Why, How and What Now: the Liberal Democrats
Let’s start with the obvious: this was the LibDem-opalypse. There is no other word for it. They went from 16 MSPs – and 17 notional seats, let’s not forget – to just five in one election. There are now entire regions – Central Scotland, Glasgow, Lothian and West Scotland – with no LibDem representation at all and with the only constituencies they held being Orkney and Shetland, it’s tempting to say that they’ve actually been driven into the sea.
Of course, it was the Coalition. Nick Clegg cosying up to the hated Tories, a betrayal of everything the LibDems stood for when the LibDem candidates’ pledge to oppose any increase tuition fees morphed into a LibDem Secretary of State proposing to treble them. The Coalition killed the Scottish LibDems.
Except that’s not the whole story. Firstly, attempts to distance the Tavish Scott and the Scottish LibDems (now, of course, the Norwegian LibDems) fall flat when you realise that Scott was not “Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament”, as Iain Gray was, but Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. All of them – activist, Councillor, MSP, MEP and MP. He is, therefore, just as much the leader of Jim Wallace (Advocate General), Alastair Carmichael (Government Deputy Chief Whip), Michael Moore (Secretary of State for Scotland) and Danny Alexander (Chief Secretary to the Treasury) as Nick Clegg is. The Coalition is making cut after cut, and it’s a Scottish Liberal Democrat who’s running with the scissors.
But leaving aside the Coalition, the LibDems were on an upward curve eight years ago: gaining a constituency against Labour and holding firm overall while Labour lost seats, strengthening their hand in the Coalition Executive. Moving to second place in votes and seats in 2005. The Dunfermline & West Fife By-Election victory. Even a 10% increase in the LibDem vote in the Moray By-Election a few months later. Things got a little shakier in 2007, though: the Constituency vote went up but the Regional vote went down, the LibDems lost three constituencies and one seat overall.
Then after Nicol Stephen’s resignation came Glasgow East, and the lost deposit there. It was like that game on The Price is Right with the little climber that goes up and up and up only to plummet off the edge of the mountain if it goes too far.
And under Tavish Scott’s leadership, things got worse: Glasgow East was followed by Glenrothes, where the party again lost its deposit, then came the 2009 European election where the LibDem vote went down and the party ended up considering itself fortunate to have got George Lyon elected. This was followed by another lost deposit in Glasgow North East, and a 2010 Westminster election where Scotland was the only part of the UK where the LibDem vote fell (though bizarrely, they held all their seats).
So a decline was always on the cards: the seat in Central Scotland was always in jeopardy. A series of heavy swings against the party in the Highlands and North East in 2007 (and repeated in 2010) made Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch a marginal, especially with John Farquhar Munro’s retirement, and Jamie Stone’s decision to stand down – coupled with the SNP selecting a sitting Regional MSP as their candidate – brought Caithness, Sutherland and Ross into play, though they might have expected one Regional seat in recompense. Meanwhile, Edinburgh Central had been brought into the LibDem column through boundary changes and academic projections so was always vulnerable, and after Dunfermline & West Fife reverted to Labour in 2010, the LibDems’ loss of Dunfermline at Holyrood was a racing certainty, though again, a List seat should have come as compensation. Aberdeen South & North Kincardine was expecially vulnerable when Nicol Stephen announced his retirement (especially with SNP Regional MSP Maureen Watt active in the area) and a second List seat there was far from set in stone. Jeremy Purvis had effectively been drawn out of Parliament by the Boundary Commissioners and again, the compensatory List seat wasn’t a racing certainty. So the best the LibDems could probably have expected was a loss of four seats, to 13.
So, there was the Coalition and a general trend against the LibDems anyway. What stuck the boot in?
The campaign, I’m afraid.
What was the LibDems’ Big Idea? Keeping police forces the same. Now, aside from the logical insanity of this – if Strathclyde, with it’s area greater than Denmark and mix of central Glasgow and rural spots like the Isle of Arran, works as a police force, then a national force can work, while if a national force can’t work then the existing eight forces are a basket case – it means that the LibDems’ Big Idea was the status quo. Oh dear.
