Sunday, 8 May 2011

Which way forward for the Scottish Liberal Democrats?

After the devastation, the analysis began. There has been no shortage of individuals expressing views on the Liberal Democrats’ spectacular collapse in Scotland – from gloating Labour activists (who really should concentrate on their own difficulties) to our outgoing leader.

The Herald subscribes to the view that this result represents punishment for being too closely allied with the Conservatives in Westminster. The Guardian claims that the Liberal Democrats were “slapped, kicked and left for dead...flattened in Scotland, their share of the vote reduced to numbers so meagre they were last seen [back in 1988].” This is, of course, absolutely true. The negative perception of the coalition, especially in Scotland, has been utterly destructive and it is bluntly ironic to see the likes of Ross Finnie and Margaret Smith – who campaigned tirelessly for free Higher Education – become the victims of the backlash against Clegg’s u-turn on tuition fees in England.

Caron Lindsay, a Liberal Democrat blogger and political commentator, used the pages of today’s Scotland on Sunday to assert that “our coalition with the Tories was the major, but not the only, reason for our downfall”. This is completely correct. The coalition made Tavish Scott’s task as Scottish leader infinitely more difficult. But it is not the only factor behind our reversal of fortune and the “Clegg factor” can not be allowed to obscure the failings of the Scottish party, the shortcomings of its leadership or a number of other issues much closer to home. Blaming the catastrophe entirely on the unpopularity of the coalition is tempting, especially as this hypothesis contains more than a grain of truth. But it isn’t the whole picture and unless Scottish Liberal Democrats can identify some of the more complex reasons for their downfall the “recovery” Lindsay refers to will evade us in the same way that it has evaded the Scottish Conservatives in UK elections.

Unfortunately, while recognising other factors, Caron Lindsay doesn’t explain what these are. This is a lost opportunity to recognise publicly some of the critical mistakes we have made as a party during the last few years.

Cynically opposing the SNP’s proposed independence referendum for short-term political gain was not the most astute decision and only played into Alex Salmond’s hands. He was able to argue, with some effect, that the unionist parties were denying Scottish voters the choice on their nation’s future. The SNP’s failure to deliver the promised referendum actually prospered Salmond’s party and rather than defeat the campaign for independence, opposition to a referendum actually strengthened its case. The Liberal Democrats, and also the Conservatives and Labour Parties, failed to recognise the opportunities that lay in supporting a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future during which they could have played up the benefits of Union. Instead, they were tempted by the trappings of short-termism and overlooked the broader consequences.

Liberal Democrat strategy has been characterised by complacency for some time. Not the kind of complacency we’ve witnessed from the Labour Party, but it is nonetheless real. In our heartlands, such as the Highlands, parts of Aberdeenshire and Argyll & Bute we have taken voters for granted for too long. We thought it was enough to point to good local councillors and to stress our opposition to both the Tories and independence. Our once strong and distinctive rural policies became less so, especially as other parties incorporated them into their manifestos. We gradually came to believe that parts of Scotland, such as Caithness & Sutherland, were impenetrable fortresses which could never be taken. And in doing this, we took our eyes off the SNP.

We also expressed our complacency through our mistaken belief that the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament ruled out the prospect of any party gaining an overall majority. It was this naive belief that allowed the Lib Dems, and other parties, to think they could ensure that an independence referendum bill would never be passed. More crucially, Liberal Democrats put more trust in the electoral system than the electorate and felt that a minimum level of parliamentary representation was virtually guaranteed. And in doing this, we again took our eyes off what the SNP was doing.

Another problem was our willingness, for so long, to be perceived as a Labour-lite party; a friendlier alternative to the Conservatives. In the 1980s, this was understandable. I remember as a 10-year old the euphoria of Ray Michie winning Argyll & Bute for the SDP-Liberal Alliance. Michie was an incredible candidate and a formidable MP. But it was true that her support owed as much to the unpopularity of Tory incumbent John MacKay as public identification with liberal values. Being equated in the public consciousness as an anti-Tory party helped us win by-elections in the early 1990s and throughout the decade that followed this became more entrenched, with elaborate voting exchange schemes being established between Lib Dem and Labour voters in key constituencies to ensure the election of non-Conservative candidates. For a while, this made sense. But, regrettably, this came to define us as a party in a much stronger way than did our opposition to tuition fees, the Iraq War or any of our manifestos. Not only did the public recognise us as an anti-Tory party, we were happy to go along with this perspective and exploited it to our own advantage.

