Disaster in Inverclyde: what next for the Scottish Lib Dems?

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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.


James said…
Probably blasphemy to say this but I think the Scottish party should seriously consider its own declaration of independence as an independent liberal party along the lines of the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland.
Andrew said…
That is certainly one idea worth considering!
Anonymous said…
How refreshing to read an honest appraisal of the situation.I must add should W Rennie continue in his current style what little goodwill is left will also dissipate
Anonymous said…

Thanks for your analysis. However, what is different in Inverclyde by-election of 2011 that was different from say the Glenrothes by-election of 2008. (result: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glenrothes_by-election,_2008).

A pre-coalition by-election, in which the result was very similar.
Andrew said…
Thanks to the two anonymous contributors! Firstly, I think honest appraisal is always necessary in these situations - after all, we have important local elections to fight here in Inverclyde next year and it would be a travesty if good councillors lost their seats because of the national picture.

Glenrothes was interesting, with a huge swing from the Lib Dems to the SNP. This may have simply been a case of voters opting for the party perceived as being best positioned to defeat Labour, and this was probably also a factor in inverclyde. But I can't profess to have any local knowledge about the situation in Glenrothes, whereas as a member of Inverclyde Liberal Democrats I am very concerned about what this result means for the future of our party locally.
Andrew said…
I see former MSP Ross Finnie has also made some rather forthright comments in today's Scotsman: http://news.scotsman.com/news/Lib-Dems-divided-as-former.6794654.jp

Finnie: "There were clear issues of trust in the leadership of the Liberal Democrat party, and there was an issue about whether we were articulating a case for people to vote for us. These are very fundamental issues."

But "a source close to Nick Clegg" said: "In Scotland, it is obvious that the fact we are with the Tories does have a big impact on how people see you. In Scotland, the party almost disowned Nick Clegg, but people still see that you are the same Lib Dems."

A very strange thing to say, and evidence that there are clearly some tensions within the party...
GHmltn said…
A good post.

I think the key point is that there is history of strong LibDem support in Inverclyde over many years.

Collapse is an over used word at elections but that is exactly what has happened to the LibDem vote.

Political cycles do come and go and there is market demand to vote for a centre party but the LibDems have currently been totally outflanked by the SNP.

The SNPs position of being a national partry for Scotland rather than a Nationalist party diffuses the idea that there needs to be a non nationalist centre party.

We will see how things play out as this parliament the SNP seem focussed on seeing everything in terms of unpicking the union.

But for now the LibDems have collapsed. It is very hard to answer the question why vote for them what are they for. The tuition fees in England issue means they are perceived as going back on the key things they campaigned for therefore it doesn't matter what their platform is.

I think theer are plenty of potential LibDem supporters out there but there is a lack of trust and a lack of credibility and an alliance with the Tories hat is extremely toxic in Scotland.

The risk is that the next elections will see councillors and MPs swept away and then the LibDems may be finished in Scotland.

The need is to explain why the LibDems went into coalition in 2010. This was done for good reasons and to save the economy. This will play out over the next 2 or 3 years.

Also there is a need to deliver things at Westminster and to communicate them so that it can be both seenand communicated what the point of the LibDems are.

This also includes modifying some bad Conservative things for the better.

Even if they are devolved matters they still communicate what the point of the LibDems is.

Finally there needs to be a clear and simple narrative for wht vote for the LibDems.

If this can be added to some good comunity camapigning something may yet be salvaged from this political cycle.

Personally I am encouraged so far by Willie Rennie. I hope he can carve out a clear political furrow to plough to help establish a clear identity for the LibDems and credibility.

Again, it is not that there isnt a section of the electorate who are potential supporters we need to establish again what we are for AND credibilty and trust that we will deliver some of these things when elected.
John Minard said…
The idea of the Scottish Lib Dem's being retro-confederated rather than a federal party might be interesting and help local and Holyrood elections (perhaps European too) - reflecting Scotland's increasing autonomy. It would certainly be seen as a bloc representing Scotland's interests at the federal conferences.

Would the prescription for the UK be so different that when (hopefully) things turn up for the economy and the Lib Dem's regain ground - that they might not be seen as having precipitated that though?

At present, people aren't listening, and there's not that much that can be improved until people lend us their ears!
Richard T said…
As a Lib Dem, I think our problems in Scotland start from a very basic level in that there are notionally 4 parties competing for the non-Tory votes. There is a clear identity for 3 of the parties but for us this is no longer the case. Add in the coalition south and we have blurred our polticial position further so to the voters it is unclear what we stand for and and hence why should they vote for us? Doubtless folk will get over the tuition fees debacle but the guilt by association from the prospective cuts in benefits and potential homelessness will linger.

My personal take would be go down the devolution max route and embrace genuine localism in Scotland because I suspect that for the SNP devolution stops in Edinburgh; add in real land reform and a land value tax and we might see a genuine distinctive message coming across.
Andrew said…
Richard T - agreed. I think this has been a problem for some time. even in strong Lib Dem seats - such as where I previously lived in Argyll & Bute, we were able to return good majorities on the back of local activism and a hard-working MP but I was never convinced that all those Lib Dem voters were actually by instinct liberal or had much inclination as to what we stood for as a party: we were simply seen as the best anti-Tory option.

Anti-Toryism remains a potent force in Scottish politics and with this in mind the coalition was always going to blur any dinstinctive identity we had, even without the embarrassing tuition fees debacle. I would agree with you that devolution max and "genuine localism" represent the most constructive route forward - land reform and LVT are ideas I would also support but I fear will never excite the majority of party activists, never mind the leadership.