Then was the panicked hostility to independence, roughly timed alongside the Labour shift to the same theme. Again, the LibDem theme was the status quo. They’re supposed to be Liberal, but all they had to offer was keeping things as they are. Add to that Tavish Scott’s continued ratty, defensive performance coupled with flying off the handle at reporters who dared to mention Nick Clegg and you have the perfect storm: an unpopular party at the Federal level; a party in retreat in Scotland anyway, a poor policy slate and a Leader rattled. Any one of them could have caused a drop. All of them together caused a collapse.
So what now? Tavish Scott was more of a liability than the LibDems were prepared to admit so while there’s a question of who else was left, this was probably a good thing. Liam McArthur and Willie Rennie are the favourites: McArthur was Jim Wallace’s advisor before succeeding him in 2007, so has the experience but might not set the heather alight; Rennie was the victor of Dunfermline & West Fife but became a SpAd to Michael Moore after the election, so he’s a totemic figure in LibDem circles and will be a real motivator, but being a SpAd after losing your seat didn’t work out too well for Iain Gray, and there’s a proximity to the Coalition issue there.
But in the immediate future, there’s the matter of the group reducing to five: should they lose one somehow, they cease to be a recognised Group in the Parliament, and would have to coalesce with the Greens and Margo. Which is why the idea of Tavish Scott going for the Presiding Officer’s job was just plain barking.
Factor in the AV defeat: the Tories’ end point in the Coalition negotiations was Labour’s starting point and so we got saddled with a proposition that no one was enthusiastic about but had to support enthusiastically. Equally, the No campaign’s biggest asset was that the LibDems were in favour. And the local election wipeout in England.
So what’s the answer? Withdrawal from the Coalition?
But it’s not that easy: walking out now would only push the party further towards oblivion. Having been derided as unprincipled charlatans for signing up to the Coalition, and going back on everything they stood for in the process, walking out now on the back of poor election results would serve only to cast them as cowards trying to run away from a mess of their own making. So now they have to stick with a Coalition, and further impotent hissy fits from Chris Huhne, who is incapable of dealing with the reality-bending Sayeeda Warsi (the way you deal with her is you ignore her: I’m convinced that she is merely a figment of the country’s collective imagination, and if you pretend she’s not there she will cease to exist). Worse still, Nick Clegg’s attempt to wade into the NHS reforms could backfire. He could end up making the LibDems even more unpopular by appearing to sanction the uundermining of the National Health Service in England, even if he succeeds in watering the proposals down. He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t… but if he holds on, there might, maybe, somehow, be a recovery. But not for a while.
And what do the MSPs do? They’re just in the Bureau, it remains to be seen what FMQ allocation they’ll get: the Greens and SSP could only get a slot every other week with more MSPs than the LibDems now have. They’ll need to find a better way of dealing with the Coalition than just simply flying off the handle and moaning about Nick Clegg. And they’ll need other policies besides the status quo.
Yet all might not be lost: they might not have the balance of power or even enough seats to merit more than a token acknowledgement at Holyrood, but they still have eleven Scottish LibDem MPs at Westminster, including one in Dover House, who had better increase his visibility if he knows what’s good for him (actually, if I were Nick Clegg, I’d sack Michael Moore, who has attained Des Browne levels of inefficacy, and promote Alastair Carmichael), so they’re still very relevant to the Scottish political landscape, if not to the Scottish Parliament. And were the swings we saw last week to be repeated, they would still have eight MPs: only Alan Reid, Malcolm Bruce and Jo Swinson would be lost. So even a repeat of the 2011 catastrophe in 2015 might not be so catastrophic.
But there are two factors outwith the control of Tavish Scott’s successor that will determine that. Firstly, whether and when the locus of political debate in Scotland will shift from Holyrood to Westminster. The later the shift takes place, the harder it will be for them to appear relevant. And the second is how much worse things will get before they get better.
Right now, all the LibDems can sit, wait and hope.