Wednesday, 11 May 2011

What next for the LibDems in Scotland?

No getting away from it but the results for the LibDems last week were an unmitigated disaster!

In England and Wales it takes them back to the early 90s but in Scotland it takes the Scottish Liberal Democrats back to where they were in 1979 - if not before.
That is over 30 years of incremental steps flushed down the toilet - disappeared like snow off a dyke, destroying all the advances under Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Chris Rennard!
Someone in the blogosphere said to me before the results, that In Scotland it looks like we are finished – no-one is listening! And sure, I have already noticed the BBC completely marginalising the LibDems from their political discussion - perhaps given our derisory result this is fair!
But, there are a few crumbs of comfort.
Where we had established MPs in the UK as a whole the LibDem vote held up.  The wipe out came where we had made very recent advances in Labour areas – perhaps that is entirely understandable.
In fact, we held on in many parts of the south and the south west.
I am conscious that a 15% vote is a whole lot better than our poll ratings and not far off our typical between election ratings – albeit at a local election where we always do tons better than at a General.
Scotland is where it is most dire and where I am worried about the future.
But even here let us think some more about where we are.
This is a low water mark with a freak tide.
In these conditions there are still several seats where we achieve a large vote. Much like we had in 1979! It is imperative for the LibDems to stay engaged and active with the electorate in these areas and make sure we hold as many Westminster seats as possible and can come back at a subsequent Holyrood election.

This is of course no mean feat because some of this ground once lost could be gone forever.
A new leader will bring with it a chance for renewal.  At time of writing I am expecting this to be Willie Rennie.  We need him to have all the charisma and intellectual rigour he can manage.
The UK context

We must also remember that in the UK context - and yes Scotland is part of the UK - we are still a big party – and in a UK context bigger than the SNP.  We are also in government.

We need the LibDems to be distinctive within a coalition of two parts! We need Clegg to be our leader.

We must also beware! Beware of looking too English.  It doesn't always do us much credit here in Scotland, but to look too English is political suicide.

The LibDems at Westminster need to realise this.  We need Charlie Kennedy and Ming as an elder statesman.  We need our stronger performers like Jo Swinson and Alistair Carmichael.  We need Danny Alexander to look as bright and able as he is - and he doesn't always get this over. And we need Michael Moore to step up to the plate more than he has done. 
Our fortunes are very tied in with the coalition and the perceived performance of the LibDems and of Nick Clegg in particular.

What of Nick Clegg?

Clegg has had a torrid time - and there is a fair amount of absolute bilge written about him.  However, he has not always seemed sure footed with political nous.  Last year I was very impressed with the preparation for and the run up to the election campaign.  The website was good, the positioning was good, the party platform was good, Cable played a blinder, the launch was excellent, Clegg showed real quality in debate, and the Daily Fail et al trying to kill him off was seen off well - not least with the internet trumping the print media!  I was a little unsure of how Clegg handled the close of the campaign allowing himself to be too drawn on the who would you support afterwards question.  I felt he handled that less well than his predecessors.

Since the election I felt they handled the coalition negotiations well - but, with hindsight some mistakes have been made and Clegg seems to lack political nous at times.  The way tuition fees was handled was a huge mistake.  The way the coalition operates and the way Clegg appears as an ambassador for the Coalition rather than the Liberal Democrat's leader appears not quite right.  Someone has suggested some of this may come from working in Europe where the fighting is done behind closed doors more than our public bear-pit adversarial tradition.

Whatever the case I am glad Clegg is coming out fighting, as are others.  They need to think this through and to change perceptions.  And, I would say that Ashdown, who was an enormously successful leader, was wooden and unsteady in the early days.  So all power to Clegg who, I think, as more steel and more intellectual depth than his enemies realise.
LibDems defecting to the SNP
The SNP gained lots of previous LibDem voters.

We need to remind this group of why they liked the LibDems in the first place if they are going to come back to us. 
We lost badly because of the loss of credibility over English tuition fees and going into coalition with the Tories - still an unforgivable sin in Scottish politics.

