What does the Inverclyde result mean for the Scottish Liberal Democrats?

As Helen Duffett reported early this morning, the Inverclyde by-election saw Labour holding on to the seat, but with a dramatically reduced majority over the SNP. This was always going to be a tight fight between those two. You would think that Labour would be the likely victor, but the SNP came within 500 votes of unseating them in May’s elections. With the SNP in majority control at Holyrood, how would they fare in this first electoral test?

Scotland has felt very different since the Holyrood elections. The political environment feels a lot darker. In the run up to the elections, First Minister Alex Salmond didn’t say very much of substance, but everything he said sounded positive. He didn’t talk much about things that might scare the horses, like independence, choosing instead to concentrate on promises like a 5 year Council Tax freeze.

Since then, it’s been a different story.  A row over the role of the UK Supreme Court in deciding European Court of Human Rights cases from Scotland has become explosive with both Salmond and his Justice Secretary making unprecedented and inappropriate attacks on the legal profession. Salmond’s use of language like “the vilest people in society” shows his true feelings about what the justice system is for and perhaps offers an explanation as to why his Government has repeatedly failed to deal with serious and basic failures at Scotland’s only women’s prison.

Maybe that’s why more than 2000 people who voted for the SNP just under 2 months ago decided not to bother this time.

Labour may have won this election, but they will be worried that they lost a third of their vote compared to 2010 in their heartland. The party is still coming to terms with the kicking it received from Scottish voters in May and has not found a way to make much of an impact, despite much improved performances in Holyrood by Scottish leader Iain Gray.

Losing a deposit is never easy, particularly when we’ve performed much better in this seat before. To be honest, though, it was not unexpected. You don’t recover overnight from the sort of losses we took in May.  It will take time to win people’s trust again, something  new leader Willie Rennie is determined to do. He said today:

Sophie Bridger was an excellent and dedicated candidate. She worked extremely hard and it was a pleasure to campaign with her. I am determined that we will get better results in the months and years to come.

“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.”

Willie has already received media plaudits for the first 6 weeks of his leadership. Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland’s political editor, said that he’s “compensating rather effectively for lack of numbers with high energy endeavour.” Even the Sunday Herald, which usually dips its keyboard in poison before writing about us grudgingly stated last week that Willie is “already seen as one of Salmond’s most aggressive critics in Holyrood.” He’s managed to gain that reputation at the same time as changing the party’s stance to support the SNP’s plans on minimum alcohol pricing and heaping praise on the First Minister for giving an additional six months’ scrutiny time for his government’s bill to curb sectarianism.

The best thing about the Inverclyde campaign has been the emergence of an excellent candidate in Sophie Bridger. She has handled her short while in the spotlight extremely well. On one televised debate, she threw the Labour candidate, who was heckling her, a withering look and said “are you going to talk over me, Iain, or let me answer your question?” All that before demolishing Labour’s policy on knife crime.

It was always going to be difficult for us to make an impact in this seat – it was always destined to be a straight fight between the locally strong Labour party and a confident, newly victorious SNP.   I’m actually more optimistic about the future direction of the Scottish Party than I have been in a long time.  We have a leader who is committed to putting more heart and soul into the party’s public utterances.  You won’t find lists of policies from him – he’ll be talking about emotions and values. He’s  talked a lot about 3 things: opportunity, sustainability and community. Put simply, we’re all about helping people to get up and get on in life, about finding long term solutions and not grasping at quick fixes and about trusting local people to know what their area needs.

And it’s been a while since we’ve had a leader who is so obviously enjoying what he’s doing. I spoke to him the other day after he’d been to talk to a local party in an area that’s been neglected for too long and he was absolutely buzzing. He will invigorate and motivate the party at all its grassroots as well as providing political leadership and strategic direction.

Lost desposits aren’t pleasant, but nor are they the end of the world – Labour came 5th and lost theirs in Henley in2008. Even when they were doing well, like a month after their election victory in 2005, they couldn’t manage 5% in Cheadle, and in Winchester in 1997, the year of their victorious return to Government, it was the same story for Blair’s party.

Despite an admittedly poor result last night, I’m more confident about the future direction of the party in Scotland than I have been for a long time. I think our team will strike the right note espousing our values while also making more of what we’re achieving in the coalition. Our recovery is in its early stages, but we’re on the right track.

 

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25 Comments

  • Labour didn’t lose a third of their vote, turnout was down, they lost a couple of percentage points and still ended up with one of the largest majorities in Westminster.
    Labour 53.8%, down from 56%
    SNP 33% up from 17.5%
    Conservative 9.9% down from 12%
    Lib Dem 2.2% down from 13.3%
    UKIP 1.0% down from 1.2%
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverclyde_by-election,_2011

    I suspect you know deep down what is increasingly obvious is that it doesn’t matter how good the Lib Dems in Scotland are (alcohol pricing u-turn bad, most other rhetoric good) as long as you are tied to the Tories in Westminster you are doomed.

