The Holyrood election 2021: What went wrong for the Liberal Democrats?
I’ve waited a few days before dissecting the Liberal Democrats’ performance in the Scottish parliamentary elections. I very much doubt that what I say will be much different to what I would have done a week ago but, in the circumstances, I felt it wise to give our candidates, activists and indeed our parliamentarians time to recover from a bruising campaign before writing a critical piece. The pause has also allowed time for personal reflection and the opportunity to engae in interesting and productive discussions with other party members.
There is little point in avoiding the obvious reality: the 2021 Scottish parliamentary election was a disaster for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Discussions about the way forward must grasp this simple fact. Anyone denying it – including Alex Cole-Hamilton, who suggests the result is a mere setback, and “not a massive one”, in the party’s inevitable march towards a brighter future – are frankly either deluding themselves or being intentionally dishonest. For the last decade the party has indulged in optimistic denial but, following the worst result for the Lib Dems in Scotland since devolution, that simply cannot be allowed to continue.
I’m going to begin by underlining just how bad a result this was for us. Most obviously, we lost one seat and our presence in parliament has now been reduced to a mere four MSPs. One consequence of this is that we can no longer be considered an “official grouping” at Holyrood, a major turnabout for a party of government until 2007. However, to view the election result only in terms of MSPs returned would be to lose sight of the broader picture, what that tells us about our party’s standing in the country and the results of pursuing what should now be considered to be flawed electoral strategies.
The raw data is damning. We lost 50 deposits at this election, compared to 48 in 2016 and 25 in 2011. Those of us with long enough memories will recall how 2011 was supposed to represent the “low point” before “the Lib Dem fightback”. That fightback has never really materialised and there are now serious questions to be answered about how we approach elections in the future. Is it sustainable to be putting up candidates for election in every constituency when we’re paying out £25,000 for the privilege?
Even more alarming than the huge number of lost deposits is the fact that our vote share is continuing to fall. Of the 73 constituencies, we saw an increase in the vote share in only 22. The highest increase was in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross where a positive campaign by Molly Nolan added 5.0% to our 2016 share. Elsewhere, any increases were rather minimal and were often in constituencies where we lost our deposits or only just held them – such as Almond Valley (0.9%), Edinburgh Central (1.2%), Angus South (1.3%) and Dundee City East (1.2%). These are among the more impressive improvements. Generally speaking most constituencies saw a consistent decline in the Lib Dem vote; 49 of them recorded a decrease in the vote share compared to 2016. The worst of these was in a seat we held – Shetland – where Beatrice Wishart’s support fell by 18.8%. While the overall picture is depressing enough, the biggest falls in vote share were in constituencies in which we have been traditionally strong: Aberdeenshire West (12.5%), Aberdeenshire East (10.7%), Inverness and Nairn (7.9%), Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch (7.1%) and Argyll and Bute (5.2%).
The more charitable explanation is that this is the inevitable product of anti-independence squeeze messaging, and there is some truth in that. However, the picture is also replicated in the regional list where – with the exceptions of Lothians and Mid Scotland and Fife, which saw 1.6% and 0.4% increases respectively – we lost further ground. In the Highlands and Islands list our vote share fell by 2.1%, confirmation that having capable and articulate candidates in target constituencies does not necessarily result in an improved performance across the region.
Some of you reading this may ask whether losing two more deposits than in 2016, or seeing our vote share reduced in constituencies we’re not likely to win, matters at all. Does this really amount to a “disaster”? I would say that it does, because the evidence confirms the trajectory the party has been on for well over a decade. The fall in vote share is very worrying because, even accepting that most constituency seats were not on our list of targets, if the party’s standing among voters is improving I would have expected to see some increase in the vote, however small. It’s telling that, even in a supposed fortress like Shetland, we lost almost a fifth of the support we had five years ago. The SNP came closer than they ever have in taking that seat, aided, it would seem, by Labour voters switching tactically to support Tom Willis. Why that should be I don’t know, but it does suggest that we shouldn’t view all constituencies through the prism of the national debate on independence.
