Opinion: A Scottish candidate’s view

Days have now passed since the last result for the Scottish Parliament was declared. At least that provided a bit of happy news; my local colleague and former Dunfermline MP Willie Rennie was elected as the last MSP from the Mid Scotland and Fife regional list. But frankly, what went on in the 18 hours prior to that was not much short of a horror show – I never thought that “Losing Deposits” would ring true again.

Normally, after a drubbing like that, attention turns to the campaign itself and where it all went wrong. This time, though, there’s no real answer to that – the guys in Clifton Terrace worked a bit of a blinder in doing their best to get the message out, especially on the SNP’s police cuts. In many ways it was an SNP Councillor who hit the nail on the head when she said to me that, to her, it was a clear impact of the English-based media on the Scottish election.

Most level-headed people in other parties recognised what we’d done in Government in Scotland, in particular on tuition fees and free care for the elderly. All that, though, was engulfed by the avalanche of abuse the party received from the media, and with even the Scottish press being unduly abusive to Tavish Scott in particular it proved impossible for us to get even-handed coverage at all.

The election was a clear statement on the coalition from the people of Scotland – we don’t like what you’re doing. With a higher percentage of the population employed in the public sector than down south, it’s inevitable that Scotland will be hit harder by cuts to the public sector, meaning less jobs and poorer pensions. Those of us on councils will have more horrible decisions to make over the coming months before the budgets in February and our own elections next May.

So, with Tavish gone, what now? Mark Pack has pointed out that the results in England take the party back to 1993. In Scotland, it’s worse than that – it almost takes us back to the 1960s, given that our only constituencies are in Orkney and Shetland, Jo Grimond’s fiefdom.

The party in Scotland needs to regroup quickly. We need to figure out how to separate our successes here from the issues in London. We need to consider, and address, our approach to the notion of a referendum on independence (and let’s have that soon to end the uncertainty, not in 2014.) We need to think about whether the Scottish party needs to have greater autonomy from the Federal party, and how we deal with situations where the Scottish party and the Coalition Government have diametrically opposed policies such as on tuition fees. Finally, we need to involve all members at all levels, from MPs to those members who do no more than pay their monthly subs, and not just leave it to committees or “senior members” to make the decisions.

We have lots of experience at climbing the mountain. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

Keith Legg was the candidate in the Cowdenbeath constituency, and is a Councillor for Rosyth

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23 Comments

  • Sean Watters 10th May '11 - 2:18pm

    Having spent the last four years opposing a referendum, you can’t now press for one soon without shredding what few scraps of credibility you have left.

  • who currently has the ultimate decision on where the party would stand in any referendum, sottish party Conf or Federal Conf?

  • Tavish Scott made the Lib Dems irrelevant in the Scottish parliament long before the coalition at Westminster, by refusing to go into government with the SNP after the last election over a single issue – that being an independence referendum – which we’re now getting anyway, and with a much higher chance of a “yes” vote.

    The national Clegg hate-a-thon can hardly have helped, but I reckon it’s more of a convenient excuse than a root cause.

  • @IMc
    Tavish Scott made the Lib Dems irrelevant in the Scottish parliament long before the coalition at Westminster, by refusing to go into government with the SNP after the last election over a single issue – that being an independence referendum – which we’re now getting anyway, and with a much higher chance of a “yes” vote.

    IIRC the Scottish Lib Dems didn’t go into coalition with the SNP partly because they’d just been in Government with Labour and felt that the vote was a rejection of their policies as part of that so the proper thing to do was regroup in opposition.

    You’re not seriously arguing that the Lib Dems are the permanent junior partner of government are you?

  • 2007 SNP + Green + LD = majority
    Next excuse?

  • In 2007 we campaigned saying we would not support an independence referendum (you can argue about whether that was the right position but that’s irrelevant to this point). It seems reasonable to stick to that position afterwards!

  • Paul Kennedy 10th May '11 - 8:02pm

    All I know about Scottish politics is what I read in the papers. However, it seems to me that what happened is that Labour’s vicious anti-Lib Dem campaign ended up wrecking both parties. Lib Dems voted SNP in the cities, and Labour supporters voted SNP in the country. In 2010, by contrast, Labour and Lib Dems were voting for each other.

    The same thing unfortunately happened in the referendum. Labour’s ruthless targeting of the Lib Dems, including Mr Yes Miliband’s refusal to share a stage with Clegg, drove Labour supporters into the arms of the No campaign.

