Cheerful? No, I'm fearful for the future of the Scottish Lib Dems

The unquestionably disappointing results of last week’s Scottish parliamentary election have got a lot of Lib Dems talking. There is a general acceptance that the party has fundamental problems, that we’re facing real challenges outside of a few constituencies and that we are experiencing an existential crisis. That’s not to say some of us aren’t finding some positives from the campaign, especially as far as local campaigning and more positive messaging is concerned, but overall it’s fair to say that the mood isn’t particularly positive.

Yesterday, Kit Fraser, the convenor of East Lothian Liberal Democrats, went a little further than most of us in launching an all-out attack on the leader, Willie Rennie. Ostensibly, this is because Mr Fraser feels Mr Rennie’s unusual photo shoots have undermined the party’s credibility and professionalism. However, when someone has been so loyal to the party throughout the coalition years, it does seem rather odd that they choose to die on this particular hill. Of all the things to have potentially resigned over, why this?  I suspect there are other issues in play, not least because – whatever one thinks of Willie Rennie’s penchant for odd photos – it’s hard to argue that these are central to the election result. Does anyone seriously believe the outcome would have been better for us if Mr Rennie had avoided the light-hearted photo opportunities?

This isn’t the moment for personalised attacks on the leader. It’s a time for sober reflection, without rancour or animosity. But it is a time for honesty and realism, which brings me to something Alex Cole-Hamilton, MSP for Edinburgh Western, has written for the Edinburgh Evening News. He tells is that he is cheerful for the future for the Lib Dems, as he believes “there will always be an appetite for liberalism” in Scotland and “nobody else does quite what we do”. Mr Cole-Hamilton presents us with an a mishmash of nostalgia and denial, couched in the familiar language of blind optimism.

Like most Lib Dems, I want to hear positive messages, but they must be grounded in reality rather than dismissive of the seriousness of our predicament.

Let’s take a closer look at what Mr Cole-Hamilton has to say.

He begins by telling us how, at ten years old, his father woke him at 4.30am to deliver leaflets for Menzies Campbell on the morning of the 1987 General Election. I was the same age at that election and it was the first election I took any real interest in. I know my mum wanted Ray Michie to win in Argyll and Bute and I also remember the general optimism among friends and neighbours that this was a time for change. It’s easy to get nostalgic about two things - childhood and political victories - and Mr Cole-Hamilton clearly remembers that time as fondly as I do.

It’s an interesting example to pick, though, because for all the positivity of the campaigns in Argyll and Bute and North East Fife, the 1987 General Election marked the end of the sometimes uneasy relationship between the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. What followed was a year of acrimony and infighting, with fraught negotiations finally resulting in a new merged party and two “continuity” splinter parties. For a while it wasn’t clear which of these three parties – if any – would survive. Support for the new Social and Liberal Democrats plunged into single figures from the level of 23% at the election and, worryingly, seemed to be stuck there. The nostalgia we retrospectively feel masks the reality that those were dark times.

This of course isn’t Alex Cole-Hamilton’s point, but we’re once again in times so dark that our existence as a credible party is in question. At least in 1988 the new party started out with 19 MPs (three of the Alliance's MPs had gone over to the new continuity SDP). Acknowledging the gravity of the situation is necessary before progress can be made. That is not to say that we should be without hope for the future – far from it – but that such hope must be based on something more tangible than wishful thinking.

After explaining how Liberal values were “baked in from birth”, Mr Cole-Hamilton turns his attention to last week’s election results. He begins with this statement: “The results of Thursday’s election were a setback for the Lib Dems in Scotland, but not a massive one.” I’m afraid I cannot agree with this upbeat analysis. We may only have lost been one seat, but the result represents so much more. It’s our worst ever result in a Scottish parliamentary election. It’s the third in succession that we’ve finished with five seats or less and the first in which we’ve failed to win a regional seat. For the second successive election we’re the fifth party of Scottish politics, behind the Greens. Not only do we no longer have official group status at Holyrood, being reduced to four seats also underlines the failure to recover electorally from the crushing defeat of 2011. Most of us expected some progress at this election, however small. Suggesting this is not a massive setback ignores the wider context of the last 10 years: a decade on from the horror of 2011 we’re still going backwards. It also diminishes the likely impacts of losing party status in parliament.

Mr Cole-Hamilton chooses to ignore this. Instead, he seeks to pain a different picture. “Whilst we have been reduced by one MSP in Holyrood, we have consolidated our survival by becoming the third biggest Scottish party at Westminster”, he says. Strictly speaking, this is correct, but it ignores two undeniable facts. Firstly, we are the third party in terms of Westminster seats only because Labour, in spite of securing around 19% of the vote, is hampered by the FPTP electoral system and holds only one constituency. Secondly, while Mr Cole-Hamilton suggests otherwise, both the 2019 General Election and the 2021 Holyrood election tell the same story: the Liberal Democrats have become the party of a handful of constituencies. Elsewhere in the nation our appeal is, to be diplomatic, rather limited.