The fact is, this was the first Scottish election since 1999 in which it was widely believed the Liberal Democrats would increase their representation. Surely, after two elections in which we’ve found ourselves stuck on 5 MSPs, it was time to make some progress. I didn’t expect any huge improvements, but I felt that somewhere between 7 and 9 seats shouldn’t be beyond us with a good campaign. That most of us expected such improvement, only to see the party slip further backwards, underlines just how bad this election was for us.
So, what went wrong?
The fact is, for all the positive rhetoric surrounding our campaign, the outcome should have largely predictable. Most voters have little idea of what we stand for and most closely associate us with either the 2010-2015 Westminster coalition or opposition to independence. Many of our supporters have, over the last 10-15 years, moved away and now support different parties – usually the SNP and the Greens – which means our emphasis on anti-independence tactical voting only serves to alienate them further. Abandoning many of our one-time supporters to the SNP and Greens when these are exactly the kind of people we need to help rebuild our liberal movement is folly: these are voters broadly in tune with our values and policy ideas, who need to be persuaded to vote Lib Dem once again if the party is to again be successful.
Aside from doing little to appeal to one-time supporters, another key issue is the failure to learn from previous setbacks. After the 2011 and 2016 elections the party conducted internal reviews, but little has changed as a result. Mistakes made in campaigning, and also in our broader strategy over the last decade, have never satisfactorily been addressed. We went into a third successive election saying much the same things, which unsurprisingly produced much the same outcome.
An obvious problem for the party in Scotland is that – quite simply – our list of target seats has shrunk considerably. We held the four constituencies we won in 2016 and were competitive in one other, increasing our vote in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross. However, nowhere else did we have any chance at all. The focus on anti-independence squeeze messaging, while we used to effect in North East Fife and Edinburgh Western, naturally squeezes us everywhere else. Focusing on winning constituencies when there are only five in which we had any kind of realistic chance was hardly likely to produce a liberal revival.
We have seen that the party has become less capable of winning regional seats. It is absurd that the champions of a more proportional voting system have little understanding of how to use it to their advantage, and this was starkly underlined by the fact this was the first Scottish election in which we failed to take a regional seat. I’m not saying that we don’t have a regional strategy, but it is not immediately apparent and it certainly isn’t working.
Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of the Scottish political landscape knew that the odds of the Lib Dems picking up any constituencies outside of “the five” (Shetland, Orkney, North East Fife, Edinburgh Western and Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) would be astronomical. It therefore defies belief that the party’s regional campaigns were largely anonymous. We hoped that we would win a few regional seats – perhaps we would retain a seat in North East Scotland, or regain a seat in South Scotland – but we campaigned more in the hope we might, more by good fortune than anything else, take these seats than with any kind of plan to increase our appeal in “the lists”. We hoped that Lib Dem constituency votes would transfer to the region, always a flawed approach when we’re appealing for tactical votes in those constituencies. As we saw, that simply wasn’t the case – in Shetland regional votes for the SNP exceeded those for the Lib Dems by almost 1,000, the first time the SNP have ever topped the regional vote in that constituency. In Lothians, where activists were optimistically predicting the election of a second MSP via the list, we did see the biggest increase in our regional vote but it was a mere 1.6% and our total vote across the entire region was only around 2,800 votes more than Alex Cole-Hamilton polled in a single constituency.
With hindsight, the writing was on the wall before the campaign began. We had limited scope for winning in the constituencies and no real plan for improving our performance in the regions. And that’s before we consider other important factors.
It is hard to deny that the inability to take even a single regional seat is a failure and, to my mind, it is a failure of huge proportions and consequences.
How should we have campaigned in the regions? It’s difficult to say (although I’ll make some suggestions shortly), but I think it is fair to say that the real failure has been to have not had a coherent strategy in place well ahead of the election.
If a party is looking to rebuild from a low base then the regional list is the obvious way to try to do that. However, in the last decade the party has – for whatever reasons – opted to focus on key constituencies rather than develop a strategy to gain the support of between 8-10% of voters across the country, which would return a Lib Dem MP in each regional list (barring those in which we hold constituencies).
