After a few weeks of hype and speculation, we finally have a result in the Aberdeen Donside by-election.
Political anoraks like by-elections. I'm not sure other people do particularly, but for the politically obsessed they tend to provide hours of conversation and indeed entertainment of sorts. We speculate about share of the vote, turnout, swings and of course the political implications. It's an odd pastime in honesty and personally I prefer to try to make sense of by-elections in their aftermath.
Before discussing this particular by-election in some depth, it may be worth mentioning that on 1st June I made the following prediction in regards placings:
3) Liberal Democrats
7) Scottish Democratic Alliance
8) Scottish Christian Party
9) National Front
That's not entirely accurate but it was a reasonable prediction and one that bears some similarity to the final result:
Liberal Democrats 1,940
National Front 249
Scottish Christian Party 222
So did this tell us anything new? Not really, as my prediction suggests. The SNP won (congratulations to Mark MacDonald) while Labour narrowed their majority. I was, however, wrong on a couple of counts: I had predicted "a close battle for 3rd place between us, the Greens and the Tories" - well, the Greens' poor performance suggests they have their own problems and are entirely unable to capitalise on the unpopularity and difficulties of others. I also expected a little more of Scotland's newest political party - the centre-right Scottish Democratic Alliance - and, even although this was their first outing and they're relatively unknown - I was a bit surprised to see them poll fewer votes than the National Front. We also discovered that, even with a disproportionate and unmerited amount of media coverage, UKIP do not poll well in Scotland. I'm not sure whether Nigel Farage actually appreciates the difference between English and Scottish political culture but after a few more lost deposits he should get the message.
What did it tell us about the Liberal Democrats? To listen to some others you would think that this creditable third place means that a corner has been turned. Some were making dramatic statements such as: "the fightback has begun", while Malcolm Bruce claimed this showed that "voters are returning to Lib Dems". Willie Rennie took to twitter to express his pride in our candidate, Christine Jardine, and the campaigning team. Quite rightly, too. That's all terrific and it's great to see Liberal Democrats feeling good about themselves.
Others were not only feeling good, but were clearly ecstatic. Some facebook and twitter comments hailed "the massive increase in vote share" (it was up 2.3%), the "largest increase of votes by any party" (obviously ignoring UKIP - and Labour's superior increase in vote share) and went as far as to say that "anyone who writes us off in Scotland now is in for a surprise."
However, a sense of proportion is needed. The orgy of self-congratulation is seriously misplaced. Yes, voters did return to the Liberal Democrats in Donside - 334 of them to be precise. What this shows is that we're moving in the right direction, but at a painfully slow rate. As another party member observed, "it shows that it'll be another 20 years of effort to recover our position". While I'm happy with the third place I am less concerned with the final placing than I am the number of voters who actively support us and I would have exchanged finishing ahead of the Tories for ending in fourth place with another 1,000 votes.
We were starting from a very low base (2011 was an unmitigated disaster) and if the electoral massacre of the last Holyrood elections represents our nadir then some progress should be expected. I secretly hoped for a larger increase in the vote and imagined the Tories' support would remain static. All in all, it seems we gained a little over 300 votes while the Conservatives lost about the same. We finished 812 votes ahead of UKIP, who have never previously stood in the constituency. That isn't something to get overly excited about - we're still 2,400 votes behind 2007 levels. There's nothing in this result to suggest the kind of recovery that will increase our representation at Holyrood in 2016. But at least it's a step forward.
What I actually sense in the excitement is a sense of relief. I suspect many of us feared the worst and, unlike myself, didn't see third place as a realistic prospect. In fairness, other recent by-elections haven't given much cause for optimism. The media seemed to be obsessed with the two main parties and UKIP, suggesting we could finish fifth or even sixth, losing our deposit in the process. It's quite right that we should be openly delighted with proving such predictions wrong, and that after a string of admittedly dreadful results we have something more positive to think about. Personally, I expected a good showing here...but I also understand this was by no means certain and I'm sure there are many Lib Dems who are simply relieved we avoided another disastrous outcome. It's little wonder this feels like a great victory - but it would be wrong to attach too much significance to the result.
I'm not going to be making suggestions that this constitutes some kind of dramatic signal for a wider fightback or that it shows that public faith in the party has been restored, because it does nothing of the sort. More former Lib Dem voters are continuing to cast their ballots for other parties than are choosing to return to us. There remain fundamental questions about our purpose, how we engage, and how we regain voters' trust and confidence.
Coming back to the predictions I made earlier in the month, I reflected on the perils of finishing in third place: "personally, I'm worried we might come 3rd...if we do Willie Rennie and Nick Clegg will spin this as a positive, and the outcome will not be the wake up call to the leadership that it should be." Cautious optimism should be the order of the day. The apparent triumphalism must give way to sober-minded consideration of how the party can be rebuilt and revitalised. Rather than justify the stance of the leadership who seem to believe we must simply keep on preaching the same messages of achievement in government, the result acutely demonstrates how long the road back actually is.
Glossing over our problems so spectacularly on the basis of securing 8.3% of the vote in a by-election would be irresponsible. So, yes - let's enjoy the moment for what it's worth. We should take some encouragement from a creditable third place. However, real politics (rather than nerdy self-indulgent semi-intellectual speculation) isn't really about by-elections but people and issues, and we now have to build on a respectable result through connecting with people and making a stand on the right issues.
What this result does confirm is that the SNP and Labour remain the dominant forces in Scottish politics and that, for the Liberal Democrats, 2011 is as bad as it got - or is going to get. The only way for us now is up. However, it also underlines how deep our problems are, both internally and in relation to our popular appeal, while reinforcing the unpalatable reality that a full recovery is far from around the corner.
The final word goes to David Smith, the former Lib Dem PPC for Wakefield: "In tough times, it doesn't help to gloss over things." Indeed. We needed a good result and we got a decent one, but what we also need is an intellectual honesty and realism that both grasps the nature of our predicament and can fathom a way out.