I knew the writing was on the wall for the Scottish LibDems when three things happened in that final week. 
First, a co-worker announced they had voted LibDem last time and no-one would be voting LibDem again.  No hostility just for him a complete lack of credibility because he perceived we had gone back on our platform and gone with the Tories which he could never accept.  We had become irrelevant to him.
Second, a close relative who is also English (unlike me) announced they would vote SNP!!!  They don't like the SNP, as an English person they don't really realte to them.  But to them the LibDems couldn't really be trusted to do anything they said if in a coalition situatuion and they liked the SNP stance on tuition fees given they have kids coming to that stage in the next two years.
Third, when I read Tory Gavin Brown's good morning leaflet which very effectively put over that the LibDem vote had collapsed all over Scotland over the campaign.  It was so effective and spoke to the polls and the national mood - we had no credibility even as an electoral force in our strong areas.  This meant all those pretty bar grapphs and betting odds were de-bunked with a few words.

I knew then that even our rump support and LibDem fanboys would be washed away by an electoral tsunami.

We need to rebuild

We need to reassert who the Liberal Democrats are and what we stand for - and we need to particularly do this in Scotland.
We have been down before - the late 60s when we had only 6 seats in the entire UK.  The late 70s when we fell back from the success for the 74 elections, again in the late 80s following the bust up of the Alliance when the Greens outpolled us at the Euro-elections and the national poll ratings weer worse than now!. 

Then, as I hope now is the case, we came through because there was market demand for many to vote for a moderate left of centre party! 

There is however a problem in Scotland - that is EXACTLY how the SNP present themselves! They also have a charismatic and polical genius of a leader in Alex Salmond.  They have the credibility of being in government and being perceived as doing ok.

This is of course an easier gig.  They are the government not the junior partners.  They don't have the fall-out from a global financial storm of the century to deal with directly.

So cracking Scotland will be very hard.

We could build credibility using the local elections.  We are after all in power, with the SNP, in Edinburgh.  But this will prove difficult as the ill fated trams project threatens to derail this as the vehicle back from the brink - as local government did for us in the 1990s.  
Our future is bound up in how the public perceive the SNP over the next few years every bit as much as our future is bound to how the LibDems perform and are perceived to perform at Westminster.
The future

The SNP will have their challenges over the next few years.  However, Salmond is clealy a political genius.
The SNP were nowhere in 80s, slowly stumbled forward in 90s and early 2000s but over the last 5 or 6 years they have got professional.  I always think you can tell the party that has mementum at an election count because they have lots of young people in suits! Last Thursday the SNP had a lot of young people in suits! 
The LIbDems need to pin a lot of hope on the SNPs fortunes over the next few years or otherwise.  Will they prove to be a house of cards?

There is a tough time ahead.  While they can hope to deliver some low hanging fruit in terms of policy initiatives the deficit cuts will bring challenges.  The Scottish government will have to deliver cuts and the expenditure environment will restrict their room for manoeuvre, and possibly their room for deivery on their agenda. 
They are also Nationalists, hitherto most of Scotland is not.  Much of what they do and the national discussion will be seen through a prism of the relationship with the rest of the UK.  There is a risk that some of them will start to sound shrill! (Even if in election mode they have done so well to sound positive)
The Times on Saturday put it very well - the vote for the SNP was a vote for an aspirational Scotland, not a vote for independence.

Of course in the wave of enthusiasm and optimism the SNP may be able to change hearts and build confidence in this matter.  Time will tell.

However, I am sensing a fair amount of tosh been written about the constitutional question at the moment.  The election of an SNP government with a majority means this question will be to the fore and we will debate this a lot in the next few years - and all the options of developing autonomy.

I look forward to it.  I hope we get it right.
LibDem positioning
The LibDems have always been a non socialist alternative to Tories - and in Scotland we have been a non nationalist alternative to Labour. 
We must be clear of this and rebuild on this basis.
Never mind anyone else - we need to communicate who we are and what we are about from first principles upwards.
I believe we understand the needs to have a have a successful business environment to empower Scotland as a country and to prosper.  We also believe in having first class public services free at the point of delivery.

We are Internationalist in outlook and believe in reform and looking forward.  We are modern and aspirational and open minded.
Being green is part of our DNA and has been since it was less fashionable - we have a passionate interest in developing renewables and alternative forms of energy for the future.
We are also great believers in community politics, of decentralisation - and I think empowering micro groups out in society doing things.  The big, blunt statist solution is not for us.
We want Scotland to grow and to prosper - both as a society and as an economy.