    The question you should be asking is what on earth the Coalition are going to do to persuade Scots not to vote SNP or Labour?

    Public sector cuts, energy taxes, immigration curbs and the cuts to the education sector are not popular here. This confer an advantage to the rich south and disproportionately affect Scotland. The Tories don’t care, they’ve given up being electable here, but the Lib Dems can’t afford not to care.

  • Red Rag
    In your wish for economic collapse aren’t you forgetting that
    Britain doesn’t produce enough food to feed its people.
    Don’t tell me it could never happen.
    Take the case of Argentina a decade ago.

  • David Boothroyd 1st Jul '11 - 10:24pm

    Can I just point out that the Liberal Democrat vote in the exact same boundaries in 2001 was 8,241 and the Liberal Democrats were in a clear second place?

    Meanwhile on the ‘doing much better in the past’, the seat is based on Greenock where the Liberal Party had 36% of the vote in 1983 and 44% in 1970 (when the Conservatives stood down in their favour).

  • David from Ealing 1st Jul '11 - 11:32pm

    I agree with Stephen W, What does my party really stand for in 2011?

  • I don’t want to be negative about the candidate but in the televised debate I saw she was clearly way out of her depth. Not surprising for a 20 year old. I don’t blame her – serious questions need to be asked of the party as to why such an unsuitable candidate was put forward. I hope this attempt at looking on the bright side is just for public consumption and behind the scenes there is a recognition of the hole the scottish party is in. There needs to be a lot more than positive mood music, there needs to be a fundamental rethink about the distinctive proposition the Scottish Lib Dems are going to advance over the coming decade.

  • Vince Ewell 2nd Jul '11 - 12:15am

    2.2%! Shocking 🙁

  • Whatever need and space there is for a liberal party in Scotland, I genuinely don’t think the Lib Dems can be that party. To far too great an extent you’re now seen as a party of the London establishment every bit as much as the Tories, and, probably unfairly, much more so even than the Labour party.

    The choice for Scottish liberals is between a clean break on one hand, and sitting around hoping that the actions and policies made by the leadership and designed for the benefit of the party’s centre of gravity also happen to have some resonance and appeal north of the border. IMO the former course is harder but might work, the latter is easier but won’t work.

    You cannot be social democrats in Scotland and libertarians in England at the same time.

  • This result points the same way that other recent results point to. The Lib Dem leadership seriously underestimated the size of the Party’s social-liberal vote and joined a coalition that its voters did not want. I’m beginning to think the Party cannot survive in its present form and the longer the farce of this coalition goes on the worse it will get. It’s all very worrying.

  • To add to David’s point we had a majority on the council in the 2003 local elections.

    I can’t think of an occasion when we’ve had a result as poor as this in an area with such historic strength.

  • George Potter – That really isn’t good enough. We don’t JUST stand for liberalism and freedom. We also stand for getting a proper balance between community and individual. And we also stand against poverty. I am not sure whether David thinks we should use the language of Labour or the Tories, but in order to communicate effectively we need somewhere with the arguments that they (and equally importantly their media friends, advance)

  • Sorry – we need somewhere to address the arguments of….

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Jul '11 - 12:27pm

    “Maybe that’s why more than 2000 people who voted for the SNP just under 2 months ago decided not to bother this time.”

    Caron is having a joke? This was a typical by-election in a safe seat for an opposition party when there’s not much to excite the voters. Turnout goes down, one minor Party tries to define itself as “THE challenger” and does OK but fails to win.

    Surveys show that most of the SNP’s present package of policies appeal to Liberalish voters. The issue of ‘independence’ is not bothering people much one way or the other and why should it? Those of us who have lived and worked in various bits of the EC know that it doesn’t matter too much which country you live in or what it is called. So people vote for a more obviously Liberal/social democratic party than the other one available and one which is not tarnished with having recently turned turtle on ‘trust’.

  • David from Ealing 2nd Jul '11 - 12:31pm

    I’m not saying that we should use the language of Labour or the Tories. If I thought that I wouldn’t have been a member of the party since 1972. There is a lack of clarity about what we stand for, about our philosophy and how that translates into policy. This is more difficult in a coalition situation.

  • Excuses, excuses you got into bed with the Tories and the Scots as a whole don’t like that. Clegg was right distancing yourself from him won’t work, but not for the reason he and his ilk think; its because people don’t believe you have broken away from him and while he remains as leader of the Lib Dems they never will.

  • Old Codger Chris 3rd Jul '11 - 8:51am

    Scotland was hugely important to the tiny Liberal Party of the 1960s and 70s. It now looks like the Lib Dems best hope for continued influence at Westminster is Scottish independence!

  • I’ve been pondering this a bit over the weekend.

    Inverclyde didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t know. Let’s be honest for a minute. Sophie was an excellent candidate and has a great future ahead of her – she was calm and assured in the debates, and also in fronting a particularly difficult campaign. But if the party thought it had even a smidgen of a chance, Ross Finnie would have had his arm severely twisted to stand. So I think we fought the election in the knowledge of what was likely to happen (and, it should be noted, without a Scottish Campaigns Director since Andrew’s sad death) and to that end what did happen wasn’t unexpected.

