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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Rennie is new leader of Scottish Liberal Democrats

Willie Rennie is the new leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

He was elected unopposed, which is hardly surprising in the circumstances.

Rennie was for me the obvious choice to succeed Tavish Scott who resigned in the aftermath of the disastrous Scottish parliamentary elections. While he is new to Holyrood, he has served as MP for Dunfermline and West Fife; during his time at Westminster he became well known for his leadership on defence issues. He has also served as chair of the Lib Dem campaigns and communications committee – experience which should stand him in good stead for spearheading a liberal revival in Scotland.

Rennie’s opening remarks as leader both excited and disappointed me. I am very pleased that he has promised “a return to community politics”; while liberalism is about a great deal more than community politics here is a welcome commitment to rebuild the party from the grassroots upwards. This shows he understands the nature of the problems facing the party in Scotland and that organisational regeneration and reconnection with communities will be needed if the party’s fortunes are to improve. It is also encouraging that he is “determined to see that strong Liberal voice flourish... standing up for the values that Scotland holds dear.”

However, more negatively, he hasn’t quite grasped why Liberal Democrats should continue to play a role in the UK coalition government. Says Rennie: “it is vital that people understand what the coalition is about - for me, it is about stopping the Tories doing their worst."

Er, no it isn’t. I hope we can act as a moderating force on the Tories, but it’s not why we’re there. We’re in government because it was the responsible choice; we’re there to make tough decisions and to imbue government policy with a strong liberal character. We’re in government to implement progressive policy and to help create a fairer, better Britain. Our role is far wider (and more important) than simply frustrating the Tory party - which would hardly be a positive approach to adopt towards one’s coalition partners. It is a shame that our new leader seems so keen to identify the party with an anti-Tory position, as if our political raison d’etre is opposition to the Conservatives. As I’ve argued previously, this is a major factor in our loss of a distinct identity (especially in Scotland) and I fail to see how defining ourselves by hostility to other parties either supports our claim to value plurality or helps facilitate the liberal renaissance I’ve been advocating.

I was also concerned that Rennie was so keen to attack the SNP, pledging to "stand up to the SNP bulldozer." I personally don't care for this type of negative tactic: leadership is about more than taking pot shots at the opposition. More pertinently, he should perhaps have been less churlish and more focused on the need to work collaboratively with people of all parties to forge a better Scotland - especially given the common ground we share with Alex Salmond's party on key policy issues.

There is no doubt that of the four MSPs who could have succeeded Tavish Scott, Rennie is easily the most experienced and capable. Perhaps I should be getting excited at the prospect of a new leader, with new ideas and the willingness and commitment to take the party forward. But I can’t. I’m not convinced that a change of personnel at the top, however useful and timely, is in itself the solution. I’m also not convinced that Rennie – or anyone else – has any coherent ideas in respect to how to revitalise the party. And his appointment raises more questions than it answers. How will he differ from Tavish Scott - and how does he plan to be more effective than his predecessor? How does he propose to make constructive use of the limited opportunities afforded a rump opposition party? What are his plans to build a distinctive identity for the party in Scotland? And will his tactics in Holyrood be principally oppositional (as suggested today in his references to the Tories and the SNP)?

There are some significant issues affecting the Scottish Liberal Democrats that not only are larger than the question of who occupies the leadership but also the parliamentary party. Rennie, understandably, chose not to focus on these today but instead to deliver the fighting talk. That is fair enough and I’m sure the membership will appreciate it. But Rennie faces a challenge quite unlike any previous leader in our history: that of completely rebuilding, re-energising and reinvigorating a party that was very nearly annihilated electorally.

Rennie can not afford to fail. The stakes are so high. Our party’s future requires him to be inspirational and innovative, as well as being able to regain the trust and respect of the Scottish people. He also has the task of rebuilding and making the party relevant at the same time Labour is facing similar challenges, but without the same platform on which to do so. It’s something I fear even the great Jim Wallace would have struggled with, but something on which Willie Rennie must deliver.

And so, while I can’t get overly excited at the prospect of new leadership, I am cautiously optimistic that Willie Rennie has the experience, insight and strategic understanding to rejuvenate our party - especially if he steers clear of the temptation to engage in negative oppositionalism. He’s certainly the best candidate for the leadership at this time and it is vital our members unite behind him.

The BBC website is keen to point out that Rennie is a previous runner-up in the Scottish Coal-Carrying Championships. I’m not entirely sure of the political relevance of this obscure fact, but if he can carry his party as well as he carries coal bags – and deliver the promised return to grassroots politics – we have every reason to be positive.

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