The Liberal Democrats exist for more than simply to keep the Tories out of power, or to keep Labour in. Personally, I have little time for either of those parties now although there was a time when I valued the close working relationships we had with Labour. We have our own distinct and unique platform, which is the creation of a liberal society – a praiseworthy aim but one which has for the last 30 years or so been secondary to the electoral strategy of presenting ourselves as the alternative to Conservatism. It is, therefore, not simply the coalition government’s actions that are to blame for our loss of support, but our unsustainable cultivation of an “anti-Tory” image which could only work so long as any potential of working with the Tories was unthinkable. We encouraged so many people to vote for us, not for our liberalism, but on the back of a crude appeal to those willing to vote for “anyone but the Tory”. We can only blame ourselves for our public perception of representing little but an alternative for those who don’t like blue.

We’ve also had obvious but largely undocumented internal difficulties. Hugh O’Donnell’s resignation might have been characterised by opportunism, but hinted that relations between MSPs and the leadership were less than harmonious. We’ve also suffered from losing key personnel in recent years, such as Nicol Stephen and Jim Wallace – while the SNP benches contain some exceptional talent, we have struggled to replace the intellectual rigour and sharp wit of Wallace in particular. Losing Ross Finnie, Robert Brown and Jeremy Purvis further deprive us of our most capable political thinkers.

The leadership of Tavish Scott posed its own problems. His style was often criticised – apparently, so I’m led to believe, by his MSPs – but it’s not simply his style that was the problem. He struggled in his contests with Salmond and, while an obviously decent and honest man, he had no idea how to rid himself or his party of the stigma of association with Nick Clegg. I don’t necessarily consider him a weak leader – as others did – but it became obvious that his leadership was not an asset to the party in the way that Wallace’s had been. He seemed incapable of inspiring, too easily dismissed as irrelevant and at times seemed as if he was an auto-pilot. I feel for him as the electoral catastrophe owed a great deal to the actions of Liberal Democrats in a different parliament, but he never seemed certain of how best to handle what Kennedy calls “mission impossible” and appeared like a passive observer of events rather than a dynamic leader with a vision.

So, what is the way forward for the Scottish Liberal Democrats?

Caron Lindsay argues that “Scotland needs a strong Liberal Democrat voice. We must emphatically stand up against the SNP when it shows its strong illiberal streak. Liberalism is an inspiring, people-centred philosophy and we need to offer our ideas to deal with what matters, such as providing affordable, decent housing, tackling poverty and improving Scots' health and well-being.” We need to be true to what we are as a party. We are a liberal party; this is what makes us distinct and relevant. We have to move away from being simply a convenient depository for protest votes and for those in non-Labour seats who don’t like Tories.

This doesn’t require “reinvention” but simply being honest to who we are. In parliament, we have to take the opportunity to be good in opposition. It sounds simple but, as Tavish Scott demonstrated, it isn’t quite as easy as it looks - especially when our status has been relegated to that of a fringe party. Good opposition will require not only strong and imaginative leadership, but also a robust strategy and a willingness to work with others to achieve goals. We must do more than just “stand up to the SNP”. We must also stand up to the opportunism of Scottish Labour, and the backward-looking policies of Annabel Goldie’s Conservatives. One thing we can no longer afford to do is oppose ideas simply on the basis on party-political opportunism. Liberal Democrats have an opportunity to use the Scottish Parliament to develop a strong liberal message and set out their ambitious and progressive vision for Scotland, while working with those of all parties – where possible – to see it put into practice.

We’ve got to talk far more about the issues that actually matter to people. In fairness to Tavish Scott, he was doing this in areas of Scotland where the future of the police force was a significant matter. But too often we’ve made a lot of noises about issues such as AV, which frankly is not the kind of thing most Scots get excited about. It would be a mistake to now define ourselves by opposition to independence: it simply isn’t consistent to claim that talk of independence is a “distraction” while putting all our efforts into fighting it. Independence doesn’t excite most voters, so the party must begin to prioritise what does in order to remain relevant.

We have always been most comfortable as a party of protest, but our inability to adjust to new realities is one of the reasons we’re in our current predicament. Scottish Liberal Democrats should move forward, out of this comfort zone, and stand by our principles and our decisions. On the UK coalition, while not everything will be to our liking, we can ill-afford to get on the defensive or – worse still – advocate withdrawal from the coalition. We would not regain credibility but would instead become a laughing stock. We need to be committed to the coalition, while instead of playing up Lib Dem “victories” in government to justify our involvement become more adept at explaining the inevitability of compromise in the national interest.