When a party has essentially abandoned 68 of Scotland’s 73 constituencies to other parties (for the time being at least) it would be expected that it would turn instead to the regions and adopt a suitable strategy for winning in the lists. This simply hasn’t happened. In fact, aside from some misplaced optimism during the campaign, the regions hardly seemed to appear in our thinking at all. We hoped that Rosemary Bruce would be elected in North East Scotland but there was no evidence of any plan of action to achieve anything more. I don’t think we really know what to do as far as the regions are concerned.
Of course, the SNP’s ascendancy has transformed the regional dynamic. In a previous time, the Labour Party could often be expected – indeed, relied upon – to win sufficient constituencies that they picked up few seats in the regions (Labour secured 3 additional members in 1999 and 4 in 2003). We were able to take advantage of this in much the same way as the Greens exploit the SNP’s hold on the constituencies today – not in the same intentional way but because we were not competing with them in the lists.
The situation is very different now, with the vast majority of Labour’s parliamentary seats coming via the regions. The Conservatives’ situation has changed too – they’re successful in a handful of constituencies, but in the last two elections have done incredibly well in the lists. This is partly because the Conservatives know how to campaign regionally, but also because the conversation has changed: when constituency campaigning for the Lib Dems, Labour and the Conservatives focuses on anti-SNP messaging, it’s not entirely surprising that this should affect how people choose to use their regional votes.
Labour’s weakness is a problem for us. Should Labour find a route to winning in more than two constituencies nationally, opportunities may well develop for us as far as the regional vote in concerned. But our real problem is the Conservative Party, which has successfully presented itself as the party of the Union and, under that identity, has successfully secured almost half of all the regional seats in the last two elections.
Our messaging has been so fixed on the anti-SNP rhetoric that we haven’t seen that – in the element of the election that provides us most opportunity – our real opponents are the Conservatives. And yet we don’t fight them as strongly as we could – or should. For example, we could have called out their arch-Unionism as being contrary to Scotland’s interests. We could have pointed to the destructive effects of the UK Conservative government’s power grab on Scotland’s democracy. We could make it clear that the Tories are every inch as harmful to Scotland’s future as we believe the SNP’s independence agenda to be. And yet we don’t. It’s as if we’ve conceded that the SNP are going to be dominant in the constituencies, that the Conservatives and Labour between them will clear up most of the regional seats, and that we should be content to pick up a few of the left over pieces.
One of the problems I believe the Lib Dems have had is that we have tended to see the development of the regional vote as of secondary importance. In the early days of devolution this made sense as we did reasonably well in the constituency vote (in the 1999, 2003 and 2007 elections we won between 11 and 13 constituency seats). However, that all seems a long time ago, and I’m going to make the suggestion that things have so radically changed that so should our approach. If we want to win again in more constituencies, we need to first build up our support in the regions. When we are successful in the regional lists, not only will we have some new liberal talent in Holyrood but we’ll also have a platform from which we can rebuild into the constituencies.
There are no easy ways back from such a low base, but surely improving our regional vote is key.
“Put recovery first”
This is the slogan under which we ran our campaign. I don’t think it was a terrible slogan but I don’t believe it made any real impact. The main difficulty with it is that it was never obvious how the Scottish Liberal Democrats were going to facilitate this recovery, and in many people’s eyes it was seen as merely as making the point that the constitutional question is a distraction from more serious matters. When other parties, including the Conservatives, Labour and even the Greens, were talking about their own ideas for “recovery”, the slogan didn’t really set us apart in the way we hoped it would. It could well be argued that some of those parties had a detailed plan and a view of what recovery may actually look like, while we just repeated the mantra. It just wasn’t sufficiently unique, and it didn’t say anything about who we were as a party. But we didn’t have much else to fall back on.
That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of good material in our manifesto. Imaginatively entitled “Put Recovery First", there were some excellent sections on the climate emergency and health provision, especially mental health. There were positive policy positions on drugs and alcohol, education, the rural economy and transport. Federalism also made its way in, although the single paragraph that referenced it seemed to suggest (either naively or dishonestly) that creating a federal future for the UK in such a way as all four nations were involved in the process would be “better than umpteen years of strife and turmoil”. It may well be better than independence, but nothing is surer to bring about “years of strife and turmoil” than to open up discussion on “the English question” (a Pandora’s box if ever there was one). Whichever constitutional arrangement is being championed, there will be no quick fixes and we need to be realistic about this. The Liberal Democrats also didn’t make clear why, when independence is such a distraction that it needs to be put on the back burner for the sake of “recovery”, discussions about a federal UK settlement should be such a priority. It might have worked better if the party made a convincing case for federalism and why it is better than the alternatives, but that didn’t really come across.