“We now have a base in our constituencies that will give us confidence to grow and grow we shall” he declares. It’s stirring fighting talk, but aside from the constituencies we hold and the addition of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross it’s difficult to see what justification Mr Cole-Hamilton has for this assertion. In virtually all constituencies, including those traditionally “good” for us such as Argyll and Bute and Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, our vote share continued to fall (in the cases of those named, by 5.2% and 7.1% respectively). What base we had has been further eroded. It’s also not clear how we shall “grow”, or what strategies Mr Cole-Hamilton is proposing to extend the appeal the party holds in a few constituencies into the rest of the country. The party needs something more than aspirational rhetoric; back in 2011 there was much talk about the “Lib Dem fightback” but it was not rooted in anything that has yet been realised. Meanwhile, the party drifts towards further irrelevance.

Mr Cole-Hamilton moves onto what makes us different to other parties, and this is more interesting. “Nobody joins the Liberal Democrats as a career move” he tells us, which is not entirely true but the general point is accepted. “They join us because we speak to a set of values that is absent from any other party”, he says.

I agree with him completely. In fact, these values are the reason I remain within the party.  When Mr Cole-Hamilton expresses the view that “no other party offers” what the Liberal Democrats do in the preamble to our constitution he is absolutely correct. 

However, we’re not a party capable of turning those values into electoral assets. When we talk among ourselves we have so many obvious selling points, with progressive, redistributive policies from UBI to federalism. We want to radically overhaul the way the UK works. We believe in a localism that empowers communities.  But voters don’t hear that and it isn’t simply a by-product of limited media coverage but an unwillingness to shout about who we are. It’s as if we’re scared to take risks in case we lose what little ground we already have. And so, instead of communicating bold, radical visions for an alternative future we end up focusing on anti-SNP tactical squeeze messaging. That was never a recipe for growing the party, however much it helped grow the vote in North East Fife and Edinburgh Western.

The question isn’t whether we are the party of the Liberal values Mr Cole-Hamilton describes, but whether we can become identified with them in the public consciousness. If we are to do that, there has to be a radical change of culture within the party, especially in our approach to elections. One thing Mr Cole-Hamilton doesn’t address anywhere in his piece is how his optimistic prediction of a growing, thriving Scottish liberal party is to be achieved. He simply assumes it will happen, which doesn’t give me much reason to be cheerful when any objective view of the evidence suggests something else.

Mr Cole Hamilton goes on to explain that “we have admittedly been squeezed by the titanic constitutional battle in recent years, but we actually stand where a good number of Scots stand.” This is true, although the squeeze doesn’t entirely account for our inability to make any inroads for a decade. It’s also clear that standing “where a good number of Scots stand” isn’t in itself sufficient reason to give those people a reason to vote for us. Again, there are assumptions made that people will vote for us, that we will regain their support, if only we keep on doing and saying the same things. That’s not a vision: it’s foolishness.

Mr Cole-Hamilton then seeks to channel Voltaire when he asserts that, “if the Lib Dems didn’t exist you’d need to invent us”. I’m not so sure. If the Liberal Democrats did not exist there would be a need to create something: something that is authentically liberal, radical and bold. What I am not sure about is whether it would look like us – i.e. the Scottish Liberal Democrats. There is certainly a need for an opposition party that can resist the authoritarianism of both the SNP and the Conservatives, but if a new party was created expressly for that purpose I am quite sure it would look nothing like either the Scottish Liberal Democrats or the Scottish Labour Party. (What it would look like may well be the subject of a future blogpost.)

Fortunately, Mr Cole-Hamilton does allude to the party’s challenge and gets the diagnosis right while not offering much in the way of a prescription. “Our challenge is relevance, we make great strides when we’re saying something different from anyone else. Then people look more closely and discover all the other things they like about us... The challenge for the next five years is to reintroduce ourselves to people beyond our constituency boundaries again. When they see us at close hand - our values and how hard we work for our communities, they reward us with handsome majorities.”

It’s the usual Lib Dem fighting talk – “where we work we win” – but it somehow feels inauthentic. Liberal Democrats across Scotland – especially in local councils – have been working hard for their communities for the last decade, but none of this has transferred to an improved performance in a Holyrood election. Mr Cole Hamilton is right when he stresses the importance of “saying something different from everyone else”, but again there is an implied suggestion that we’re doing all this already and organic growth will follow if we just talk about it a bit more. There is no sense that something more radical and transformative must happen if the party is to regain its relevance.

Mr Cole-Hamilton doesn’t mention an existential crisis. Neither does he mention the fundamental difficulties the party continues to experience in relation to winning the trust of the electorate, the unwillingness of senior figures to accept criticism or the crippling fear of expressing ourselves authentically.

