In the wake of the fantastic win for the Welsh Liberal Democrats in Brecon & Radnorshire, there has been much talk of the effect on that election of the 'Remain Alliance'. There is no doubt that the Green Party and Plaid Cymru standing down helped, but we should be careful about reading too much into it. There are great claims circulating that 'it was that wot won it', so to speak, but I think that's in no way certain at all.
Firstly, it should be noted that neither party has been a significant factor in elections in that constituency - even in 2015 and 2017, when the Lib Dems were at their lowest ebb electorally and in the polls, they only managed to poll a couple of thousand votes between them. When the Lib Dems were winning, their combined vote wasn't really far over the one thousand mark at best. It is true to say, of course, that this time around the Lib Dem majority ended up 'only' being that kind of figure, but in the context of that election and the way that other party votes were being crushed by tactical voting, it's entirely possible that their combined vote would have been down in the hundreds anyway. And we don't actually know that all of those potential votes transferred straight across to the Lib Dems.
We need to be clear about what really happened with this 'Remain Alliance'. Two parties who had no hope of winning, and barely any hope of even holding their deposit, stood down. As a result a contest that was neck and neck, and could have gone either way, ended up with a Lib Dem majority of over a thousand. It almost certainly helped, but we certainly can't say for sure that it made a difference to the result. What we can be fairly certain about is that those Green and Plaid votes weren't in themselves anywhere near being the most significant factor in overturning a previous Conservative majority of 8000 or so (although the very fact of having a 'Remain Alliance' itself may well have attracted additional votes, especially from normally Labour-supporting Remainers).
There are many different variables in any election (and this one even more so, given the context of the former MP and Tory candidate and his conviction), and I'm not about to go into all of them, but while the 'Remain Alliance' idea was helpful, it would be unfair to characterise it as the main factor that caused the swing and the result. It would by unfair to say that the Lib Dems there owe everything to Plaid and the Greens (although that may be how those parties would like to portray it, of course). That said, we also need to note what might have been the effect of a 'Leave Alliance' between the Conservative and Brexit parties on the result (and this is a fairly 'balanced' seat in that sense, having voted roughly in line with the UK-wide result in the referendum).
Now, when it comes to a wider 'Remain Alliance' for a future General Election in Wales, I guess all this sounds like I'm trying to minimise its importance and head off down a negative path towards the idea. Not at all, actually. Quite the opposite. Brecon & Radnorshire is a seat where one of the 'Remain' parties was not only clearly first among them all, but was already in a good position to have a serious chance of winning the seat regardless of what the other parties did. That's relatively unusual in Wales. There are a few other seats that could be said to be like that, but across much of the country it is more a case of those parties wondering which, if any, might hold their deposit, and which, if any, might even get themselves into a decent third place place.
At this point, for non-Wales-based readers, I should perhaps point out something here. Wales is probably the most 'competitive' political environment of any part of Britain. Unlike England, we have a major 'nationalist' party in Plaid Cymru. Unlike Scotland, the Brexit Party (as it is now, as it was with UKIP previously), is actually a serious electoral force and prospect. To put it bluntly, despite the apparent dominance of Labour for the last century or so, we simply have more viable parties here who could potentially win seats, or at least significant numbers of votes. That context does matter.
Since (and even in advance of, including in the European Elections) the Brecon & Radnorshire election, there has been lots of talk about a 'Remain Alliance'. Feelings are running high on both sides of that argument, but we do need to be careful to understand the Welsh context properly. I'm a Liberal, a Liberal Democrat, and a pro-European, of course. I see many similar people, especially across the border, hailing the 'Remain Alliance' idea and heaping praise on Plaid Cymru as if they had handed us a seat we'd otherwise have lost heavily by standing aside. As I've just outlined, that isn't quite the case. Many of them don't really seem to understand Plaid as a party, and their (slightly strange) internal alliance of Civic Secessionists, outright (screaming) Nationalists, and disaffected 'Old Labour' Socialists.