Let’s make one thing clear – the public are not punishing us for the coalition per se but our perceived role within it. Some may like to think that, arguing that any co-operation with the Conservatives is akin to collaborating with Satan. These people have such a retarded view of the Conservative Party, are usually tribalists whose politics are dictated by a hatred of one party and view our own role in politics as merely keeping out the Tories. But most people understand that the decision to enter coalition was taken with the best intentions: it is not the coalition itself that people are angry with, as witnessed by the Conservatives doing so much better than Labour in the English local elections. No, it’s the perception that Liberal Democrats have been dishonest, especially over the tuition fees issue. It’s the feeling that Nick Clegg has sold out principle for position. Alex Cole-Hamilton might have argued that defeat is acceptable in return for ending child detention, but it’s not the 75% of our manifesto being put into practice that people are protesting against. It’s the appearance of dishonesty they don’t like and Nick Clegg in particular.

As Caron Lindsay rightly observes, “dissociating ourselves from the Westminster government is not an option”. We might not like everything the coalition is doing, but distancing ourselves from it and disowning what is, after all, our government would be irresponsible. The best option is for Scottish Lib Dems to remain critically supportive of the coalition while formulating a separate and distinctively Scottish message, focused on Scotland’s unique needs – to quote Lindsay, “asserting our difference” while speaking out when necessary on the issues that matter. We must also realise that our role in coalition is not to stop the Tories being Tories but to be ourselves. The same honesty of purpose is true of our new role in Holyrood.

There must be a rebuilding process. This can not be done on a national basis, but on a local level from the grassroots upwards.
Any attempts at a top-down approach towards revitalisation will ultimately fail. Associations must be empowered to create and take control of local initiatives, not only to rebuild the party’s appeal but to attract people to that party’s cause. I’m not advocating a rigid adherence to the “localism” of the Trevor Jones era (especially in places like Argyll & Bute) but it is vital to work from the bottom up, connect with people, attract local talent into the party and create a distinctive local, as well as national, appeal for liberal democracy.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have to again become the party of rural Scotland, while avoiding re-creating themselves as the party of the Celtic fringe. There is no easy or quick way to do this, but I feel local solutions will serve the party better than national or federal ones. The party also has to again appeal to all sections of the community and therefore must learn to more effectively articulate its liberal positions on issues such as crime, justice, the environment, immigration, the NHS and job creation. Our manifesto for this election was progressive and well-conceived, but its message either didn’t reach the voters or they were already too disillusioned with the party to pay any interest.

Perhaps the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ greatest misfortune was not to have held Gordon constituency in 2007. Why Alex Salmond chose to stand there is anyone’s guess. If only we’d managed to hold the seat, the history of Scottish politics would have been entirely different.

There are significant challenges ahead for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. But with these challenges come opportunities. The first step is to accurately diagnose the problem, which is far more complex than some in the media would believe. Our difficulties run deeper than the public image of Nick Clegg and the Westminster coalition. But the real challenge is how to respond, to provide strong opposition and to rebuild not only the party but the spirit of Scottish liberalism. The Scottish Liberal Democrats have to be honest to what they believe and be true to both their convictions and character. We have to not only learn from our mistakes, but admit to them. We have to work for change where we can, even being awkward where necessary, but not resorting to opposition or change simply for the sake of it. I can relate to Caron Lindsay's desire for a "bold, audacious" party, but I also want us to be radical, engaging and something of a gadfly presence in Scottish politics.

There are others who disagree, I know. Martin Shapland, National Chair for Liberal Youth, feels that the party should become "as ruthless as Tories, as tribal as Labour" to bounce back. As someone who dislikes tribalism and values pluralism, I don't relate to his idea of moving the party forward. I also don't think this would genuinely appeal to voters. I would go further and argue such an emphasis would condemn the Scottish Liberal Democrats to a generation in the political wilderness. Mr Shapland only sees the tactical; those like him who view a fightback exlusively in terms of top-down political strategy will never understand that rebuilding from the grassroots upwards is imperative if the party is to both survive and retain its identity. The party can't afford to be backward-looking and tribal: Scotland urgently needs the "new politics" Mr Shapland seems to have rejected.

I wish the incoming leader every success in his endeavours to take our party forwards, and pledge my personal support.

No comments: