Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The 2011 Holyrood elections: reasons for optimism

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.


Anonymous said...

Optimistic? Possibly, but not necessarily realistic. Several of the issues that attract voters to the Liberal Democrats have been sidelined or even squashed by the coalition. Some are fairly obvious - AV will not provide democratic reform, just entrench existing Labour and Conservative electoral advantage at the expense of everyone else. Same applies to Calman really; lots of superfical posturing, but little real change. PR is important to our voters, but it is not the only issue. Then there's the matter of the coalition agreement itself. We may suffer badly from defections to Labour and the SNP simply for being in bed with the tories and we are not going to pick up Conservative votes just because we've helped put the tories in office - especially since we really have nothing to show for it that has a strong resonance with that part of the electorate who are not politcal anoraks. Failure to stop a Trident replacement will not help Lib Dem popularity, but student fees may be more significant. What about personal liberty? the change in anti-terror legislation may be welcomed, but failure to address the cannabis question - especially for those with MS, ME, glaucoma, chronic pain, insomnia - may cost us dearly. Before the Westminster election only the Lib-Dems had a realistic approach to this issue, but in abandoning this we are potentially alienating perhaps as few as 200,000 Scottish voters, and possibly as many as 400,000. Then there's defence spending....failure to oppose the RAF cuts is not going to help us in the Northeast and Navy cuts will not help us in Fife or on then Clyde.
Finally there's tactical voting; in the past we have benefitted from Labour and SNP supporting LIb-Dem candidates in order to keep the Tories out and, in some cases, Labour voters looking to exclude the SNP and vice versa. We can hardly hope that the utter collapse of the far lest is going to help us much, and any advance by the Greens may hurt us as well; there are a lot of ptential(and indeed habitual) Lib-Dem voters whose primary interests lie in particular areas other than ecological issues; things like personal liberty/disarmament/PR and of course common or garden anti-tory types who are unimpressed woth Labour or the Nats. Still feeling optimistic? I'm not so sure; if we only lose two or three seats I'll be pretty releived.

Andrew said...

Thanks for your interesting and well constructed post! I agree with some of what you say, but that doesn't necessarily negate cause for optimism. And it is, of course, perfectly possible to be both optimistic and realistic.

"Several issues that attract voters to the Liberal Democrats have been sidelined". It is also true that several issues that attracted voters to the SNP have been well and truly ditched. The Tories are still in a very weak position and Labour, for all its popularity, can not escape the reality that its economic credibility is at a low ebb.

So let's deal with these issues. AV - it WIll provide democratic reform; the problem is such reform is extrememly limited. AV itself will not necessarily entrench the Lab/Con advantage although the appalling change to constituency boundaries covered in the same bill certainly gives an advantage to the Conservatives. However, while I'm hardly an advocate of AV as an end in itself, it is significant in that - if the referendum is lost - the likelihood of PR ever finding itself on the political agenda again in the foreseeable future is practically zero.

Please let's squash this "we helped put the Tories in office" nonsense. The political consequences of denying power to the party with the largest number of seats would probably have been more damaging. Labour lost the election; they should realise this and accept it. Of course, allowing a minority Conservative government on a supply and confidence deal might have been a worthwhiloe option, but that might not have allowed scope for improving legislation, especially in relation to civil liberties (and, lest we forget, Higher Education - however bad the government's compromised position, it's preferable to the tories' position or the unrevised recommendations of the Browne Review).

The question as to what Lib Dems have "got out" of the coalition has a range of answers. Much is subjective. As you rightly state, not everyone is a political anorak. This is why the party has to promote the benefits of coalition, although admittedly it seems to be struggling in doing so.

Andrew said...

The cannabis issue - you see this as an issue of personal liberty - fair enough. As far as questions of personal liberty go, it's hardly in the same league as anti-terror legislation. But it affects more people (my mum has MS), that is true. I'm not sure though that this is such a defining issue. Firstly, the fact that the Lib Dems haven't managed to convince the Tory party to change their mind on the matter is hardly surprising. Secondly, as you observe, none of the other parties has a credible approach. And I really don't see 400,000 votes being lost because Lib Dem MPs in coalition haven't persuaded their Conservative colleagues (who are, after all, the majority party) to turn their back on their traditional attitudes and embrace positive change. I simply can't envisage an election being won or lost over the freedom to access cannabis.

The RAF cuts will definitely NOT help, especially in Fife. The Lib Dems ae hardly in contention for any seats on the Clyde. I expect this to make some impact, although how much remains to be seen. Admittedly, I don't know enough about other local factors in play in the Fife area - and it's these local factors that could be equally as important, if not more so, than national issues.

Tactical voting will play a role. But the vast majority of Lib Dem seats can not be said to have been won primarily because of tactical voting (with a couple of notable exceptions). There will also be tactical voting against the Tories and the SNP...I don't doubt that we will not be the beneficiaries of tactical voting this time around but I would argue that was also the case in 2007. Of course, there will be tactical voting against us, probably to Labour, but this may not necessarily have any significant effect on the overall picture.

I still maintain that voters are sufficiently knowledgeable to make the distinction between Holyrood and Westminster, and between Tavish Scott and Nick Clegg. And the electoral system (especially the fact that either Labour or the SNP picking up constituency seats at the expense of ourselves would reduce the scope for them picking up regional seats) means the wipeout that so many are predicting is unlikely to happen.

The Greens may make some progress, but it will probably be minimal. Patrick Harvie is doing his best to rid the Greens of any political credibility.

Realistically, I'm not suggesting this will be the Lib Dems' finest hour. But the electoral system means that the kind of meltdown some are predicting is almost impossible. I expect to lose some seats but will also to hold on to many, especially those with significant majorities.

There is a fundamental safety mechanism in the electoral system, designed as it was to prevent an SNP majority government (and therefore any majority government). As I pointed out, for the absolute meltdown some have predicted to take place, we'd have to poll even lower than the SSP did in 2003. I can't see that realistically.

The election will represent a huge challenge to us and to Tavish Scott in particular. A focus on Scottish issues rather than Nick Clegg and Westminster would be welcome, from both our own party and the media. The danger is that media negativity and predictions of catastrophe become self-fulfilling and Lib Dem activists end up actually believing this rather than reflecting soberly on reality.

Andrew said...

We've actually got quite a lot to be positive about as a party, the challenge is to communictae what is so positive about us and our message to voters. I could be wrong of course, and come May we'll have no MSPs and be in a far worse position than anyone imagined. But I'd rather go into an election taking a positive message to the voters than entering a campaign believing the worst. In any case, I really don't believe the worst and I don't think the media really do either - plus I'd rather believe Professor Bort or even the less positive but equally realistic Professor Curtice, who actually know a bit about psephology, than I would the views of the Daily Record.

You're obviously either a Lib Dem member or supporter. Like you, I'm not thrilled with everything that's happened in the last few months. Some of this is the inevitable consequence of being a minor party in a coalition dominated by Tories. However, admittedly some of our difficulties have been down to poor leadership decisions and weak management.

Still, Tavish Scott deserves none of this and neither do the Lib Dems in Holyrood. They can not be blamed for the actions of the UK government, especially for example on tuition fees which Margeret Smith MSP (for one) has been outspokenly in opposition to.