GHmltn - there is so much in your contribution that is good and accurate. I will simply focus on the question you ask: "why vote for the Liberal democrats and what are they for"? From my point of view, I am a philsophical liberal and I vote for the party that most closely reflects my desire for a more liberal society. But this isn't what has motivated most Lib Dem voters in the past, and the party must again start speaking the language most Scots are talking. We can't simply wait for people to start listening to us - we have to find ways of demonstrating our political and social relevance.
Andrew said…
I see I've finally made it big! I'm number 1 in this week's "Golden Dozen" on Lib Dem Voice!
Allan Heron said…
"From my point of view, I am a philsophical liberal and I vote for the party that most closely reflects my desire for a more liberal society. But this isn't what has motivated most Lib Dem voters in the past, and the party must again start speaking the language most Scots are talking"

That's a valid point - the majority of people that have voted for us in the past have done so on the basis of what we are not, rather than what we are.

The flip side of your comments is whether the Liberal Democrats are currently or will be in the future "the party that most closely reflects my desire for a more liberal society". I think it is at the minute (largely as I think at core that the SNP are fundamentally centrists) but we need to be able to paint a clear picture of what we are to have any hope of recovery.

And that recovery itself may take 20 years. The best that we can perhaps do is to create conditions for the likes of Sophie and other current members of Liberal Youth to benefit from in the 2030's.

A final point - we need to reclaim our position as a federal party. Like so many others, this is one that has been conceded by ourselves. I cringe each time we talk about "defending the union" against the SNP. I don't want to defend the union - I want to reform it. Devolution plus Calman is still not enough. We also need to get our colleagues in England to realise that they have to articulate this as well - if there is a desire to avoid independance for Scotland, then that has to include England as well. It's not tenable for additional powers to be granted to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland without addressing more fundamentally what that means for Westminster and how England is governed.

I get no sense that this is an issue for anyone down south at this point in time. Like the impact on our electoral fortunes, they just don't get it. Maybe it'll be up to the Scottish party to start the campaign for Home Rule for England.
Steve Comer said…
A Sassanach view....

I must admit for a while now I've not really understood the Scottish Lib Dems. Our instinctive political orientation is centre left and we are localists, yet we seem to hate the SNP most, ie. the party closest to our political instincts!
I never understood why Scottish Lib Dems were so opposed to the Independence referendum. Surely if/when it happens we would campaign for a 'no' vote and deeper and further devolution (to local councils etc). So why join a 'unionist alliance' with Tory and Labour in opposing giving the Scottish people the choice?
Andrew said…
Steve - I certainly don't hate the SNP, and I have a great deal of respect for many of the SNP MSPs, including my own (Derek Mackay). In many respects it is closer to our political instincts than the other Scottish parties, and I think there is now a lot more common ground between ourselves and the nationalists than between ourselves and Labour, with whom we were in coalition for eight years.

As for the referendum, I've never personally been opposed to it. I still am not. I would even campaign for a referendum because I feel it is now right to take the issue out of the hands of politicians and give the Scottish people a democratic voice. I'm not necessarily opposed to independence per se either; while hardly being a passionate advocate for it, I don't have any fear of independence but I have no great interest in lines on maps and I find nationalism itself narrow and inward-looking. I don't identify with the nationalist interpretations either Scotland's identity but that in itself doesn't make me a unionist. I am far more concerned with people and society - and in one sense Scotland's constitutional future is, if not irrelevant, not central to my political thinking. As a result, I am not openly hostile to the SNP; neither do I wish to create any kind of unionist alliance with the Labour and Tory parties.

Ideally, we would already have had the indpendence referendum and the Scottish people would have given their verdict. The tactical naivity of the unionist MSPs in not only opposing a referendum but also in believing Salmond's inability to deliver it would cost the SNP politically is staggering. I never fully understood the Lib Dems' determination to avoid the independence referendum - at best it was a tactical mistake.

Allan - excellent comment, and intelligent as always. I hope that the Lib Dems remain "the party that most closely reflects my desire for a more liberal society" and as long as they are, whatever the unpleasant realities being experienced as a result of involvement in the UK coalition, I will continue to carry my membership card and will continue to fight for liberal values within the party. There are positive things that can be said about the SNP, but they are not fundamentally a liberal party. Neither are the Greens. And Labour have very little to offer me at the moment.

"The recovery itself may take 20 years. The best that we can perhaps do is to create conditions for the likes of Sophie and other current members of Liberal Youth to benefit from in the 2030's." It might take as long as that. I'm certainly not in support of the bullish "take it on the chin" kind of attitudes being expressed by the federal leadership, which optimistically assume that all we have to do is keep on going as we are and things will get better. I think there need to be structural changes as well as a philosophical renewal. But more importantly we need to ensure that we remain politically relevant and that we do not allow ourselves to be defined either by the Westminster coalition or our reduced presence in Holyrood.

And no, I'm not going to "defend the union" either. To be quite honest, I'm sick of the unionist/nationalist debate which so often resorts to simplicities and fails to respond to the more pressing needs of Scottish society. Devolution was a positive step, and the Calman reforms are a useful addition, but as you rightly state there is far more that can be done to empower Scottish democracy without going down the route of full independence.
Garry Otton said…
Excellent article, Andrew, especially the liberal renaissance. That is exactly what the Party needs. I worry that by living in the shadow of the Tories, people just won't know what the Liberal Democrats really stand for anymore. The LibDems have a great opportunity in coalition, but I would like to hear more of them. Not so much agreeing as disagreeing. Being the facilitating opposition if you like with a steady and cautious hand on any right-wing excesses.
Andrew said…
Garry - that is exactly what we should be. We can be in coalition without necessarily being in the "shadow of the Tories".