‘Why did the Lib-Dems fail at the Senedd election? – because it was mess’
A former leading Lib-Dem AM has described his party’s Senedd election campaign as “a mess.”
In a scathing indictment of his party’s efforts, Peter Black, now a Lib-Dem councillor on Swansea Council, has also lamented his party’s huge losses of £33,000 in deposits with only one MS returned to Cardiff Bay.
In his blog he writes: “Three and a half years ago, I wrote in ‘Liberator 387’ that the Welsh Liberal Democrats were facing an existential crisis. We had emerged from the 2017 General Election without a single MP representing a Welsh constituency, our small but successful Welsh Assembly group had been reduced to a rump of one and our councillor base much diminished.
“Unfortunately, the time that has passed since I wrote those words has not been well-used. The triumph of the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election proved to be a false dawn, and once more the party finds itself hanging on by its fingernails in Wales.
“Despite an unprecedented investment in staffing and campaigning resource, the recent Welsh Senedd elections were a mess. Those of us seeking to persuade voters to consider placing their cross next to Welsh Liberal Democrats candidates were hampered by a vacuous national slogan, an anonymous manifesto, poor messaging, a shaky digital presence, and bland literature that was not even distributed in all constituencies.
“This was not the fault of hard-working and committed staff, but a failure in the planning stage to craft a distinctive message and vision which the party could campaign on, and to address the organisational issues that have plagued the Welsh Party for some time. The result was £33,000 in lost deposits, £15,000 of which was lost in contesting PCC elections, which were largely treated as an afterthought.
“The slogan on which we staked our future was ‘Put Recovery First’, three words that were repeated ad nauseum in interviews, in literature and on ballot papers, as if it had not occurred to any other party or candidate that this might be a good thing.
“It was a slogan adopted at a time when Labour were reaping the benefits of a successful vaccination programme, were viewed as having managed the pandemic with a surer touch than their counterparts on the other side of Offa’s Dyke, and were dominating the headlines with their plans to move Wales on. Why did we think that we could compete with that or appear distinctive through a three-word phrase?
“By and large our policy positions were sound and interesting, they just didn’t attract much attention, mostly because our spokespeople did not talk about them and, with the exception of mental health and a vague unexplained and unfunded promise about the environment, they did not feature on our literature.
“In one instance that was fortunate. The proposal for the Welsh Government to underwrite personal debt was misconceived and should never have made it into the manifesto, further evidence of us lacking any sort of political filter or understanding of how things play on doorsteps.
“The areas of Wales we have always relied on to get us over the line have changed beyond recognition. Rural Wales is no longer populated by traditional liberals, while the farming fraternity has always largely voted Tory despite the misguided contrary view held by some ‘senior’ Liberal Democrats.
“A large influx of English voters and the breaking down of tactical voting patterns subsequent to the coalition has made these seats much harder to win. In addition there is little all-year round campaigning in any of these areas, and scant work outside election time in those parts where Labour is strong, making it more difficult for us to convince voters there that we are a viable alternative to the Tories.
“Despite that we continue to focus our resources and time into these constituencies at the expense of the rest of Wales, leading to local parties elsewhere becoming moribund and causing an exodus of activists.
“This exodus was exacerbated by the capitulation of the Welsh Party hierarchy to the Feds during the 2019 General Election, when they didn’t just give Plaid Cymru and the Greens free rein in certain constituencies, but did so against the wishes of local parties, undermined key activists and ceded our autonomy as a Welsh Party on key matters such as candidate selection and approval.
“They turned the Welsh Liberal Democrats from a proud, independent political entity into a client of the federal party. It is little wonder that a number of valuable members took that as a cue to call it a day and find other political outlets as independents or in different parties.
“For some considerable time, the Welsh Liberal Democrats hierarchy has been missing in action, failing to coordinate or lead campaigning activity, to communicate effectively with members and activists, issuing dubious decrees from on high during the pandemic and failing to explain when challenged. There has been little or no two-way dialogue.
“That was reflected in the way the party approached the Senedd campaign. In addition to the inability to articulate a vision for Wales or how the party might deliver a more liberal government, their strategy amounted to just more of the same, reinforcing the mistakes of past elections and further widening the gap between better resourced areas and the growing number of campaigning black holes.
“There was clearly an attempt to direct resources at our two most promising regions, Mid and West Wales and South Wales Central. The first of these includes Brecon and Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire, and Pembrokeshire, the second consists of Cardiff, Rhondda Cynon Taf and the Vale of Glamorgan. Despite that there is an ongoing inability to understand how fighting a region in a top-up list election differs from the more traditional constituency campaigning.
“It was also apparent that the party had no idea which voters we were targeting, what messages would most effectively win votes in these elections or how best to use the resources we had. The key in any top-up list election is to get cross-over votes between the two ballot papers, but also to perform credibly in our weaker areas so as to reach the threshold necessary to win a regional seat. We just about did that in Mid and West Wales, with the election of Jane Dodd as the last list member for that region, but this was achieved more by luck, than good judgement.
“Other areas were mostly left to their own devices, benefitting from funding from the Welsh Party for regional freeposts, but failing to do anything in derelict or semi-derelict constituencies.
“If this article appears negative or particularly grumpy it is with good reason. A comprehensive review was carried out following the 2019 General Election with thirty-nine recommendations that seems to have been shelved until after the Senedd elections. Many of the actions in that report could have made a big difference this time but were not implemented.
“Developing a distinctive vision around which the Welsh party can unite will not be easy but should embrace a commitment to social justice and internationalism, citizenship and community and should embrace Welsh culture in both languages.
“Above all though, we need to rebuild campaigning capacity across Wales, led by and resourced by the Welsh party. The local council elections next year may well be make or break. In particular if our so-called target seats in mid-Wales are to continue justifying their status then we should expect significant progress at a local level.
“We cannot continue to ignore the lessons of this and previous campaigns. Grassroots campaigning is meant to be our speciality as a party. If we can at least get that right in 2022 then maybe there is hope for the future.”