The result of the by-election for Edinburgh's City Centre ward highlights a number of unpleasant realities for the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
The most unpleasant of these is that the defeat was predictable as it was crushing.
Immediately after the result was announced this morning I was discussing it on twitter with a number of people - not all Liberal Democrats. It became immediately obvious that whatever the result meant for the various parties, is was in truth a great victory for apathy. With a minuscule turnout of 23%, I find it worrying that over three-quarters of the population are insufficiently inspired to exercise their democratic right. Given that the highest aim of democracy is informing and empowering the electorate, we still have a long way to go.
A bit in the way of background for the benefit of those who know less about Edinburgh politics than I do: Edinburgh City Council is currently controlled by an SNP-Lib Dem administration. Edinburgh is unusual in that there has been reasonable support for all four major parties across the city, as well as sizable pockets of support for the Green Party. Prior to the election, the Liberal Democrats held 16 seats, Labour 15, the SNP 13, Conservatives 11 and the Greens 3. This meant that a Labour victory would have made them the joint largest party and would have had the potential to, at the very least, destabilise the ruling coalition. Probably the most significant and hotly-debated issue in Edinburgh's local politics is the troubled trams project, for which the Liberal Democrats particularly have been closely identified and which directly affects the city centre ward .
There was, therefore, little surprise that an independent anti-trams candidate stood in the by-election, caused by SNP councillor David Beckett leaving to study in America. Given the closeness of the parties last time around an extra candidate in the mix was likely to make things interesting.
The result from last time (courtesy of fellow blogger Gavin Hamilton): SNP 20%, Con 20%, LD 20%, Lab 18%, Green 17%.
The result of yesterday's election is as follows. First preference votes: Con 837 (24%) SNP 797 (23%) Lab 682 (20%) Green 494 (14%) Anti-trams 394 (9%) Lib Dem 251 (7%). As my Scottish readers will be aware, local government elections are held under STV, with the votes of the lowest-placed candidate progressively redistributed with each round:
Round 2. Lib Dem eliminated: Con (+67) 904, SNP (+28) 825, Lab (+34) 716, Green (+82) 576, Anti-trams (+8) 402
Round 3. Anti-trams independent eliminated. Con (+139) 1043, SNP (+68) 893, Lab (+29) 745, Green (+59) 635
Round 4. Green eliminated. Con (+67) 1110, SNP (+188) 1081, Lab (+223) 968
Round 5. Labour eliminated. SNP (+287) 1368, Con (+154) 1264
Caron argues that Labour should have performed better here. I'm not sure if I concur. There are unpopular coalitions both in Westminster and in Edinburgh City Council, but that does not in itself mean that Labour should be favourite to win. In fact, this was the SNP's to lose - and they very nearly did, to a Conservative. Until the final round of voting redistribution it was the Tory candidate in the lead.
One interesting observation is that many Labour voters were willing to lend second preferences to the Tory rather than the SNP candidate. The obvious conclusions to be drawn is that they either see Salmond's SNP, rather than the Tories, as public enemy number 1 or else are protesting at the SNP-Lib Dem administration at ECC. Either way, there is clear evidence of Labour supporters not only tactically voting against the SNP but willing to lend their vote to a Tory to keep out the SNP's candidate. SNP MSP Marco Biagi insisted that "this is a great result for the SNP and shows that our momentum is still continuing from the Scottish Parliament elections in May." No, it doesn't. In spite of their incumbency the SNP hung onto the seat by the skin of their teeth, no doubt thanking their lucky stars that 287 Labour voters were content to lend them second preference votes.
From a Liberal Democrats' viewpoint, the result is depressing. There are a number of factors behind the outcome - not all of them national. The unpopularity of the Westminster coalition, ECC's ruling SNP-Lib Dem partnership and the trams project meant that Alastair Hodgson's chances of winning were remote, but the scale of the collapse in Lib Dem support is difficult to come to terms with. Caron argues that the "[Edinburgh] Councillors are fantastic people who have done excellent things, but they aren't reaping the electoral rewards because nobody knows about it." This may very well be true. But unless a change of tactic - or fortune - is forthcoming next year's local elections will be of catastrophic proportions for our party.
It is not sufficient merely to become more adept at defending our achievements, as many Lib Dems were suggesting earlier today on twitter. On one level, good liberal policy and activity at the heart of government should be openly applauded. Certainly, some of the nonsense and plain untruths being peddled by opposition parties and the media need to be challenged. But let's not deceive ourselves into believing all we need to do is carry on, take it "on the chin" and simply be more vocal about how wonderful we are. I also have grave concerns about our tendency to allow ourselves to adopt a defensive approach, rather than being proactively positive about who we are.
Caron thinks the Edinburgh Liberal Democrats needed "a kick up the rear". Well, she should know better than I! But how many such kickings does the party in Scotland need before it realises that neither playing up our achievements or more aggressive campaigning will themselves bring about the revival in the party's fortunes we so desperately want? Of course, our councillors should be connecting with the electorate, "putting themselves about" and selling themselves more effectively - but this does not detract from the central truth that what is needed is a reinvigoration of our party's purpose, structure, ideology and intellectual identity.
From a campaigning point of view, a little in the way of imagination and creativity wouldn't go amiss either. I have lost count of the number of well-meaning Lib Dem friends who genuinely believe the way forward is to return to the community politics of the 1970s. While I agree that the focus on localism and communities should be central to 21st century Liberal Democracy, I have no appetite to resort to old ways of thinking. What is needed is something new, fresh and relevant.
As we have seen from the Holyrood elections, strong proactive incumbents are vulnerable to being rejected by the electorate if their party is perceived as out-of-touch or lacking either purpose or relevance. The successes and achievements of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland were many, yet were overlooked by voters unhappy with our role in the Westminster coalition. Even positive campaigns, like that of Alex Cole-Hamilton in Edinburgh, were undermined by the negative public perception of the Liberal Democrats.
It is this negative perception that must be challenged and reversed. I have written before on the long-term solution, which I term a Liberal Renaissance; however, this will take time to realise and the one thing we have little of ahead of next year's local elections is time. There can be little doubt that the short-term vision for the Scottish Lib Dems, especially as council elections are concerned, is survival - in the longer term it must be the development of a new culturally relevant expression of liberalism backed by intellectual rigour and popular support. The challenge is how to get there - Willie Rennie, it's over to you.