The night of 5 May 2011 was painful for all of Scotland’s opposition parties, but it hurt the most for the Liberal Democrats – because no wound is felt as much as the one inflicted by your own side. Veteran Lib Dem MSP Margaret Smith had clearly worked this out by the time she took the stage at the election count in Edinburgh’s Royal Highland Centre to give her concession speech, having been ousted by the SNP’s Colin Keir with a swing of 12.4 per cent. Her voice, choked with something between anger and despair, Smith told the holdouts in the wee small hours: “The challenge from my own party was at times greater than that of my opponents.” Almost a year later, and the party is no closer to coming to terms with the Westminster coalition, let alone solving the mystery of why the Lib Dems in Scotland are being blamed for its unpopularity when their Conservative colleagues have come away largely unscathed.
Indeed, the Scottish Lib Dems are in danger of being left behind by their own Westminster counterparts. UK-wide, the Liberal Democrats’ poll ratings have at least shown signs of life – despite remaining well below the level of support they won at the 2010 election. Only YouGov continues to put them in single figures, with other polls showing rises of up to five per cent on the party’s 2011 nadir. In Scotland, Lib Dem polling numbers haven’t stirred; a Channel 4 News/YouGov poll in January put support in Scotland at just 7 per cent.
When the coalition agreement was signed, Liberal Democrats who kept faith with the party said that being in government would give them the chance to tell voters on the doorstep something they’d never been able to say before – ‘We’re getting things done’. That may be helping the party shore up its remaining support elsewhere, but not in Scotland – where the tactic doesn’t even have the virtue of being true for a party that was in power at Holyrood between 1999 and 2007.
As Liberal Democrats gather in Inverness for party conference, discussions and speeches will no doubt focus on the SNP and the prospect of independence, which since January has bounded into the public consciousness. Yet even now that Scottish constitutional issues have arrived at the centre of the national discussion, Lib Dems north of the border are forced to contend with the impact of the coalition. The role that Lib Dem ministers Michael Moore and Danny Alexander have in the referendum negotiations and debate make them easy targets for typecasting as pantomime villains by the SNP’s media machine. Equally, confusion over the UK Government’s views on further devolution – previously opposed, now apparently in favour – does little to give traction to the Scottish Lib Dems’ policy of ‘Home Rule’, or fiscal autonomy.
It falls to a former Westminster frontbencher to pick up the pieces. Throughout the party’s history, and across the UK, Liberal Democrat leaders have struggled to win public and media attention. None, however, has faced a challenge as big as Willie Rennie. He leads a rump of just four MSPs at a time when the SNP’s majority undermines even Labour’s relevance. Rennie must attempt to articulate a distinct message with scarce resources in terms of parliamentary time and committee influence, yet can only hope to make progress on the Liberal Democrat policy agenda by handing the SNP measures bipartisan legitimacy in exchange for concessions.
It’s a tactic that the Lib Dems have used before, winning praise for pushing the SNP to protect bursary support for college students ahead of the 2011 election. It will have cheered the party faithful to see NUS leaders praising the Lib Dems following the previous year’s violent reaction to the rise in English tuition fees, but it did little in terms of stopping the SNP juggernaut come May. It’s a path that Rennie has again followed, with Lib Dem MSPs voting in favour of the Government’s budget in exchange for a partial reversal of college funding cuts and more resources for housing and youth unemployment.
Whether the Lib Dems’ consensual approach will help win back the thousands of voters that flowed to the SNP at the last election remains to be seen. It is, however, the medicine that some of the party’s more vocal members are calling for. When the Social Liberal Forum (SLF) – a grouping of grassroots party members unhappy at the direction the Lib Dems were taking in coalition with the Tories, but committed to effecting change from within – held its first Scottish meeting in Glasgow last year, the strength of feeling was inversely matched by the lack of optimism.
Left-leaning Lib Dems from across Scotland attacked the Scottish executive of the party as “remote, weak and ineffective”. “It produces annual action plans that it does not publicise and has presided over a withering away of party policy-making,” the SLF said in its report of the meeting. “Party membership is declining swiftly without any action being taken and the party has organisational and structural difficulties that are not being addressed. In addition, senior figures in the Scottish party are not doing enough to project a strong Scottish voice at federal level.” The parliamentary party came off only slightly better. Too much time had been spent trying to “bash the Nats”, with the Lib Dem MSP group “too prone to criticise what it disliked without proposing alternatives”. SLF members called on a now greatly-diminished party to “concentrate more on cooperation to achieve success where our policies are close to other parties,” recognising that “there are encouraging indications that the new leader is taking these views on board.” The SLF meeting also lamented the federal party’s failure to “understand the implications and necessities of devolution and that they need to raise their game in this respect.” On the anniversary of their Holyrood debacle, the Scottish Lib Dems will once again face the Scottish electorate, and there is little optimism that the experience will be much kinder than in 2011. Council by-elections may not receive significant attention in the mainstream media cycle. However, for a party that prides itself on the strength and effectiveness of their grassroots political organisation, local government contests are a vital indicator not just of public support, but the motivation of the party’s foot soldiers.
That motivation is hard to see in the local ballots since last year. On 23 June last year, in a by-election for Aberdeen City Council’s Airyhall/Broomhill/Garthdee ward, the party’s share of the vote dropped 21.1 per cent despite defending a Lib-Dem seat. If the party can’t get its own local activists out to campaign and vote, it will struggle to convince anyone else to do the same.
Lib-Dem councillors at the SLF meeting in Glasgow were bleak on their own election prospects, making clear that the best the party could hope to achieve was maintaining its current position.
Councillors told the group that “the leadership was out of touch with the havoc being wrought by its actions” and that Rennie should actively seek to distance himself from coalition policy. While they issued a call for “a revitalised form of community politics where there is concern to foster effective communities and effectively devolve power”, the feeling is that like its MSPs, many Lib-Dem councillors will be updating their CVs in advance of May’s vote.