Disaster in Inverclyde: what next for the Scottish Lib Dems?
As you may have noticed, although I live in Inverclyde I have not written much about the recent by-election. This is partly because I’ve been away for long periods and not directly involved in the campaign – for reasons which may become obvious in the next few days as I return to blogging in earnest. It’s also due to the fact that not only was the final result predictable from the outset, it almost entirely failed to enthuse the local electorate. To be blunt, I wasn’t overly excited about our prospects either.
After standing as the Liberal Democrat candidate for Renfrewshire North and West in the Holyrood elections, I was asked if I would consider putting myself forward as a potential candidate. Normally, I’d be up for this. But the timing was not good personally and I wouldn’t have been able to run the kind of campaign I would have liked. Also, while I’m not afraid of a fight I am the kind of person who chooses my fights carefully.
But I was very pleased that someone of Sophie Bridger’s obvious potential was chosen as the candidate for the by-election. Not because of the meaningless cliché that she’s “a breath of fresh air” but because she is very much tomorrow’s person. She’s not some party hack representing our past but someone who genuinely looks to the future. A lot has been made by fellow party members of Sophie’s intellectual capabilities and ease in dealing with the media, but as a constituent of Inverclyde I was more concerned with her evident humanity, warmth and obvious concern for local people. It wasn’t simply political opportunism and expediency that caused her to focus her campaigning energies on the local problems of unemployment and low wages: as someone who has worked for the minimum wage she can relate to people’s frustrations easily. She worked extremely hard during the last few weeks and she was a real credit to herself and the party. All in all, I don’t think we could have found a better candidate.
And this makes the result all the more tragic. For those who haven’t seen it, I’m afraid it doesn’t make pleasant reading from a Liberal Democrat perspective:
Iain McKenzie (Labour) 15118
Anne McLaughlin (SNP) 9280
David Wilson (Con) 2784
Sophie Bridger (Lib Dem) 647
Mitch Sorbie (UKIP) 288
This represents a fall from 13.3% to 2.2% on last year’s General Election performance where we finished a respectable third place (admittedly at a time when the SNP were struggling in the polls):
David Cairns (Labour) 20933
Innes Nelson (SNP) 6577
Simon Hutton (Lib Dem) 5007
David Wilson (Con) 4502
Peter Campbell (UKIP) 433
Which leads me to ask whether the 4,360 Liberal Democrat voters who have gone missing since last year can please report to Kelly Street on Monday morning?
If we compare last night's result with that of May 2011 for Greenock & Inverclyde (which does not include more traditionally Lib Dem friendly areas such as Kilmacolm) we can see more completely the scale of the disaster:
Duncan McNeil (Labour) 12387
Stuart McMillan (SNP) 11876
Graeme Brooks (Con) 2011
Ross Finnie (Lib Dem) 1934
Fellow blogger Caron Lindsay argues that “our performance has been consistent with other Westminster by-election results in central and western Scotland in the last few years.” That is true to a point, but it doesn't accurately reflect the wider picture: that this is the worst by-election performance for us since 1989 (The Guardian thus informed me, so it must be true), coming as it does on the back of the worst national election results in living memory. Our performance was not even consistent with our efforts here less than two months ago – and that is in spite of senior Lib Dems visiting Inverclyde and a large number of party activists working the constituency far harder than we were able to for the Scottish parliamentary elections. And let’s not forget – whatever might have been said in recent weeks as parties looked to blame each other for Inverclyde’s problems – that the Liberal Democrats have been a majority force on the council until reasonably recently and have a strong tradition in the area. This annihilation is on a stunning scale, and far worse than I expected. Our party, which for decades has been a strong political force locally, has been reduced to an electoral irrelevance.
What are the implications? Quite simply, it looks as if we are on the verge of extinction. I'm not naturally given to intemperate overreaction, and I genuinely don’t think I am overstating the gravity of the situation because this is exactly what many will make of the result. The Liberal Democrats have history in Greenock. We’ve been successful here in the very recent past. This result sends out a clear signal that we’re finished in Scotland. It’s not a particularly pleasant reality to be facing.
None of this is Sophie Bridger’s fault. Very little of it is the fault of Inverclyde Liberal Democrats. But if the party is to become something more than an irrelevance, it has not so much to reinvent itself as to recreate itself. The party is suffering something of an identity crisis, both among voters (with catastrophic consequences) and its own membership. Identity with the UK coalition has helped set the cause of Scottish liberalism back half a century, while new leader Willie Rennie has his work cut out if he is to reinvigorate the party in Scotland. Given the size of his task, simply being able to forge a strong, distinctive liberal voice in Holyrood will be something of a triumph.
Following the announcement of the result, Rennie said: “We are listening to what the voters are saying and we will feed this into our plans for the party’s future and development in Scotland. I believe that we will restore Scotland's confidence in the Liberal Democrats and continue to be a strong liberal voice, holding the Scottish Government to account.” That is what is needed. But at the moment, clearly Inverclyde’s voters do not feel Liberal Democrats are listening and they have no confidence in our party or our ability to hold the Scottish – or any other – government to account.
There can be no escaping that this result is a disastrous one. No amount of spin or massaging the statistics can escape the truth. Unlike in May, we can not even blame a further surge in the SNP vote for the spectacular collapse. The outcome is due as much, if not more, to our own weaknesses, failings and public perception of us than to the genius of other parties’ campaigning tactics.
I must admit to being angered by the attitude of a London-based Lib Dem spokesman who explained to The Guardian that "when you're in government, by-elections don't matter as much as when you're in opposition". Firstly, they do matter on so many levels even if expectations should be different for a party in government. Secondly, this language is insulting to the voters of Inverclyde, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the local party and our candidate. It also betrays a startling ignorance of local dimensions and ramifications, not least the challenges Liberal Democrats in Inverclyde now face if they are to move forward. But I don't suppose the unnamed spokesman really cares too much for the future of liberalism in Inverclyde.
I mentioned the need to “recreate” ourselves. I stand by my observations in a previous post, in which I expressed the need for a “liberal renaissance”. It is not simply a change of image that is needed, but a rebirth - a rebirth based on values and liberal principles. I hope Willie Rennie accepts this, because purely cosmetic changes and using Holyrood as a propaganda forum will do nothing to rebuild the Scottish Liberal Democrats. The party in Scotland, and its leadership, have to carefully consider the direction we now move in - whether towards transformation and recovery or further losses and political irrelevance.
I should congratulate my new MP, Iain McKenzie. In fact, I will be writing to him with that express purpose. His predecessor David Cairns is in many respects a tough act to follow, and I can only hope that Iain will adopt a similarly liberal approach on social and ethical issues.