‘WE’RE NOT GOING TO FORM ANOTHER PARTY’
Welsh Liberal Democrats’ leader sets out her priorities
THE Liberal Democrats were once a major force in Welsh politics. They shared power with Rhodri Morgan’s Labour Party in the first Assembly term, and in the 2010 election more than one in five voters in Wales (20.1%) backed the Lib Dems.
But in last year’s election they won just 4.5% of the Welsh vote and not a single MP was elected.
And while Brecon and Radnorshire Lib Dem AM Kirsty Williams exerts importance influence on the future of Wales as the Welsh Government Education Secretary, she is the only member of her party left in the Senedd.
The Lib Dems from across the UK who have gathered in Brighton for their conference are still convinced this explicitly pro-EU party has a vital role to play in UK politics but can they convince voters? Are the Lib Dems poised for rebirth or is this party inching towards its demise?
Jane Dodds, the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, is neither an AM nor an MP but she wants to see the party not just delivering a clear message on Brexit but leading the fight to tackle the modern “scourge” of loneliness.
The Lib Dems struggle to do better than 10% in UK polls but she argues her party is a natural home for pro-EU voters.
She said: “If I’m honest, I don’t understand why all Labour voters who are remainers aren’t abandoning Labour, because they really are siding with the Brexiteers.”
Now, winning back the West Wales heartland is a priority.
The party won just one MP in 2015, when Mark Williams held on to Ceredigion, but he was ousted last year by Plaid Cymru’s Ben Lake with a majority of just 104. enough parties as it is and I think people are fed up with new parties coming and going. We are remaining the Liberal Democrats and if people want to come and join us that’s fabulous.” Boundary changes mean the numTackling loneliness has been slated ber of MPs in Wales may be cut from as a top Lib Dem priority. A personal 40 to 29, but Ms Dodds is determined priority is championing measures to to once again see this West Wales deal with loneliness, such as the heartland painted yellow. appointment of a “loneliness czar”
She said: “We are going to be fightand an end to cuts to services which ing, we hope, all 40 seats – or whatever threaten to make the problem worse. there’ll be – but we are prioritising She said: “My mother suffered from Ceredigion. It’s the second most windementia. My father actually suffered nable seat in the whole of the UK... Alzheimer’s as well... They became
“So we are absolutely doing everyvery lonely, very isolated in North thing we can to plan for that.” Wales...
The UK party could follow Wales’ “It is something we have to address lead and be led by someone outside as a health issue. I want it to be part of the Commons. UK leader Vince Cable a health agenda... has suggested the party could be led “People go into hospital. Someby a non-MP. times they dread going home because
Ms Dodds points out that Wales has they are going to be on their own. already blazed this trail, and hopes “We’ve got to do more.” such a move could lead to greater The party should be something diversity at the top of the UK party. more than “moderate”, says Ms
She said: “Look at us in the Welsh Dodds, who is clearly Liberal Democrats. We’ve already impatient at the pace of got the model of electing ecting someprogress in the polls. body who’s not an MP or a “In my m view, we Welsh Assembly Member. I should b be further forthink that’s really positive... itive... ward th than we are
“In the federal Liberal eral Demobecause we have got crats, we’ve never had ad a female this oppo opportunity,” she leader, like Labour. We’ve never said. “Labour “Lab are going had a black leader, so o there’s potenmore left; the Conservtial there for greater diversity and I atives are going more think that’s really excitingright.”and citingright.”and energising.” However, Ho she
She has no interest st in wants want the Lib the Lib Dems forming ga a Dems Dem to do more new party with centrist st than appeal to Labour and Conservv“moderates”. “m ative MPs. She said: “I’m
“We’re not going to o not no mad keen form another party,” on the word she said. “We’re defimoderate... It nitely not going to do sounds a bit that. There are dull d and bor- ing. We need to have a progressive, exciting, radical agenda that makes sure that we appeal to those people who don’t want to be right-wing and don’t want to be totally left-wing either.”
Despite the strength of Ms Dodds’ ambitions for the Lib Dems in Wales, there are doubts that a revival in the party’s fortunes is imminent.
The Lib Dems have actually done worse in Wales than in the rest of Great Britain and Professor Roger Awan-Scully of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, one of the nation’s most prominent political analysts, said the party’s “electoral fate still looks pretty grim at the moment”.
He said: “[In] both the last two general elections, the Lib Dems have actually done worse in Wales than in either England or Scotland in terms of share of the vote. In the land of Lloyd George, they have been doing worst of all...
“We don’t seen any signs in the polls of them staging any substantial Welsh recovery yet... At the moment they are just flatlining.”
The party won 23% of the UK vote in the 2010 election, which saw Nick Clegg take the party into coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives, but in 2017 they were backed by just 7.4% of voters.
Prof Awan-Scully said: “It seems something fairly catastrophic happened to their support... A lot of voters don’t seem willing to forgive them for that.
“Given the scale of the potential problems the UK is facing with Brexit, not delivering on a promise on tuition fees might well strike many people as relatively minor but something happened to them, to the nature of the vote.
“I think a lot of people broadly on the centre and the left basically still have not forgiven them for going into coalition with the Conservatives.”
He added: “We have a Labour Party that’s moved significantly to the left. We have a Conservative Party that in many respects seems to be more to the right than it was under David Cameron; there does seem to be a big yawning gap in the middle...
“But the Liberal Democrats don’t seem to be able to persuade [moderate Labour and Conservative MPs] to defect or to persuade many voters to come with them.”
He was also cautious about the Lib Dems’ chances of taking back Ceredigion, saying: “Plaid now have a young, very talented, very engaging MP in place who, I suspect, will be gradually building up a personal vote in the same way that Mark did, so I think it will be pretty difficult to win that seat back. Short of a major, national Liberal revival I think they are going to find it very difficult to get back on the scoreboard at the next general election in Wales.
“They still to me rather resemble one of those cartoon characters that’s run over by a steamroller and is trying to push itself back into shape properly.”
Former Ceredigion MP Mark Williams admits the present situation is “frustrating” but he says he can see evidence of Lib Dem messages resonating with the public, particularly with the push for a second Brexit referendum.
He said: “I can remember making very lonely speeches in the general election in those leaders’ hustings about that issue. Now, many more people from across the political spectrum are talking about that.
“But the frustration is that, as a party, we are yet to pick up the dividends of those important messages – but we persevere.”
Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Jane Dodds
Professor Roger Awan-Scully