I'm optimistic about our party's chances in the Scottish Parliamentary elections.
You'd expect me to say that, wouldn't you? But I really am. And that isn't because I'm a Liberal Democrat; it's because I have a basic understanding of the Scottish electoral system.
In the last few days, I've had a look at various people's predictions. One blogger felt that "the Lib Dems will suffer their worst night for many a year". Another suggested the party would be reduced to "two seats". Various others forecast a dismal showing, although admittedly they are supporters of either the SNP or Labour.
One contributor felt that the Lib Dems would be "all but wiped out" while the Conservatives would make significant gains, "holding the balance of power". Interestingly, and confusingly, the rationale for his prediction was based on the assumption that the Scottish electorate would punish the Lib Dems for their role in the Westminster coalition. What...and reward the Conservatives at the same time? It would be absurd beyond belief if Annabel Goldie's party found itself as the beneficiary of an anti-Tory backlash!
Can I start with the "two seats" prediction? I'm not sure which two seats are singled out to avoid the impending massacre, but how can this be taken seriously? Can anyone realistically suggest that - whatever the current travails of the Liberal Democrats - that they are going to end up with a mere third of the number of seats gained by the Scottish Socialist Party with their 6.7% of the vote in 2003?
These predictions also tend to overlook the fact that of the Lib Dems' 16 MSPs, only five were elected via the regional lists. This is significant, and points to more than our inability to do well regionally. If, as predicted by respected psephologists, the smaller parties will benefit from the slump in the SNP regional vote (and Labour's success in winning constituencies reduces their scope for picking up regional list seats) this could well help the Lib Dems, who without increasing their vote could benefit easily from the regional vote being spread more evenly.
An article by Professor Eberhard Bort in Scottish Affairs (Autumn 2010) insightfully demonstrates that, "the Lib Dems have not suffered the same slump in the polls [in Scotland] as south of the border, and their constituency MSPs have solid majorities." He also notes that the Scottish Liberal Democrats have substantially added to their membership this year and, while it is possible that the party will "have to pay at the ballot box...for being the most visible part of the Westminster government in Scotland", other parties are in for a tough time. He asserts that "the Scottish Tories are in a desperate situation...unelectable...abandoned [by] David Cameron as a hopeless case" and argues that the Scottish Socialists "have made sure by pressing the self-destruct button that there is not the slightest chance of them showing up a Holyrood". Bort considers the SNP to "suffer from a lack of ideas"; he also accuses them of holding a record "strewn with manifesto wreckage" and "fail[ing] to build the case for independence" and thus establish credibility. He admits Labour have justifiable cause for "confidence" but also wryly observes that voters "are in no mood for a toxic blame game" between the SNP and Labour - or for that matter between the SNP/Labour and the Lib Dems.
It is a curious fact that UK-wide trends do not necessarily have much of an impact in Scotland. "Cleggmania" had no discernible level of influence in May, just as the current unpopularity of the UK Lib Dem leader is having less of an effect in Scotland. Similarly, in spite of the Conservative surge in England - and, lest we forget, areas of Wales closed to them for decades - there has been no similar improvement in their fortunes in Scotland. For many Scottish voters with memories of the Thatcher era, "Tory" remains a four letter word.
Given the situation described by Professor Bort, a decent performance from the Lib Dems should not be unexpected. Labour look set to benefit at the expense of ourselves and the SNP, but would require huge and unprecedented swings to dislodge most Lib Dem MSPs. Only Dunfermline West and Edinburgh South look positive for them from those seats currently held by Lib Dems. The SNP look in no position to be making gains and would be unlikely to take any seats from the Lib Dems in either Aberdeen, Caithness, Edinburgh West, Orkney, Shetland or Ross, Skye & Lochaber. Jeremy Purvis' seat, however, does look a little precarious - but will the SNP go out for attack in Tweeddale or look to hold on to their 2007 gains? The Tories chances of overturning Iain Smith's 5,016 majority in Fife North East look more than remote.
It is not entirely outwith the realms of possibility that the Lib Dems could actually make gains at the expense of the SNP - most likely in Argyll & Bute where Alan Reid was successful at Westminster level last year in spite of the SNP taking it in 2007. Alison Hay faces a huge fight on her hands and no-one will be more surprised than me if she wins. She can't be altogether discounted, though, in a seat with a strong Lib Dem presence.
Predictions of electoral wipeout not only fail to take into account the mechanics of the voting system for Holyrood and Scotland's unusual political character. They also fail to consider the local dimensions to the many battles that will be being fought across Scotland in the lead-up to the May elections. Does anyone seriously believe that Nick Clegg's difficulties in government will feature more heavily in the minds of voters in constituencies like Caithness, Easter Ross & Sutherland than the efforts of the likes of Bob Maclennan, John Thurso and Jamie Stone to serve their communities and ably represent them at both Westminster and Holyrood?
I have no problem with other bloggers predicting things differently - but please look at the situation with sober judgement. Lib Dem support is not going to collapse dramatically, if only because it was never high in the first instance: in 2007, the party secured its MSPs from a mere 16.2 % of the constituency and 11.3% of the regional votes. Even accepting a dip to 13% (the party's standing in the UK as a whole, according to the last ICM poll on 19th December) the Lib Dem grouping of MSPs would probably only be reduced by three. Hardly a massacre - and it's likely the party's standing will improve, especially as this poll was conducted in the immediate aftermath of the tuition fees debacle.
I also have faith that the voters are sufficiently intelligent and discerning to recognise the difference between Tavish Scott's efforts in leading the Lib Dems in Holyrood and Nick Clegg's role in shaping the Westminster coalition. Scottish voters understand that Scott can hardly be blamed for decisions made in London. There will inevitably be some tainting by association and the Con-Lib coalition will have some effect on the outcome of the election, but I strongly believe this will be in the shape of reducing our ability to make gains from a struggling SNP rather than reducing us to a tiny rump.
There is reason to be positive. The challenge for the Liberal Democrats is to move the conversation on from the narrow focus on the Westminster coalition. The natural instinct would be to defend coalition government, but this would be counter-productive. Instead, we need to promote our own liberal and progressive agenda which is realistic and based on costed promises, honest about the current challenges facing Scotland and with well-considered answers - not least about personal care for the elderly and funding education. If our election campaign can highlight our progressive ideas on social and economic issues while drawing attention to the deficiencies of Labour and SNP thinking, I have no doubt it will be the forecasters of doom who will be licking their wounds in May rather than the Scottish Lib Dems.