Many also don't seem to understand quite how recently they converted to being a 'Remain' party. I was a candidate in the 2017 General Election, and sat in hustings talking about having a new referendum on the terms of the deal with my counterparts from Plaid, UKIP (then - now Brexit Party) and Labour (the Conservative candidate didn't bother to turn up). I was firmly in a minority of one - the Plaid Cymru policy then was very firmly 'respect the result of the referendum (albeit to have a 'Soft Brexit'), and that didn't change for quite some time afterwards (if I remember rightly, they didn't fully come around to a 'Peoples Vote' supportive position until they changed leader in September 2018). Plaid Cymru are not the SNP - they haven't been anywhere near an openly 'Remain' party throughout this process at all.
That means, I think, that we have to be very careful in forming an alliance for Remain with a party that might not be quite as fully and deeply committed to it as some people seem to think. I suspect that is a large part of what lies behind some of the apparent reluctance in Wales to dive headlong into such a deal. There are other factors, of course, including local ones (especially in the one seat that has a history as a Lib Dem/Plaid Cymru marginal, where there has certainly been, shall we say, some 'bitterness' between the two in the past (and there are many factors involved in that)). As a Liberal, I certainly don't see Plaid as being 'close natural allies' to the Lib Dems just because we seem to currently support the same line on the biggest issue of the day, or because we both oppose the dominance of the 'big two' created by our broken electoral system, or even because I am (as I've made no secret about) what some might call a little 'indy curious' myself (I'm not going to go into explanations of that issue here, but suffice to say it's certainly not because I'm any kind of narrow-minded 'Nationalist'!). I'm a Liberal. They are not (in general, or by policy) Liberals.
Again it sounds like I'm being negative about the 'Remain alliance' idea. I'm not. If we are going to go down that road, though, we have to do it with our eyes fully open. We have to have a firm agreement about exactly what we mean, and what we are agreeing about. We can't have any kind of informal approach of standing aside for each other without having set out why we are doing so and what we are agreeing to work together to achieve. We can't fall into the trap of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend', even in these strange political times - vaguely agreeing on a single issue, no matter how big, is not enough to form the basis and entirety of a situation where some political parties stand aside for others in different seats. We need clarity, and we need 'rules' set in stone about what we're fighting for, and what we'll then do if we gain some success. Even more so when we are dealing with a party that hasn't really shown any great length of commitment to that 'cause'.
We could, of course, just take the approach of 'locally' standing aside in those seats where one of the parties looks like they have a serious chance of winning. But what would be the point? In the context of the coming election being dominated by that one issue, 'tactial' voting really ought to be able to do that job for us all anyway (if the parties involved are any good at campaigning). It won't help us win, or be competitive, as an 'alliance' in as many seats as we potentially could be, and we'd still end up tearing each other apart publicly in the media because we're still fighting each other everywhere else (and that could damage the prospect of attracting each others' votes as an 'alliance' where we have stood aside, too - people are less likely to vote for a party that they see constantly attacking their own preferred party).
So what is the alternative? A full deal where we take the 40 seats in Wales and split them up between ourselves to maximise the potential 'Remain' vote? Is that realistic? Well, there are some obvious problems. One leaps out immediately - neither Plaid or the Lib Dems will surrender in Ceredigion, where they are actually fighting each other for the seat (with both having a realistic chance of success). It is, I think, possible for us to 'agree to disigree' on that one, though, and it might even be possible to have an agreement where the local parties involved agree to at least keep everything as 'civil' as possible so as not to disrupt cooperation elsewhere. Other than that one, why not? Why not actually try to change politics for good by doing something truly extraordinary in these extraordinary times. If we're not going to change it now, we never will.