The SNP may be similar but Salmond, rather like Tito and the old Yugoslavia, holds a disparate group together – they are doing it rather well but it may not always be so.
We have to be us.
One good thing is that Scotland's political world has been turned upside down with the debunking of Labour.  It opens up the chance to have a new politics that is not ruled by a Labour single party state.
The old tribal loyalties are dying as the generations move on.  As in the rest of the UK the electorate is far more volatile.
These changes have delivered growing success to Salmond’s SNP
In the recent past they delivered success to us in the suburbs of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, in parts of rural Scotland - an aspirational open minded electorate.
Scotland has always done well as we our outlook in terms of science, ideas and trade look beyond our borders – and our dreams and ideas are allowed to soar.  The SNP, ultimately, may not be the best vehicle for this.
Holyrood is about to see the return of two party politics and a stale fight of little differences between SNP and Labour.

In that fray we need to take our part in the thought leadership of the nation.  We need to be clear about who we are and what our ideas are that will allow Scotland to prosper. 

I think we also need to be clear that we are very much part of the UK - the time has come to remember the things that hold us together because I believe they are rather more than the things that tear us apart.
And we must play our part in Europe - because globalisation will not go away whatever UKIP or some Tories may think.

In conclusion

There we have it.

The LibDem future in Scotland depends very much on the pereception of the LibDems at Westminster and the SNP at Holyrood.

But we must also work hard at playing a full part in the thought leadership of ideas to take Scotland forward - and then establishing a simple and clear positioning.

We need Willie Rennie to be good and our Westminster MPs to be strong and visible.

None of this will be easy but I hope we succeed - I know we will try!


  1. Very interesting post.

    One thing I learnt recently was that the LD/SNP Council in Aberdeen had effectively privatised economic development planning to a board of local businessman, they don't even provide councillors with written reports anymore!

    I know the Lib Dems and SNP seek to support business but this to me is yet another example where ideals such as decentralisation and local democracy are thrown out the window. Fits in nicely with the public consultation on Union Terrace Garden which was ignored when it produced a negative response

  2. I know they have had their controversies there.

    Don't know the details.

    I wonder how much influence council officials have over this sort of thing bringing in a technocratic solution that brings efficiencies - and before you know it you have implemented something runs counter to idealology and root policies.

  3. I think the best option for the Scottish LibDems would be to break from the UK LibDems (realistically after the next UK election) and re-invent themselves as a Scandinavian-style centrist or centre-left localist agrarian party. The problem is that people who have been voting LibDem over the past decade have had vastly divergent ideas about what they stand for, and it's now less clear than ever.

    It seems that your greatest surprise form this election was that your English relative would vote SNP. I'm English, I live in Scotland, I intend to stay in Scotland indefinitely, I routinely vote SNP in the absence of a Green option, and I intend to vote for independence in any such referendum. I don't think my position is all that unusual going by experience, and I don't think your implicit assumption that English people don't (or ought not to) vote SNP is as accurate as you imagine.

  4. Maybe this has changed as has the nature of what independence means to the SNP.

    I have two English friends in Scotland who are uncomfortable about supporting the SNP but do not fear them in a way they once did.

    If independence becomes auotonomy in partnership with other parts of the UK it gets close to the LibDem position of Federalism.

    Agree the LibDems north and south need to be clearer about who they are and what they stand for - this is a key message of the last year!

  5. I wonder if it's also a generational thing. I'm at the younger end. I moved to Scotland when I was 18 -- after devolution and after the start of the Iraq war. Part of the appeal for me at the time was that Scotland looked more progressive than England. I was happy to see Scotland doing its own thing, and I wanted to be part of it.

    It's certainly fair to say that I identify with Scotland much more than with England now. As do many of the (mostly younger) left-leaning English people who live in Scotland than I know.

  6. I was surprised that the libdem position in Scotland is so unionist, while the majortiy of Scots are opposed to independence it seems most would like more autonomy

    I was expecting a big SNP win but not this big. I thought that voters would decide (at least subconsciouly) that the Scottish govt would get more out of negotiations with the coalition if the had the big stick of independence to wave.

    Do you think that it might be time for the main parties to be more independent of their UK headquarters and maybe even become wholly separate parties

  7. Thanks Richard,

    I think many in the Scot LibDems would agree. Unionist is a funny word. it conjurs up images of Tories or of funny men with bowler hats and orange sashes from Northern Ireland.

    The party appears unionist in reaction to the SNP who have been on the up over the last 5 years. Also Tavish Scott, our leader, was, I think, quite pro unionist as you'd expect from a Shetlander.

    The SNP got momentum and contrasted well against their opponents hence the big win!

    Many LibDems would agree re being an autonomous party. I am cautious about this - we need to tap into the wider parties resources and intellectual capital.