  • @Paul Kennedy

    Scottish Labour campaigned on Scottish issues, none of the election material I received attacked the Lib Dems or mentioned Clegg. The Lib Dem leaflets didn’t mention Clegg either, but they certainly attacked Labour. The reason why the Lib Dems did so badly was that the majority of Scots cannout countenance any party that is seen to be an enabler of the hated Tories. If you knew anything about Scottish politics you’d know that. There was a massive part of the Lib Dem vote in Scotland that was anti-Labour and anti-Tory, it belongs to the SNP now.

  • Stephen Donnelly 10th May '11 - 9:34pm

    People need a (simple) reason to vote for you. What was that reason in Scotland ?

  • Sean Watters 10th May '11 - 10:32pm

    In 2010 you campaigned saying you would not support increased tuition fees (you can argue about whether that was the right position but that’s irrelevant to this point). It would seem reasonable to stick to that position afterwards!

    See how easy it is?

    In Scottish terms you’re now an irrelevance.

  • @ Paul Kennedy
    I live in a constituency that returned a Lib Dem MSP in 2007 (I voted for him). The only negative election material I received was from the Lib Dems who spent up to half their leaflets attacking Labour. The Lib Dem was ousted by the SNP and my only regret is that I ever voted for him. The Lib Dems have a history of dirty, negative campaigning in my area and frankly I’m glad they are finished in Scotland.

  • On the 2007 coalition talks, James Mackenzie (Green Party press officer and present at the negotiations) has said that the LD’s refused to even enter coalition talks with the SNP because they objected to an independence referendum – ask him yourself if you like, he’s @twodoctors

    I don’t get all this talk about the media unfairly treating Tavish because of the coalition. Going into this election, the deputy leader of the Scottish party was Jo Swinson MP (now acting leader) who voted for an increase of tuition fees at Westminster. With someone like that in such a position it wasn’t at all unfair to question whether the party really believed in their anti-fees policy and whether they would pull a Clegg if they were in a position of power post-election.

  • Laurence Scott-Mackay 11th May '11 - 7:47am

    Liberal Democrats need to support Devolution Max and support the SNP in that goal. Why is Michael Moore already saying no to small powers like the Crown Estates – that will not win votes. This is supposed to be our policy.

    I still do not understand why the Liberal Democrats stopped supporting referendums, this is not liberal we should never be scared to ask the people or we are no better than the hated Tories.

    It would be great to see Michael More be seen to help the SNP get all the power they need and let David Cameron be the one to say no if he wants – and Michael may just have a Job in 4 years.

  • I’ll re-post here what I posted on the Tavish resignation thread:

    I’m an SNP supporter, but I hope you’ll accept my friendly, outsider opinion.

    The Lib Dem campaign in Scotland was deeply misconceived. Can anyone even tell me what the flagship policies were? What’s the reason for voting Lib Dem? What’s the message you could put on a bumper sticker?

    This wasn’t just about the coalition, this had been coming before then. I know a lot of natural Lib Dems who were cross at two things – blocking an independence referendum, and the criticism of the Scottish Government over Megrahi. The latter wasn’t liberal and the former wasn’t democratic, and both came across as cowardly.

    Two other policy issues can’t have helped. Tavish’s stance on minimum alcohol pricing flew in the face in the evidence and chased away your educated support. He said that he didn’t want to help the big supermarkets increase their profits. Then, when the SNP proposed a small levy on big, out-of-town retailers, he opposed that too,

    It all reeked of naked oppositionalism.

    The campaign was fought as a series of concurrent by-elections in the seats you already hold. But it was inevitable that most of these would be lost regardless, and the Scottish election is really won and lost on the list.

    In my neck of the woods, West Lothian, there was literally no Lib Dem campaign. Neither candidate ever visited the constituencies, the top list candidate did the huistings. There were no posters put up anywhere, not even at polling stations. Not a single leaflet was delivered. What really irritated me was that nobody – not a candidate, agent, activist or official – even attended the count. I thought that was a bit of an insult to your voters.

    That’s why you got thrashed on the list, when you should have focussed hard on this. The Tory campaign was all about the list and they put up a reasonable presence in both constituencies.

    922 more votes across Lothian region – 100 per constituency – would have got you a list MSP at the expense of the Tories.

    In the 2005 UK election you were second in Livingston. You fought the by-election there hard the year after. And now you’re on 3%.

    And most damning of all – from our ballot box samples (which were very good), in the constituency of Linlithgow, outside of the Linlithgow ward, you were beaten by the National Front.

    The first lesson that you need to learn is that, in a PR election, you can’t focus all your resources on a very small number of constituencies. The second lesson is that, though in the short term it doesn’t seem to make sense to work hard in constituencies you can’t win, in the long term, as the SNP have shown, second places can be turned into firsts.