What would be the 'end game', though? That's what we need to ask ourselves at this point. Nobody wants to put themselves in a position where they abandon completely the idea of campaigning locally in an election that they might not win (because it might help them to improve their situation for future elections), and nobody wants to rob their local electorate of the chance to vote for their party, and rightly so. In a democracy, everyone should be able to vote for the party or individual that they most agree with. The problem we come to, though, is that our democracy and electoral system is itself almost entirely broken and dysfunctional. It forces us to think the unthinkable about having to do such things in order to have any chance of ever overcoming the protected and privileged position of the 'big two' parties. This wouldn't be a choice any of us involved in democratic campaigning would willingly want to make, but one that is force upon us by the challenges we face.
That being the case, I see no point in a one off 'Remain Alliance' for the sake of the Brexit issue alone. Like Brexit itself, it wouldn't actually solve the real problem even if it was successful. Again, though, I'm not being negative towards the idea. It's just that I think we need to get it right if we're going to do it. For me, it would have to be about something more than Brexit alone - it has to be be a starting point to address the real issues, and as I've said before the real 'game changer' on that is electoral reform. If a 'Remain Alliance' is to happen, it has to also be every bit as firmly and prominently about the electoral system, and changing it to ensure that we never, ever need to go down this road of alliances and swapping standing aside in order to stand a chance of overcoming the inherent disadvantages handed to us by the system. It has to also be about Proportional Representation, or there is just no point in doing it. Without that, we'll end up here again at some point - talking about trying to do an extremely difficult deal with people we generally disagree with in order to achieve something against the wishes of the 'big two' parties.
If what we are talking about, then, is a 'Remain and Reform Alliance' to deal with Brexit and fix our broken politics, that is an idea that I can get fully behind. Yes, it comes with all of the problems I have already mentioned and more, but doing that effectively just once really could mean that we never have to do it again - once we have a decent PR system in place, with transferable votes, the whole concept of 'tactical voting' as we know it comes to an end, along with the idea of 'you must vote for Party X to stand any chance of defeating Party Y here'. That itself presents challenges to all parties and the way they do the business of campaigning, of course, but that's a matter for each of them to address for themselves.
It's a risk, of course. Even with a proper agreement in place, realistically we're not just suddenly all going to be trusting each other, loving each other, and sending each other flowers. Is it worth it, though? What are the potential gains to be had? We have to compare possible outcomes, both 'best' and 'worst', against what would happen if we all just carry on as normal. And we really have to look at those from not only the point of view of achieving the Alliance aims themselves (which realistically may or may not happen), but from the point of view of what the effects are for the party and advancing our general political aims.
Looking first at 'best' outcomes for the party, in a realistic way. Is it going to give that 'alliance', and all of its parties, more seats? The answer to that is 'yes' - at best, it could well do. As in B&R, it's not just the sum of the parts in vote terms, but also the gains from the deal itself in terms of attracting voters that may otherwise have gone to whichever one of the 'big two' was the least worst option for the individual (not to mention votes from those fed up with the whole circus and not feeling like there's any prospect of shifting them). On a party basis, it could put the Lib Dems in with a real chance of winning back a seat like Montgomeryshire. On top of that, even if we don't win more seats, it could put us in contention for future elections by putting us in a very strong second place - that could happen not only in a potentially winnable seat like Mont, but also in some others too. Perhaps even some slightly surprising ones (given that we're not only dealing with the left/right, Labour/Tory situation of old, but also the remain/leave balance among the electorate). It could allow us to concentrate our 'local' resources (including some potentially otherwise lost deposits) into places where we wouldn't normally be in particularly strong contention in order to get ourselves into a position where we could be in future, and that could be a big gain (even though it isn't a seat gain). We could come out of this with a a few Welsh Lib Dem seats (up from none at the last election, don't forget), and also a few more seats where we're in a good position for development. It might not work, obviously, but also it might - there is, I would say, a decent chance that it could.