It’s great that Mr Cole-Hamilton is cheerful about the future, but I’m not. In fact, Mr Cole-Hamilton gives me nothing, at least within this piece, to be cheerful about. His remedy appears to be to keep doing what we are and that, when voters see how much we do, they will naturally reward us. Nick Clegg said much the same during the coalition years and we know how that ended.

I am fearful about the future for the Liberal Democrats, and I have every right to be. Articles like this, offering no real insight into the reasons for our problems or even accepting the scale of them, only serve to compound that fear. That does not mean that I am devoid of hope; only that I know that, if we do not acknowledge our situation and do something radical to turn things around, we will drift further into irrelevance and obscurity.

As I said earlier, now is not the time for attacks on the party leader. Similarly, I don’t think it’s the time for vacuous fighting talk. Like all Lib Dems I want something to feel positive about, but the usual aspirational waffle doesn’t serve us well. We need something brutally honest, refreshingly visionary, daringly radical – something genuinely inspiring and outward-looking – that also recognises why we are where we are.

I have no idea what the party review into the election performance will tell us and I wouldn’t want to pre-empt it. What I hope – and expect – is that it will give us more reason for genuine optimism than the suggestion we should carry on as we have been. Defiant talk in public is good and well, but nowhere does Alex Cole-Hamilton suggest he, or the party, has learned anything. Nowhere does it occur to him that we are, to some degree at least, responsible for our own problems. Nowhere is there an acknowledgement that not only is the situation serious, there is absolutely no guarantee of recovery.

There are many reasons why I am proud to be a Liberal Democrat. Yes, it is those Liberal values – but it’s also the fact that, at our heart, we are a radical party of reform. We are a genuinely progressive party with strong environmental and redistributive aims. We’re a party that has bold plans on drug reform, on the green economy, on eradicating poverty, on mental health, on education, even federalism. There’s a lot to be proud of. But if we continue to identify ourselves as who we’re not by continually focusing on tactical voting to win constituencies, then our values and policies will inevitably be overlooked.

So no, I’m not cheerful. I don’t feel it’s the right word to use in the aftermath of our worst ever performance in a Scottish election. I’m utterly depressed and this piece from Alex Cole-Hamilton only adds to that depression. I know what his intentions are and I can't fault them, but it offers little other than misplaced optimism. That's not what the party needs.

On the other hand I am hopeful that more Scottish Liberal Democrat members, candidates and activists have strong, positive visions for our future and the way the party needs to reform itself. In the discussions with fellow Lib Dems I’m hearing so many positive ideas from people who have finally acknowledged that something has to change.  If we take those ideas on board and act on them, there may well be a positive future for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. I certainly hope so.


nigel hunter said…
Is it time for a leadership election?To cause an earthquake clears the ground and head. With all the members with ideas champing at the bit 'stirring it'an cause movement.New heads are needed.After all the old gives way to the new.New ideas or more vocality can wake sleepy minds.
Andrew said…
Is it time for a leadership election?

Well, there is currently no vacancy. I don't know when that will change. Personally, I feel there are more fundamental problems to be addressed. I'm not sure any of the other three MSPs would want to step up to the leadership yet in any case.

You are absolutely right that "new heads are needed" but unfortunately we have no new faces in parliament. Rebuilding the party will be a grassroots exercise and I hope that the pending review will be an opportunity to reflect honestly not only on the election but the wider situation.
Democracy Coma said…
This reads a lot like a piece I've just written about the party in Wales.

We have many of the same issues. I think we might have finally got past the optimistic denial stage this time around though.
Andrew said…
Many thanks for the link to that interesting and well-argued piece. I learned a few things I didn't previously know from reading this.

I haven't yet come to addressing the reasons for the Scottish Lib Dems' poor result last week - I thought it best to wait for a short while before sharing my analysis - but in several key respects our predicament is surprisingly similar to what you describe in relation to the Welsh party. I will almost certainly be making some similar observations.

Tom Barney said…
Let us be charitable and assume that 'anti-SNP tactical squeeze messaging' was necessary to 'grow the vote in North East Fife and Edinburgh Western'. It doesn't really matter because, true or not, the election is now over. And that is our opportunity: the length of time till the next Holyrood election. That party members have a strong sense of what the party is for is our strength and our hope; that in those circumstances the party as a corporate body does not communicate this seems bizarre. How are members' faith and hope to be translated into a collective affirmation which will be heard? I am not quite sure, but at least we do have the faith and hope, and the affirmation *could* be made without for the time being having to worry about constituency campaigns.
Andrew said…
Indeed Tom.

To be clear, temporarily growing the vote for electoral success in key constituencies is of short-term use only. I'm not saying it is an approach that should never be used, but if we are to build the party in the longer-term it's not a neasure that's going to signifciantly help.

As you say, there is now an opportunity and I am feeling positive about much that I am hearing from party members. We have to seize this opportunity - the last ten years have been characterised by missing opportunities, falling further backwards and not adequately communicating what actually makes us who we are.