    I hope you’ll take this in the spirit intended. I’d rather there were more of you and fewer Labour and Tories!

  • Thought some response to the posts would be appropriate.

    In 2007, there wasn’t a majority for a referendum either in terms of the vote or seats in parliament – referendum-supporting parties got around one third of the vote. Even in 2011, the total vote for referendum parties only just squeaks over 50%, so there’s no real demand for it. As Hywel pointed out, if we’d campaigned against a referendum and then decided to have one, that would have been breaking a promise (and for those who rightly criticise us over tuition fees, you would have to do the same on this one too.) That said, I’d personally have gone for a referendum in 2007, mainly because it would kill the issue for a generation one way or another.

    @Sean Watters – you clearly don’t understand Scottish politics, which I guess illustrates nicely the point I made about the media. We don’t have tuition fees in Scotland – the Lib Dems in government here abolished them. Tavish made it quite clear that he opposed fees and that he believed the increase in England was wrong; Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy also voted against. Jo Swinson, as deputy leader, is actually elected by MPs not the membership, and you’ve probably guessed I believe she was wrong to vote for the fees increase and should have voted against or at best abstained.

    @chris – the Scottish Party Conference has the right to decide Scottish policy, so it would be up to Scottish members to decide the position on both holding the referendum and on independence. Incidentally, when this has been discussed in the past it’s been about 50/50 on the referendum and virtually unanimous against independence.

    @John Mc – the point was the questions went on all the time. How many times do you have to say “no” before people will accept it? Of much more concern would be the cost of the Council Tax freeze – about £3 billion over the 5 year parliament term – and how that’s paid for, yet Salmond was almost never asked the question and never challenged on where the money was coming from.

    @AndrewR – I’m no fan of negative campaigning, as I think you need to get your own policy views across. Yes, the Lib Dems do put out negative leaflets, but in my neck of the woods the worst actually came from Labour, which were opposing things the Council were doing which they’d either introduced pre-2007 or which they hadn’t voted against. Actually, Labour do that frequently – agree something in committee when nobody’s looking, then within 24 hours have a press release out opposing the decision they’ve already been party to. That’s exactly the same as Labour criticising us on tuition fees in England.

  • Sean Watters 11th May '11 - 1:56pm

    I know we don’t have tuition fees in Scotland. I live here afterall.

    The point is about credibility. To an extent it’s a problem for are the UK parties. Devolution has resulted in Scotland travelling a divergent path, which can create tensions/inconsistencies. That’s may be difficult to square at the best of times but certainly isn’t helped by flatly contradictory positioning.

    1. The Lib Dems stood on an anti-referendum manifesto in 2007; they didn’t win the election but they could harldy be expected to abandon that commitment.

    2. The Lib Dems stood on an anti-tuition fee manifesto in 2010; they didn’t win the election so they could hardly be expected to keep to that commitment.

    3. The SNP stood on a commitment to a referendum late on in the next session; having won an stunning electoral mandate, they should now abandon that manifesto committment and introduce an early referendum. Why? Because the parties who got a spanking says so.

    Mmmmmm……not sure I see a consistent set of principles there. Unless consistent inconsistency counts?

  • Keith Legg:

    “the total vote for referendum parties only just squeaks over 50%, so there’s no real demand for it”

    I’m sorry, but that’s just ridiculous. Parties in favour of independence, not just a referendum, won over half of the vote. It may not be a vote for indepenence, but there’s obviously huge demand for a referendum! How many UK governments have ever had a mandate like that?

    “We don’t have tuition fees in Scotland – the Lib Dems in government here abolished them.”

    That’s untrue – the SNP abolished tuition fees. Until 2007 there was a £2,000 fee as you left university. Moving it to the end isn’t remotely equivalent to abolishing it.

  • The Scottish thing is simple to understand: we fought for the progressive centre-left ground with a party we could have worked with but chose not to because of some bizarre illiberal notion about the ‘Union’ (see my previous posts to the tune that the preamble to the Liberal constitution doesn’t say that we support the rights of small nations, except Scotland and Wales, to self-determine ….) – oh, and England had voted the Tories back. Labour had nothing to say to the Scots that wasn’t patronising and the SNP, having governed well – and remember, but for the referendum blockage we could could have been part of that success – smashed their opposition.

    The best way forward for liberalism north of the border would be for the LDs to merge with the SNP, but failing that, it’ll be a long haul back, all the longer because and there’s no obvious positive USP at the moment, and ‘vote for us and we won’t even let you discuss whether you want independence, and anyway we’re in coalition with your worst nightmare’ didn’t real work last week! I doubt that the SNP will make it easier by making many mistakes.