What would be the cost of that? Of course, it would mean 'sacrificing ourselves' in other places. Being in a realistic position to win a Westminster seat is not the only consideration for campaigning locally in General Elections. It is a massively important springboard for other things - campaigning in wards where we hope to be able to win future council seats, for example. What is also vitally important in Wales (and this is something that is absolutely key that some of the advocates of this idea outside Wales may not be fully grasping in their enthusiasm) is the development of votes for future Welsh Assembly election, particularly when it comes to winning Regional Seats (and it's why such an 'Alliance' could never be contemplated in a Welsh Assembly election - people are far less likely to vote for a party on the Regional list if they aren't standing in the constituency). In Wales, every vote matters in a way that it doesn't in England - to win Regional AMs, which is how the Lib Dems are most likely to win AMs, we need to cultivate and look after our votes in the deepest of 'black hole' areas. We need to get and keep our overall percentages up. We cannot afford the relentless targeting attitude that can prevail elsewhere. We really cannot afford to 'disappear' anywhere, and standing aside in a Westminster election would be a huge risk on that basis.
I do think that there is a way of mitigating that issue somewhat, though it probably wouldn't eliminate it altogether. If we aren't standing in some of our weakest areas, we aren't spending out deposit money. Not only could it allow us to use it and other campaigning resources elsewhere (and in many places our local parties cover more than one constituency, so it's not like local parties are necessarily thinking about giving away the money to others), it could also allow us to, for example, put out a leaflet (perhaps even a paid delivery leaflet to every household) in the seat where we have stood down. We could deliver a leaflet telling people that it is only for that one election, why we have stood down, and so on - not standing in a seat doesn't mean that we have to be completely invisible and do absolutely nothing (even if we avoid election expenses complications by doing it before and/or after the election). This is something that could be considered at a Welsh/Federal level too - it would be hugely important, and the cost of helping local parties in Wales to do it would be relatively small. In some places outside of target wards, such leaflets could effectively even represent a bigger 'campaign' for us than actually standing and working a ward or two normally would. Yes, it would probably mean not knocking doors in our future target wards in the way that we normally do, but then that also frees up resources that could be used elsewhere, and could help to win us other seats, so even that has pros as well as cons. I guess there is also the potential of having, as part of any deal, a leaflet delivered during the election campaign by those who are standing with statements from those who aren't - that would work both ways, obviously, and is something we'd have to consider in terms of merits or otherwise for all concerned. Not standing doesn't need to mean being invisible to the electorate as a party.
What happens if we dont do it at all? Well, for starters, all parties would lose that additional potential 'Remain Alliance' attraction, as well as losing votes from the other parties involved. We'd be sending a message that it's 'business as usual', rather than it being a 'moment in politics' where we really could be voting to change things. Overall, the result for the Lib Dems could all too easily be another wipe out as happened in 2017 - perhaps an improved situation in those handful of seats where we're already in a strong position, but not quite close enough to actually win any of them. That could mean losing Brecon & Radnorshire, and not only would that be really bad for the party, but it would be a really bad look for public perception and our future percentages with those Regional AM seats in mind. Following that great byelection win by being 'wiped out' a few months later could very well be a complete disaster for the party - we need to show in some way that it is part of a movement upwards, and the beginning of something, not a brief swan song on the road to our ultimate demise. It's really that important to our future, and the future of Liberalism in Wales as a viable political force, I think. Not entering a 'Remain Alliance' comes with significant risks too, especially for us. Of course, there are also risks for other parties - in the case of Plaid, they would be likely to be, and be seen as, going nowhere, and it could be worse for them if the tiny majority in Ceredigion was overturned (that would be good for us, obviously, but overall would make no change to the 'Remain' campaign - the 'Remain parties' overall being seen as 'going nowhere' ultimately does none of us, or what is our current common aim, any favours at all).
