif – it’s almost as if we know nobody outside the party is paying any attention.
In the last few weeks of the campaign there were a lot of staged looking photos of candidates standing next to things without saying anything of note – what works on a leaflet isn’t always very interesting on the screen. I did see some personality shine through from a few of our younger candidates on social media during the campaign, or at the very least I felt I gained some insight into what they were like as people. To the candidates in our key seats, I’m sorry but your social media output on the whole couldn’t have been any duller. Candidates have to be careful in what they say, of course, but not banal.
Layla Moran and Tim Farron do a pretty good job at humanising themselves and seeming passionate in the way they write and in what they write about online – they do it on tv too. Luisa Porritt, our London mayoral candidate, was pretty good at it as well – very active and very likeable. I know she had a strong communications team behind her, but even if she failed to break through electorally, she at least achieved some visibility for herself and motivated activists. Sian Berry of the Greens was even better at it. There will be countless examples, within our party and outside of it, of politicians, or aspiring-politicians, using social media and indeed mainstream media in an engaging manner. People don’t like identikit politicians. They like them less if they’re not yet even elected. It’s something we need to be better at.
I like Jane Dodds. She’s a decent woman. But she has felt anonymous throughout both her term and the campaign. And her handling of the 2019 General Election pact with Plaid Cymru and the Greens was not a fine example of strong Welsh leadership.
Yet, she surprised me with quite an impressive performance in the leader’s debate. She was confident, empathetic, and direct in most of her answers. Her repudiation of coalition, that was powerful – but if she feels so passionately about it, why hasn’t the public heard it before? If she’s capable of that level of performance under pressure, why is it so rarely seen?
Kirsty Williams is somebody I also like. And she was for the most part a strong leader. She was also a more than capable Welsh Education Minister and helped pass a number of important policies. Yet none of that has been associated with the Welsh Liberal Democrats and it brought us no electoral benefit whatsoever. It’s not apparent that the Labour party wouldn’t have done most of the same things on their own anyway.
As much as some might say it was about making a difference in government, ultimately the party voted for Kirsty to enter a coalition with Labour for the sole reason that it clearly had no idea what else to do.
It’s quite clear that the party had no more idea of what to do by the end of her term as it did at the start. Kirsty was hindered by collective responsibility whilst in office and the party did little other than post occasional graphics of policy achievements – as if voters would know how great we are simply because we’d told them she’d done something, even if they weren’t necessarily affected by it. During the last month of the campaign we pretty much stopped doing that too. After announcing that she would be stepping down, Kirsty herself effectively went missing in action and little attempt was made to even register her achievements in government with voters as Liberal Democrat success.
And what of those surrounding the leader? And those in other party leadership roles? What responsibility do those on our executive committees have for our electoral fortunes? And our Welsh members of the House of Lords, what have they been doing? Where are the big personalities in our party? How many Welsh Liberal Democrats could any voters name in many areas?
Ultimately, our party leadership needs to honestly ask itself the question, ‘what have we been doing?’
Our strategy, or lack of it, was a glaring problem in this election. It’s unclear to me where exactly we thought the votes were going to come from. We didn’t even bother sending freepost literature to most constituencies.
It’s as if the party learned nothing from 2016, when we lost all of our regional members having made no real attempt to keep hold of them. The result in 2016 was fairly predictable. The result this time was entirely predictable. Jane Dodds was elected by pure luck.
For a party that wants proportional representation, we are terrible at winning votes under it. That applies all over the UK of course, but Wales being one of only two UK regions which failed to elect a Liberal Democrat MEP in 2019 is quite telling. Immediately after the 2016 election, we should have made a clear plan to target at least some of the Welsh regions and done our best to help build up local party activity in a few more seats within them – Mid & West Wales and South Wales Central would have seemed obvious starting points.
Our electoral strategy since 2010 has been to neglect everywhere outside of four target seats – and was barely wider than that even before coalition. Everywhere else has been allowed to fall back to the point of collapse. It’s been a strategy of wilful abandonment.
Our strategy this year was effectively to do the same as we’ve always done, despite ever-worsening results. A bastion of Welsh Liberalism for over a century, in Montgomeryshire we are now third. In Ceredigion, we fell to 4th. Whilst we did just about earn a list seat in the region, surely our 2019 results in those seats gave us some warning that we couldn’t automatically rely on them for enough votes to ensure that. Despite what the pundits said, we clearly weren’t the favourites in Brecon & Radnorshire and should have been aware of that, so finding the money to at least send freepost literature to show a bit of visibility in the whole region would have been a sensible approach. In South Wales, we secured a very respectable result in Cardiff Central, but it was still a distant second. The seat hasn’t looked winnable since 2011, so why do we keep behaving as if there aren’t another seven seats in the region to potentially draw votes from as well?