  • Although the final determining factor for the Lib-Dems disaster was the loss of trust created by the Westminster u-turns, it would be a mistake to ignore the groundwork done by the Lib-Dem MSP’s over the past four years. The opportunities to promote / support sensible policy within Holyrood was there but they fell into line with Labour in point-scoring ,whining negativity. From minimum pricing to the ‘tesco-tax’, from Megrahi to the referendum, they choose oppositionalism to positivism. When it came to the crunch there was little reason even for the liberal-minded voter to stick with them.

    The idea that the Scottish Liberals should be a ‘unionist’ party opposing not only independence but even a multi-option referendum which could have put their own home rule policy on the ballot paper was a nonesense. Did the Lid-Dems actually believe that they could afford to turn away possible members, supporters and voters by telling them that if they believe in either independence or a referendum they could get lost? At least now that a referendum is going to happen the Scottish Lib-Dems could take the opportunity to stop being stupid.

  • @Matthew – using the list votes of parties supporting independence:

    2007 – SNP 31%, Green 4%, Solidarity 1.5%, Scottish Socialists 0.6%, Free Scotland 0.2% – total 37.3%
    2011 – SNP 44%, Green 4%, Scottish Socialists 0.4%, Solidarity 0.1% – total 48.5%

    (I used the list vote as this removes any personal or constituency-level support and is more likely to reflect the political views of the country – it also includes the Greens who didn’t stand at constituency level.)

    So actually, there isn’t a majority even now in favour of a referendum. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen though – personally I think it should.

    As for the timing of it, holding it in 2014 will inevitably lead to accusations of the SNP using the timing to their own advantage – that’s the year of the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup in Scotland (and who knows, a Scotland qualification for the World Cup!) which means they’d try to tap into a feelgood factor. There’s also an economic reason for having it earlier, in that it will remove any uncertainty around what’s going to happen. Uncertainty puts off external investors, and could prevent large Scottish companies with a big English customer base expanding further in Scotland if they aren’t sure what’s going to happen.

    Nobody thought the SNP would get an overall majority – the swing needed was so unlikely that not even they were expecting it. The fact it happened, though, does change the rules a bit and should give the SNP the opportunity to take the chance for a referendum. I suspect, though, that the real reason for not having it now is because they’d lose, and that would tear the SNP apart.

    On tuition fees – the Scottish Executive ended upfront tuition fees through Lib Dem pressure – Labour didn’t want to do that. Without Lib Dem support, the SNP may not have got the tuition fees bill through as Labour’s view was uncertain. So I don’t think it’s unfair to claim credit.

  • @JohnMc(2) – a merger with the SNP simply wouldn’t happen. Setting aside independence for a minute, the SNP has a centralising tendancy which most Lib Dems are generally opposed to – see police reforms, control of council tax, proposals for local income tax (which would have meant this being set by the Scottish Govt with local authorities losing the right to decide for themselves the level of income) to name but three.

    @Nick – on Megrahi, the party in parliament was wrong. That’s the view of most activists I know, but once the policy had been decided it became too entrenched for Tavish to turn around. On the “Tesco tax” as I recall there was some doubt about the legality of it and you can bet Tesco, Asda et al would have contested it at significant cost to the taxpayer. On minimum pricing, this is something best done as a tax in tandem with the UK government, as that way the additional revenue raised could be earmarked for use in fighting alcohol problems. Without that, it just adds to the brewers’ profits.

    On a “multi-option” referendum, independence needs to be a clear-cut choice between yes or no. What the SNP have proposed in the past uses a “1,2,3” option which could potentially result in the second-favourite coming through the middle (I know, it’s inconsistent with the AV arguments, but independence is too important to risk that.) What could work would be a two question referendum (like the 1997 one) – “do you believe that Scotland should be independent from the UK” and “Do you agree that a Scottish Parliament within the UK should have additional powers.”

    “Positivism” shouldn’t mean just agreeing with everything the government does. If an opposition party disagrees with the Government, it is right to say so; if it agrees, it is right to support the Government.

  • Sean Watters 13th May '11 - 12:30am

    On the tIming of a referendum, calls for an early referendum will inevitably lead to accusations that those calling for it do so to their own advantage. The SNP made a clear commitment to a referendum layer in the parliamentary session. They won a majority in the Parliament standing on that manifesto. The only legitimate timing for a referendum is therefore later in the parliamentary session.

    Obviously this whole manifesto commitment/electoral pledge/promise/mandate thing is causing confusion for some Lib-Dems. But generally speaking, doing what you said you were going to do is better received than doing what you said you weren’t going to do.

    Just a suggestion…

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