The 2011 Holyrood elections were hardly our finest moment. A number of factors combined (not least the perception of our role in government) to reduce our presence in the Scottish parliament to a mere 5 MSPs. This is a particularly bitter pill to swallow that requires an honest appraisal of both our current predicament and the way forward.
Our own troubles coincided with a surge in Alex Salmond’s personal popularity and the SNP gaining a historic majority in Holyrood. Again, there were numerous factors in play in determining the outcome of the election – not least the ineffectiveness of Labour’s leader, Iain Gray and the genius of the SNP’s campaign. What can not be disputed, however, is that the SNP were the chief beneficiaries of the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats.
It has been clear over the last few years that the SNP has replaced our party as the repository for protest votes (as evidenced by the Glenrothes by-election, 2009) and now, following the recent electoral disaster, Alex Salmond senses the time is right to move in for the kill. A leaked e-mail from SNP chief executive Peter Murrell suggested that council group leaders sound out Lib Dem councillors about potential defections. I can understand the strategy and from an SNP point of view risks of this approach are minimal; Labour on the other hand seem to have finally realised that undermining the Liberal Democrats will only lead to key Tory and SNP gains at the next General Election.
Murrell drew attention to the fact that four Lib Dem councillors (two of whom are from Paisley) have defected to the SNP since May and hopes that more will do likewise. I don’t wish to criticise Mr Murrell or his party for making overtures towards experienced and capable councillors. What actually surprises me is that, given the scale of May’s disaster and with local elections scheduled for next year, there have only been four defections to date. Our councillors have been incredibly loyal given the circumstances.
Last Friday, Alex Salmond went further than the leaked e-mail did and sent out an unmistakable signal of his intention to offer Liberal Democrat members and supporters a new political home. At a party event in Aberdeen, where the SNP have recently made significant gains at the Lib Dems’ expense, Salmond noted that "many former Lib Dem voters across Scotland supported us for the first time in May, and many more did so in Inverclyde. They are far more in tune with the policies and aspirations of the Scottish National Party than with a Lib Dem leadership in Scotland that is increasingly indistinguishable from the Tories and has lost touch with mainstream Scotland.”
Well, that is true to a point. Many Lib Dem voters did desert us for the SNP is May. As I’ve written previously, it is going to be a tough battle to win such people back to us. The ease with which our support base eroded and transferred its sympathies to the SNP represents a huge challenge for our party and Willie Rennie in particular. But I think Alex Salmond is overplaying his hand more than a little, and it simply isn’t true that the Inverclyde by-election was evidence of Lib Dem supporters switching allegiance to the SNP.
Unlike Mr Salmond, I actually live in Inverclyde. There was, despite what the SNP wants to accept, evidence of tactical voting against the SNP. Despite almost taking the Greenock and Inverclyde seat in the May Holyrood elections (missing out by a mere 511 votes) the SNP failed dismally in their quest to send Anne McLaughlin to Westminster with Labour’s Iain McKenzie securing a majority close to 6,000 – in spite of the enlarged Westminster constituency containing more Lib Dem/SNP friendly areas such as Kilmacolm. Frankly, if Salmond’s hypothesis held true – that Lib Dems were continuing to haemorrhage supporters to the SNP – Ms McLaughlin would now be the MP for Inverclyde. While the Inverclyde result was not a good one from a Liberal Democrat perspective, the evidence suggests that while some Lib Dem support voted SNP, some (probably more) backed the Labour candidate. I know many liberal-leaning individuals in Kilmacolm who did just that; some because they felt Labour was closer to their views, others because they disliked Salmond’s “smugness”, Either way, I haven’t yet heard anything from the SNP explaining why the Inverclyde by-election halted their momentum or why they lost to a Labour Party in disarray when they fully expected to win.
It also isn’t true to suggest that Liberal Democrat supporters are “far more in tune with the policies and aspirations of the Scottish National Party than with a Lib Dem leadership in Scotland” or that Scottish Liberal Democrats are “indistinguishable from Tories”. If Salmond was referring to the coalition in Westminster I would understand his arguments. But the Scottish Lib Dem leadership has adopted a distinctive and in many respects quite different policy platform to that being pursued by the UK government – not least on Further Education, renewable energy, federalism and the economy.
I spoke to Willie Rennie earlier this week about the Inverclyde by-election and the challenges facing the party. Ultimately the SNP came into our conversations. It is true that in some respects, especially in regards key polices, there is common ground between our parties (so much so, in fact, that it’s hard to see why Salmond insists on saying silly things such as “[Willie Rennie] has become Conservative with a capital C”). Similarities in policy ideas mean that ultimately we’re going to have to work harder in regards pitching our unique identity as a Scottish party and while it’s right we should work with the SNP where our objectives overlap, the Liberal Democrats will now have to make clear their philosophical and practical differences. I agree that our party is suffering from something of an identity crisis currently but to dismiss us as a Tory Party Mark II is ridiculous. If anything, we’re suffering from having too much in common with Alex Salmond’s party, which is articulating broadly similar perspectives on social justice, Higher Education and increased powers for Holyrood.
I have to admit to being approached myself by the SNP. I will not join them, however much I may respect many of their MSPs and support many of their policy objectives. The reason is because the SNP is ideologically vacuous: where exactly does it stand on the political spectrum? Does it actually have a philosophy other than it’s raison d’etre – Scottish independence? As someone who refuses to describe themselves as either a unionist or a nationalist (while supporting increased powers to Holyrood and, potentially, independence) I see no reason to join a party whose political outlook is determined by an obsession with independence. Instead, I want to be a member of a party which is by nature instinctively liberal and suspicious of centralisation; the SNP are neither.
Alex Salmond is welcome to attempt to woo Lib Dem councillors and activists. However, if Willie Rennie can effectively use the Holyrood arena to highlight Salmond’s weaknesses and outline a bold federalist (as opposed to unionist) vision for Scotland’s future while reinforcing our philosophical liberalism I can’t see joining the SNP as a particularly attractive proposition. And if Rennie’s version of localism and empowerment can prove more attractive to the Scottish public than the obsession with independence then not only will he have gone some way to neutralising the SNP threat, it will be a positive step in our party’s revitalisation.