Our pick an area, bombard voters with leaflets and knock on doors approach to campaigning is a vital tactic for electoral success (when done well), but it’s not an electoral strategy – and the other parties have caught up. In some areas, they’re arguably even doing it better than us. And when it’s the only thing we’re relying on and a global pandemic prevents us from doing it, well that’s a problem. Literature also needs to be high quality and that’s not always the case. Even in 2019’s successful Brecon & Radnorshire by-election campaign, there were complaints from activists about the quality of the literature. ‘Lib Dem works hard’, ‘Other party can’t win here’ – it only goes so far, and clearly in Mid Wales many ‘other party’ voters simply don’t believe us anymore. We need to be smarter.
What we’re doing just isn’t working.
We can’t win back lost votes if we poll virtually nothing in 90% of the seats. How do we rebuild in areas that have been hollowed out – of votes, of resources, of activists, of motivation?
The first time an appeal to Labour supporters to vote for us tactically on the list vote was made was less than two weeks before the election, by a young party member on social media. Why on earth did it not occur to the party to do so itself? This appeal should have been very clearly made in targeted online adverts and on freepost leaflets to the relevant regions.
The party can say ‘we couldn’t afford it’ all it likes, but we should have begged, stolen or borrowed – or quite frankly considered this over the past five years. I know we’ve had an EU referendum and two General Elections and limited resources anyway, but it felt like the party didn’t even try and do anything to prevent a very predictable result in this campaign.
We found £20,000 to spend on Police and Crime Commissioner deposits, which I do understand was solely for that purpose, yet made no attempt to retain those deposits. We predictably lost 3 out of 4 of them.
Our policy platform for this set of elections was actually quite distinctive, topical and liberal – the policing bill, facial recognition technology, drug policy, community policing – we should have promoted these policies online and in freepost literature. We probably could have got something more in parts of the media too. Hell, maybe we could have used the space to explain why we want to devolve the justice system. Aside from potentially helping to retain our deposits, it would have encouraged crossover votes to the Senedd elections.
THE PARTY MACHINE
We’ve actually made little progress in Wales since the Senedd’s inception in 1999. We were stuck on 6 seats for several election cycles, then down to 5 in 2011 before the collapse in 2016. In that time we held no more than four constituencies at Westminster level, but came extremely close to winning a number of other seats during 2010’s Cleggmania bounce, some of them with little help from the Welsh party – astonishing when you look at our vote share in them today. With the decline in our councillor base and perceived lack of relevance on a national scale, it’s hard to imagine that not so long ago we ran three major cities in Wales.
But aside from acknowledging the impact of coalition since 2010 (which admittedly was massive), it’s not apparent that the party has ever honestly asked itself why we never made any further breakthrough in the Senedd or why our results across all levels of government keep getting worse.
There’s been a complete lack of accountability for the failures of the past decade. The same people keep doing the same things over and over, some of them unable or unwilling to engage with criticism. And now here we are.
The stitch up of certain constituencies as part of the remain pact with Plaid Cymru and the Greens in 2019 is indicative of the attitude towards those outside of the clique.
How many experienced activists has the party alienated or allowed to drift away over the past decade? How many of those who found themselves in influential party roles did so because of who they knew rather than because they were genuinely best suited to it? How many new and enthusiastic members have we failed to engage with and retain? How many former staff members or candidates are no longer involved with the party in any meaningful way? Those are rhetorical questions, because the party knows the answer, yet it never seems to ask itself why.
We’ve talked about serious reflection before and it hasn’t happened – not really.
It’s time to recognise that some of those in positions of influence within the party simply can’t cut it.
So, what to do now.
Well firstly, just to be clear on this – Jane Dodds should not enter any sort of coalition agreement with Labour, no matter what is offered. They don’t need us this time, but if the idea is floated the party should not entertain it. Back them when we need to, but we can’t rebuild whilst in government. The last five years has shown us that.
But what she must do is hit the ground running. She needs to show leadership and unite the party. And we can’t just hope that as long as Jane Dodds is a hard-working MS the electorate will take notice of us again. We need to know what it is we want her to achieve and what image we want the party to present. The party needs to rediscover a sense of purpose – to show voters why we exist, not simply that we do.
