This year, there have been one or two disadvantages to Party political conferences being held virtually. Firstly, of course, there are no late-night hotel bars in which to meet like-minded bright people for impromptu policy conversations. Secondly, there is no glitzy, attractive footage available to the media, meaning that, so far, Labour and the Liberal Democrat conferences have been largely passed over by the mainstream media.
Sir Keir Starmer’s speech to Labour was pushed a long way down the pecking order, as it came on the same day as Boris Johnson’s address to the Nation amid the tightening of Coronavirus restrictions. Perhaps this is why the Labour leader was allowed a “right of reply” broadcast on the BBC the following day – for I cannot think of another example where this has happened before.
This weekend, it was the turn of the Liberal Democrats to host their online oratory. Speaking to the BBC ahead of his keynote address, the new Lib Dem Leader, Sir Ed Davey, pledged to increase the number of Liberal Democrat seats in the Senedd, ahead of next year’s Welsh poll. He said that Kirsty Williams’ record as Education Minister in Wales was something to be proud of, and that his Party could shout about at the next election. He felt that this would lead to the Liberal Democrats “Winning Here”, although he wouldn’t be drawn on exactly how many seats his Party would pick up.
Of course, the latest Welsh Political Barometer polls, led by Professor Roger-Awan Scully, suggest that this is something of a pipe dream. In the most recent poll, on both the constituency and regional ballot, the Liberal Democrats were on just 3%. That’s certainly nowhere near enough to pick up any seats on the regional list.
Of course, Kirsty Williams does have something of a local following in her Brecon and Radnorshire constituency. Let’s not forget that she’s held the seat ever since the very first Assembly election back in 1999. That said, even after the debacle of the Chris Davies recall petition, Fay Jones for the Conservatives won the seat with a majority of over 7000 in last December’s General Election. Whilst Westminster polls are not directly transferable to Senedd elections, it does make you wonder if Kirsty Williams’ seat is perhaps a little more vulnerable now than it was in 2016, in a world without Brexit and COVID-19.
Ed Davey’s claim that the Liberal Democrats would win more Welsh Parliament seats attracted a fair amount of ridicule from those of a right leaning persuasion on Twitter. Even I jokingly put up a tweet asking if the Senedd were raffling off any old office furniture, suggesting that was the only way that the Party was likely to win seats. That aside, what is true is that Kirsty Williams does have a reasonable record as Education Minister. During the COVID-19 crisis, she’s had a fairly good war. She ensured that Welsh Government moved in step with parents on the question of reopening schools, although some would argue that the Welsh Government were perhaps too in sync with Unions. She deflected the exam results problem, and in press briefings has come across as credible and personable.
It will, however, take more than the record of their only remaining elected representative in the Senedd for the Liberal Democrats to live up to their slogan of “Winning Here” next May. Whether they like it or not, the Lib Dems are now ranked with UKIP, the Brexit Party and Abolish as the minor parties in the Senedd poll. Much can happen between now and next May, but although it’s not impossible for the Lib Dems to pick up one or two list seats again, they must at least double their current polling figures in order to do so. It’s a tall order.