We really shouldn't see 'business as usual' as being the 'risk free' option, or even as being much of a 'lower risk' option at this point. The chances of the outcome of that being particularly for us, other parties, or the Remain cause are tiny. What we, as a party, have to weigh up are the risks to our local and Assembly vote against the potential gains and losses of doing nothing. And personally I think the 'Remain Alliance' comes out significantly ahead on that. Such an alliance offers the possibility of us making significant gains in our stronger areas (including possibly seat gains), set against the risk in other places of going backwards a step or two down a well-greased ladder that we're already fairly near the bottom of anyway - at worst it mostly probably leaves us pretty much where we have been sitting for the last couple of years. Not having such an alliance not only leaves us where we are, but pushing us backwards in some of our strongest areas and reversing the massively significant and symbolic gain we've just made in Brecon & Radnorshire. For me, that's a no brainer.
Of course, I know there are those who will say there should be no deal negotiated at a Wales or UK level, and that everything should be done by local parties. I agree on a general principle of localism, but we shouldn't allow ourselves to fall into the the trap of allowing that to become outright, blind parochialism, and that's a huge danger here. Of course local parties should be consulted and informed about the process, but there has to be wider coordination. And ultimately we shouldn't be so self-destructive as to allow the whole idea, with all its potential benefits to our party and the country, to be derailed by a local party who refuses to play ball because they think they might just win a council seat in a target ward in a few years time in a seat where they're likely to lose their deposit while only campaigning in that one target ward. Local parties have to think about their local situations, but as Liberals and Liberal Democrats they also have to think about the wider picture - to me, there is absolutely no point in watching the whole country go to hell in a handcart over brexit and permanently broken politics for the sake of winning a seat or two in a council chamber. I will make no apologies whatsoever for saying that the massive damage of Brexit, broken politcs and an effective hard right coup aided by an incompetent hard left opposition absolutely trumps the possibility of having a minor influence on bin collections, library opening hours and pothole repairs. Every single time. Those things are important, of course, but let's not lose our perspective.
There are also those who will say that we must maintain our Liberal ideological purity, and never support or be seen to supporting or assisting or working with anybody else who doesn't share them. Those who would only vote for a 'Liberal', no matter what. I am in favour of exploring the possibilities of this idea BECAUSE I am a Liberal, not despite it. For me, part of my ideological background is an understanding of the need for pragmatism, and the idea that it is generally better to get the imperfect solution actually done than sit on the sidelines bleating about how only perfection can possibly ever be acceptable while improving nothing at all for people (and watching my world burn around me in a bonfire of howling populism, isolationism and illiberal and irrational supremacism). Of course, I would under normal circumstances only ever vote for someone I believe to be a Liberal. These are not normal circumstances, though, and I would have no hesitation in 'lending' my vote to another party as part of a wider alliance for the greater good. I would regard my vote for them not just as something about mitigating the immediate crisis the UK faces, but also as a 'proxy' vote for returns elsewhere - my vote here for another translating into a vote that wins the Lib Dems a seat elsewhere in Wales that we wouldn't otherwise win. I would be biting my tongue somewhat while doing it, no doubt, but if the end result is an extra Lib Dem seat elsewhere (especially in Wales), and maybe even the chance of an end to the hundred year dominance of Labour locally in favour of a different party (even though that party isn't my own), I'd take that as a 'win'. Willingly.
Yes, there are risks in doing this. Big risks. There are also big risks, and I would argue potentially bigger risks, involved in not doing it. If we're going to do it, we absolutely need to do it properly - with a proper Wales-wide agreement that maximises the potential for a positive outcomes for both the 'Remain and Reform Alliance' overall, and for my party overall (and as a party we would need to be concious of the need to work hard to mitigate the risks and potential disadvantages as much we possible can). A piecemeal kind of approach is not only likely to not be effective, but I think it probably maximises the risk at the same time - again, if we're going to do it, let's do it properly. I am an ideological Liberal, and this is inevitably a difficult choice to wrestle with, but ultimately I am not only willing to acknowledge the current extraordinary dangers and need to try something extraordinary in response, and the potential gains for the Welsh party overall outweighing the potentially losses for some areas (including my own), but I am also really not at all in favour of the concept of taking a bloody great axe to my own face on the grounds of some vague notions about nasal purity.