    The thing is, having swallowed the Tory poison, are we able to recover from it in our current position? One month down the line from May might well be too soon to say, but I’m increasingly starting to think that we can’t. In many ways next May’s Scottish local elections will be critical – a very good night will see us making no gains, a good night will be judged on the number of seats we lose. And our cause isn’t helped by Nick Clegg (or at least his office – but voters don’t separate the two) making disparaging comments about the views of Ross Finnie on the byelection.

    Willie Rennie has said that for as long as we call ourselves Liberal Democrats, we can’t separate ourselves from the coalition. Maybe, though, the time has come for the Scottish party to at least consider it?

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Jul '11 - 12:10pm

    The Liberal Democrats are doing what one would expect a junior coalition partner to be doing when the senior partner has five times as many MPs. They are having an influence on some of the details, but not on the broad thrust of policy. If we a mature political debate in this country, this is how it would be covered and it would be accepted that the Liberal Democrats were doing a reasonable job and exercising their principle as best they could within the limits imposed by democracy. However, we do not have a mature political debate in this country.

    Those who moan about the Liberal Democrats “selling their principles for power” or whatever should think about what we would have now if there were no Liberal Democrats, or the Liberal Democrats vote was reduced to what it was in this by-election. We would have a pure Conservative government. The current role of the Liberal Democrats in modifying what the Conservative leadership proposes would be taken by the right-wing of the Conservative Party, which would be pushing it in the opposite direction to the way the Liberal Democrats are pushing it.

    To any voters, and in particular to those who say “I’ll never vote for you again after you put the Tories in”, I would say “Be warned: you may be cursed into getting what you said you wanted – no more Liberal Democrats, so a far more extreme right-wing government than we have now”.

    We may try using logic, but if the electorate hate us for what we have done (and we didn’t have much of an alternative), we may end up having to say “Very well, we do not have your support for continuing with the coalition, so we will drop it – you bear the consequences of that”. This would need to be done in such a way that a little while later we could say “We told you so”. I do not believe we can continue with the coalition if those who voted for us are so clearly against us being in it, as they show by all these big vote drops. I quite agree – I do not know Scotland much, but Inverclyde is one of those places in Scotland which had a recent Liberal tradition, so a tiny share of the vote there now is not so write-offable as a tiny share of the vote in many other places.

    If we were to pull out of the coalition early, it would force Labour to come up with some realistic policies, something it has signally failed to do since it has led the opposition. It would bring home the awful prospect of an unrestricted Conservative government, that being the most likely result of a new election in which the main thing we would see is the LibDem vote dropping in all those Tory v. LibDem places we won last time, so handing them over to the Tories.

    I am a great believer in forcing people to face up to unpleasant realities, and this may be the best way to do it. Sure, a few dozen LibDem MPs would lose their jobs, but when so many others are losing their jobs, am I bothered? No, not really. We need to plan for the long-term survival of our party, not just to put off the inevitable losses for a couple of years by sitting out till the end of this Parliament’s term. Of course it is the case that Nick Clegg is damaged goods, so should not be the one leading us through this. It was always going to be hard in this coalition (whose formation I reluctantly supported because I could see no better alternative giving what the electorate and the electoral system, which the electorate so recently endorsed, handed to us), but I’m afraid his constant wrong calls have made things worse for us. Anyone with experience of difficult balance of power situations in local government would see that Clegg has made just about every mistake that could be made. If you wanted to write a book entitled “How not to be a junior coalition partner” (ALDC probably already have one for local government), you have you textbook example right here right now.

  • By elections do through up some strange results – and it does not necessarily indicate that a catastrophic result at Inverclyde means the end for the Lib Democrats in Scotland; but it certainly looks, (combined with the local election results) that the Scottish Lib Dem vote has gone almost entirely en masse to the SNP. Whilst the Lib Democrats remain in coaltion with the Conservatives, it would appear a very hard task to win that vote back.

    Gaining support is a bit like rock climbing, hard work to climb, and if you fall difficult to climb back up again.

    If you look at opinion poll in the South West – CON 42%(-1), LAB 28%(+13), LDEM 16%(-19), GRN 5%(+4).

    http://www.marketingmeans.co.uk/getattachment/8807d475-2bf9-42e1-8c60-ab3c6854f813/SWP004-%28June%29-Final.pdf.aspx

    The Liberal Democrats would be left with only x2 MPs (boundary charges allowing) – Yeovil and Bath. Combined with the Inverclyde result, things do not look good.

    Continued assertions that the Liberal Democrats had no choice in forming a coalition government in the manner that they did with the Conservatives or trying to pretend that the electorate voted for the back room deal with the Conservatives, is not going to help win back support.

    Some honesty and acknowledgement of the reality may help a lot better.

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