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Why the Lib Dems failed in the Scottish elections

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THE RECENT Scottish Parliamentary Elections signalled another slump in the fortunes of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Just when many of us were thinking it couldn’t get any worse, it did. The party’s presence at Holyrood has now diminished from a miserable five MSPs to a new pitiful low of four, thereby losing the status of a major party with the concomitant penalties of having no representation on the Business Committee or an automatic right to participate in First Minister’s Questions.

In essence we no longer have a party operating at Holyrood, just four party members with jobs as MSPs. How have we come to this sorry state of affairs and what needs to be done to halt and reverse this downward spiral? I believe there are several reasons behind the party’s failure.

First and foremost was (is?) our declared stance on a second Scottish independence referendum. Any half-sentient observer knew that the election was bound to be a dance-off between those who support Scottish independence and those who support the Union, and that the three-party, fragmented Unionist vote would be unlikely to prevail against the more or less homogeneous nationalist one. And, lo, it came to pass.

Sensing this reality many months ago, my local party in East Lothian tabled a motion to conference advocating a more nuanced approach; that we should change from being anti-referendum to a position of neutrality on the referendum per se, whilst retaining the option to campaign against independence and for the Union as the wider party membership chose. This idea was dismissed in an imperious manner by the hierarchy in the subsequent debate, with the result that we were evermore associated with the robustly anti-referendum Conservatives and punished by the electorate accordingly. Boris Johnston and co are not universally popular north of the Border!

Next, we led on the wrong policies. “Put Recovery First” was so motherhood and apple pie that none of the other parties could possibly argue against it, not even the SNP were daft enough to do that, so its impact was minimal; there was no debate and it did nothing to differentiate the Lib Dems from the others. A deal of time on effort was also spent on mental health, a worthy and necessary cause, but it’s hardly a vote winner. Neither were battle cries to set the heather on fire and send the Fiery Cross down the glens.

There has been much discussion of the Scot Lib Dem media performance already on other forums, and so I’ll skim on the details. Suffice to say that it appeared, to me and others in the party, to be based on a policy of quantity rather than quality and to have employed a scattergun approach. As for the photo opportunities set up to showcase our leader, Willie Rennie, to the media, perhaps the less said the better. Yes, it got him in the papers, but in a “look at me” way primarily and rarely linked to any party policy. The hardened and cynical Scottish political hacks had a field day on Twitter.

How to sort this debacle out? Most important of all is a change of leadership. Willie Rennie, nice chap though he is, has presided over a decline in party success over his ten years of leadership; down one MSP, and down a handful of local authority councillors. Not too bad, I hear you say, but I think he needs a break, and another needs to step up to the plate. Perhaps it’s time for Alex Cole-Hamilton to test his mettle in the role, or does the party leader really need to be an elected member at all?

After this, we need to change our position on a second Scottish independence referendum to one of neutrality, on the basis that the membership can then choose in an appropriate forum whether to oppose or support Scottish independence in due course. It also cuts the toxic link with the Scots Tories on the topic. And then we need to carefully choose a campaigning schwerpunkt that rallies the troops and resonates with the wider electorate. Federalism is for me too poorly defined to date, but perhaps an emphasis on localism and the decentralisation of political power, public services, and revenue raising might do the trick.

Whatever the membership decides, I would say that doing more of the same next time around is not a credible option. As Einstein is reputed to have opined, and I paraphrase here, doing exactly the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the height of madness. Let’s not be mad.

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This article was originally submitted to, and rejected by, the Liberal Democrats’ in-house journal, Lib Dem Voice, for reasons that have not been made clear. In the interests of freedom of expression Think Scotland is happy to publish it here. Stuart’s biog is below, but he is also on the Executive Committee of the East Lothian Liberal Democrats. 

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