Why the Liberal Democrats may struggle to win back Ceredigion
Ifan Morgan Jones
At the beginning of this campaign, I thought that there was one seat in Wales that was almost certain to change hands: Ceredigion.
The Liberal Democrats won only 4.5% of the vote in Wales at the 2017 General Election but when the 2019 GE was called they were on 12% in the polls in Wales.
Given that the Liberal Democrats only needed a 0.3% swing, or 104 votes, to re-take Ceredigion it seems like a given that they would pull it off.
They had also just recently won back Brecon and Radnorshire, a similarly rural seat, at the August by-election.
Ceredigion’s Plaid Cymru MP, Ben Lake, may well have felt the same as I did – he was the teller for ‘no’ when Westminster voted on an early general election!
He is no doubt an extremely popular MP in Ceredigion, but in any seat the MP is only worth a thousand votes or so and can do little when there are big national swings against them.
However, as the campaign has progressed I’ve changed my mind and now think that Ceredigion is too close to call, and may be veering towards a Plaid Cymru hold.
This is partly because the Liberal Democrats campaign has stuttered on an UK-level.
The party went into the campaign in quite a strong position, with a chance to convince an electorate unsure about Labour or the Conservatives that they were the ‘sensible middle option’.
With the electorate fractured four ways (ands five in Wales and Scotland) they could make the case that they were as likely to win the election as any other party. Unfortunately for the Lib Dems however, as soon as the election was called the Conservatives managed to largely gobble up the Brexit Party vote.
This meant that Labour could say that ‘only they could beat the Tories’ and voters who may have been tempted by the Lib Dems flocked back to Labour as the lesser of two evils. The electoral system at General Election was built for two-party politics and that largely reasserted itself.
What has transpired as a result has been a vicious cycle where the Lib Dems’ standing in the polls has fallen, further compounding the sense that a vote for the Lib Dems is a wasted one, which has then precipitated a further polling dip.
Earlier this week the SNP were briefing that even Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson’s own seat was “hanging on a shoogly peg”.
It’s a stark illustration of how the Lib Dem campaign has gone that Jo Swinson started off saying she could become PM and is now rushing back to save her own seat.
As a result of these travails, the Lib Dems have dipped to 9% in the latest YouGov Welsh Barometer Poll, up only 4.5% on 2017. Plaid Cymru are also up 2% on 2017, so polling the gap nationally isn’t quite as big as it was.
However there have been other problems with how the campaign nationally has been run that have made the Liberal Democrats’ job in Ceredigion harder than it should have been.
The Liberal Democrats in mid-Wales simply aren’t the Liberal Democrats elsewhere. They are the unbroken inheritors or a tradition going back to the old Nonconformist Liberals who conquered all of mid-Wales in the 1880 election.
Liberal here doesn’t necessarily mean socially liberal. There is actually something quite libertarian but small-c conservative about them, making them the choice of self-sufficient farmers across this rural constituency.
They had managed to retain this independence of character because until 2010 the Liberal Democrats’ identity as a national party has always been a little bit hazy.
Because there was no serious prospect of being in government they could essentially be all things to all people at a constituency level. They were the ‘none of the above party’, at their most effective when fighting a by-election on the prospect of a hospital closure or the closure of a school.
This ability to be all things to all people was dealt a blow in 2010 when they became a party of government and made unpopular choices that didn’t play well in many of their own constituencies.
Their best bet therefore going into this election was to shift the focus back to the constituencies and at a national level largely become a blank canvass on to which those unhappy with Labour and the Conservatives could project their own politics.
They could become the party of the socially liberal in urban areas and the libertarian in seats such as Ceredigion.
They got this badly wrong however, when they decided to rebrand themselves as ‘Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats’.
I can understand why this was done. With Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn so unpopular, they probably saw an opportunity to present themselves as a genuine alternative party of government and that meant having a genuine alternative PM.
But Jo Swinson was a minister in that 2010 coalition government, tying them back to the unpopular austerity policies of that government, and highlighting rather than avoiding the key question of ‘what do the Lib Dems nationally actually believe?’
One problem of course is that Jo Swinson isn’t that popular herself. By the time the election campaign kicked off her unpopularity rating had grown to 48% according to YouGov.
The second problem is that the Liberal Democrats in Ceredigion, as already mentioned, aren’t Jo Swinson’s Lib Dems. They’re not the young, cosmopolitan, socially progressive party that the Jo Swinson brand suggests.
The second I saw that battle bus emblazoned with Jo Swinson’s visage, I instantly felt that perhaps seats such as Ceredigion would slip through their fingers.
This might not have been a fatal mistake had the campaign in Ceredigion largely ignored the national campaign and Jo Swinson and put the focus on the Lib Dem candidate Mark Williams.
This would have allowed Mark Williams to fight the election as essentially an independent candidate, running on local issues against a Plaid Cymru incumbent and a Plaid Cymru council in Ceredigion.
What we have seen in Ceredigion however is quite the opposite. I have received four or five glossy pamphlets emblazoned with pictures of Jo Swinson but only one black and white pamphlet with Mark Williams on it.
The Liberal Democrats’ rebranding as the ‘Stop Brexit’ party could also cause Mark Williams something of a headache in Ceredigion.
Remain did win the day in Ceredigion with 54% of the vote, but that leaves nearly 46% who voted Leave. As we know Welsh-speaking Plaid Cymru voters largely voted Remain.
That means that Mark Williams’ winning coalition probably included a large part of that 46% Leave vote, meaning that there’s a good chance that the Lib Dems’ support for Brexit could see them lose votes to the Conservatives or Labour in Ceredigion.
It was notable that in the one pamphlet I have received which included Mark Williams, there was a great deal of focus on local issues such as Bronglais hospitals and stopping drilling in Cardigan Bay. But there was no mention at all of Jo Swinson or stopping Brexit.
In other words, Mark Williams himself is trying to fight the campaign that would win him the seat. But the flurry of pamphlets coming in from the Lib Dems nationally is undermining his own winning narrative.
The Lib Dems may hope that the money they’ve spent sending glossy pamphlets to Ceredigion will be enough to drive the message home that they are the only alternative to Plaid Cymru, and hope the anti-Plaid vote coalesces around them.
However, I do feel that strategic missteps at a national level may now just be enough to put a popular MP in Ben Lake and Plaid Cymru over the finish line once more.
And if the Liberal Democrats fail to retain next-door’s constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire as expected, Wales could remain Lib Dem free at Westminster and the political tradition that began with that 1880s landslide could be snuffed out for good.