The issue with the manifesto isn’t that it was bad, but it was nowhere near bold enough. Granted, the days when manifestos defined campaigns are long behind us, but if we can’t be radical and courageous within our manifesto where can we? The section on social care could – and should – have been stronger and certainly more adventurous. On the whole, this was a good manifesto and there was much in it that was sensible. I wasn’t able to disagree with very much of it (aside from the rejection of the National Care Service, on the basis of an alleged risk to local innovation and skills) and it was certainly a manifesto I’d be proud to stand up for. its problem was that few of the messages within it were ever going to excite the electorate.
In the televised debates Willie Rennie generally came across well and spoke at length on mental health and education. He put forward good, liberal proposals. Aside from that, he came across as pleasant, affable, and interested in people. However, for all his obvious strengths it wasn’t clear why people should think that we’re different to the other parties. Our policy platform, however well-conceived – simply won’t inspire people to vote for us, especially when (for many voters) there remains an unresolved trust issue. I think where Willie has done well is to neutralise a lot of the hostility many voters had towards the party ten years ago, but unfortunately he’s not been able to go further and inspire trust or indeed feelings of positivity towards the party.
Of course, party policy is not an end in itself: it is a means to an end. However, it should provide some idea of what we stand for, what we hope to achieve and what our values are.
Ah, it’s that word – values. We love to talk about them, at least among ourselves. The problem is that we tend to assume that voters know what these values are, and I am convinced they don’t. In some respects this is due to limited opportunities in the media, but we have to take some responsibility too. If we’d spent more time talking about UBI, tackling poverty, employment... even the fairness agenda more generally... then the values underpinning them may have become more apparent. Our values – what makes us unique – are seen in what we do and this is why we need to be talking about creating the kind of Scotland that people may actually want to live in. We needed to communicate our vision – a vision that reflects the aspirations of Scottish votes and leads them to recognise that our values are their values. Instead, all most people heard was a message to vote Lib Dem to stop the SNP if they happened to live in certain constituencies – a message devoid of values. Voters know what we are not, but do they know who we are?
In an interview with the late David McLetchie in early 2011, the former Conservative leader told me Scotland suffers from having “too many social democratic parties”. His logic was that the SNP, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens are essentially competing for the same vote. Since then, of course, the polarising conversation on independence has resulted in the SNP commanding the support of independence-sympathetic types while Labour and the Lib Dems fight it out for the votes of anti-independence left-leaning people. The obvious problems here are not only that there are very few constituencies where Labour is competitive, but that much of our clothing has been taken by the SNP and, to some extent, the Greens. There is, in policy terms at least, a great deal of common ground between these parties – which makes being distinctive particularly challenging. If we were to show sections of our manifesto to voters who hadn’t read it, and ask them which party’s manifestos they actually came from, I can imagine many would think this was a collection of excerpts from the Labour, Green, Lib Dem and SNP manifestos. I don’t know if McLetchie was right in his “social democratic” analysis, but he was correct that most of the parties are seeking to occupy the same ground.
The challenge to be distinctive on policy reinforces the need to be distinctive with values. It’s not just what we say, but how we say it. It’s about being positive. It’s about having that vision that we can invite others to participate in. It’s about showing people who we are, what we want to do and why we want to do it. None of this is easy, but unexciting manifestos – however sensible – are not going to do it for us.
Is there a leadership problem?
Willie Rennie has been the leader of the Scottish party for ten years. I’m going to be honest here and say exactly what I think of him: he’s the best we’ve got and I like him. He is, after all, an inherently likeable person. In this election, Willie performed well in the televised debates (especially the BBC debate hosted by Glenn Campbell) and was able to gain additional media coverage through his use of imaginative (some would say rather silly) photo shoots. Some have openly criticised Willie for the latter, although I’m of the view that so long as this isn’t what the leader is most known for it's not necessarily a problem.