How are we different to the other parties in Wales and why should it matter if we are? Who should our voters be? Who are they voting for now? Why? What do people think of us? What do we want them to think of us? What sort of language and platforms should we be using to convey our messages? We need to ask ourselves these questions.
We need to be asking our members why they joined the party to begin with. And for those who’ve been around a while, why they’ve stayed? Those in the position to shape our party’s future need to honestly ask themselves, if they were coming into politics for the first time today, based on this campaign, would they join the party now?
There needs to be a serious analysis of why the party has gone so far backwards in Mid Wales and in Wales as a whole. We’re at the point of extinction and there’s no hiding anymore. The party needs to take an honest and thorough look at itself and think about why some people are still voting for us and why for the most part they are not. We need to look at every major decision taken by the party over the past decade or more and ask ourselves what could we have done differently? And those leading on this probably shouldn’t be exactly the same people who have led our decline.
We need to be undertaking a long overdue audit of the Welsh party’s campaign capacity and from there develop a strategy to rebuild. It’s a big piece of research but it needs to be done – and done very early in this election cycle. This needs to look at membership levels in local parties – current and historic, the campaigning resources those local parties have, and the results in all elections over the last 15 years. We should be looking at demographics and local contexts and opposition in all parts of Wales to establish which areas could potentially be fertile ground for us and where we could build or rebuild a local presence. Local parties need to be asked for their views and supported in developing their own strategies for growth.
At a constituency level, Brecon & Radnorshire is the clear target at the next set of national elections. We must get it back. We need to not only work our other three traditional target seats, but also build our presence in a few other ones too. We cannot have yet another election where simply retaining our deposit is seen as a positive result in an area. If community politics is something we believe in and something that works at a local level, then we need to be visible in more communities than we are now. Otherwise any national focus on this aspect of our party simply looks unbelievable outside of a select few areas.
We need to have functioning regional campaign committees with regular meetings, ones not dominated solely by those with a vested interest in the traditional target seats. Our finances are ever dwindling, so we need to present a clear strategy for revival to the federal party and demand that they back us with the necessary resources to achieve this.
It’s time to put the party’s recovery first – to think about what we stand for, to develop an adaptable communications strategy, a stronger digital presence, and candidates and local parties that feel more capable, confident and supported. We need a deeper pool of candidates for all levels of government full stop. We need to build our university societies. We need to find out what skills our members have and utilise them – or rather get them to want to let the party utilise them. We need to find out what skills our members might want to have and help them develop. We need to inspire our members, train them, and go and get new ones and train them too. We can’t simply bundle people out into the street to deliver leaflets and knock on doors with limited explanation as to why, and then wonder why many of them don’t come back. We need some big personalities willing to drive the party forward but with the desire to put the party’s ambitions and not their own first. We need new ideas and we need to utilise existing ones that work. None of this will be easy, particularly with limited finances and without the staffing support we’ve had in the past. But it’s time to be less myopic.
Next year’s local elections are crucial for rebuilding the party. But our local election campaign efforts need to be more than just hope for the best. We need a clear plan for how we intend to win and where we intend to win. Local parties need to be motivated and supported by the central Welsh party to effectively target and campaign. We need to be doing this right away – if not already.
In areas where we have councillors, we need to keep them and to gain more. In areas where we had councillors, we need to gain as many of them back as possible. Whether the strategy is to be bold or cautious in how many seats are worked – it needs to be clear why. We need to make it clear in people’s minds why they should vote for us and our candidates and not for anyone else. In areas where we lack historic strength, we still need to be standing in as many seats as possible and targeting where we can. And we need local parties to work together and support each other where they can. That means drawing in activists from areas where we have less chance of success, but not without genuine gratitude and without reciprocal help provided where needed.
Local issues matter and are what typically wins us seats. Stick to that. But too often it fails to translate to votes beyond a council level and too often we fail to capture voters more swayed by party branding than local champions – because we simply never tell them anything about us. Anything remotely ideological is written in platitudes and we simply don’t give anyone a reason to identify with us. Perhaps it’s time to argue and inspire just a little bit more than we do now – at least sometimes. Because the other parties are doing it.
Ultimately, the party needs to think about what it would ideally like to look like and what it would ideally want Wales to look like. It needs to think about what it wants to achieve electorally and legislatively. And then work backwards to see how it can get there.