I am not one of those clamouring for a change of leader. I believe our problems are much deeper and that a change of leader would not only fail to deal with these more fundamental issues but may actually exacerbate them.
That said, Willie has overseen the Scottish Liberal Democrats during a decade in which the party has not only failed to recover from the disaster of 2011 but has fallen to further setbacks. When elected leader he pledged to “stand up to the SNP bulldozer” and be a “Liberal voice standing up for the values that Scotland holds dear”. Ten years later, he’s saying much the same thing, only less convincingly than before. He hasn’t managed to turn our fortunes around. He hasn’t been successful in forging a clear identity for the party. He’s given no reason for the Lib Dem voters who left us in 2011 to come back to the party. Most damningly, we’ve seen a worsening of results and he’s led us into a worse position than the one he inherited. He’s not given voters outside of five constituencies much of a reason to vote for us. Under Willie’s leadership, the party has repeated the same mistakes, apparently unwilling (or unable) to learn from them. And the SNP bulldozer continues unabated.
Harsh? Perhaps, a little. But the statistics don’t lie and, under Willie’s leadership, the party has gone backwards. Admittedly he inherited the party at an unenviable time but, ten years after becoming leader, I would have expected some improvement. If, in 2011, I had been told what the election result would be in 2021 I would not have believed it.
Not all of this is of Willie’s making, but ultimately the buck stops with him. I don’t want him to step down – I genuinely believe he is the best person to lead us in the Scottish parliament and I want him to succeed. But we need more from him than the ability to generate publicity with some creative photo shoots if we are to become that “Liberal voice standing up for the values that Scotland holds dear”. Determining which values Scotland does hold dear, and making a serious attempt to show we are in tune with them, would be a good start.
If it’s broken, fix it.
One problem the Scottish Lib Dems have is that what we’re doing clearly isn’t working. And yet we keep on doing it all the same.
How are we going to win again in Scotland? I’m not entirely sure, but it’s not going to happen by standing candidates in every constituency while making no attempt to even keep the deposits. It’s not going to happen by accepting that we’re the party of five constituencies and abandoning the rest of Scotland to other parties. It’s not going to happen with yet another election review that changes very little. And it certainly won’t happen unless the party is willing to ask itself why results are getting worse with some degree of intellectual honesty. We have to own up to mistakes and recognise how our thinking and strategy has brought us to where we are. We need to engage with criticisms, rather than employ the usual dismissive approaches.
The inescapable reality is that the party machine is broken. It probably has been for some time. I suspect that, if they are being honest to themselves, senior people within the Scottish party know this. However, we continue to do the same things because we know no other way. Unfortunately, we’re now in the midst of an existential crisis that demands we either change or die.
How do we fix it? For a start, we need something far more meaningful than the usual post-election reflection. We need to facilitate a process in which we look at more than the election strategy; there must be something more overarching that considers the key decisions made in the last few years and their impact on our current predicament. It may sound glib, but we need to recognise that wanting to win isn’t enough: we need to have a clear idea of how we’re going to achieve our objectives, something we didn’t have going into this election. As the party of localism, it probably comes as no surprise when I suggest that we focus on building our local parties.
Most obviously, it’s time for new ideas. It’s time to take some risks: to be bold, radical, different. We need ideas that appeal to voters, ideas that think outside the box, ideas not rooted to the way we’ve always done things, ideas that have clear plans to remedy problems. It’s time to start talking about who we are, rather than who we are not. We need to define ourselves by our values instead of the positions of other parties. Ultimately we need to find ideas that work, because what’s been tried in the last ten years really hasn’t done that.
There were good things about the campaign: the leader’s performance in debates, the manifesto, the more upbeat messaging, the visually impacting party literature and the improved use of social media. Unfortunately, getting those things right isn’t enough.
The Scottish Lib Dems need a period of sober reflection. What I hope comes out of this is not only an honest appraisal of where things have gone wrong (which is both overdue and necessary) but a plan to move forward. What do we want to achieve? How are we going to do it?
As the writer of Proverbs knew, where there is no vision the people perish. It's absolutely vital that we develop that vision and put together a plan to make it a reality. Even that may now prove to be too little too late, but being true to ourselves is surely the only plausible way to again becoming relevant.