We interrupt our haphazardly scheduled posts on Hypothetical Council Elections for some ponderings on the Liberal Democrats. Exciting, eh?
It’s perhaps not surprising to see a Green taking the time to dismantle the Lib Dems, seeing as we’re currently locked in mortal combat for the position of Scotland’s fourth party. We’ve overtaken them in Holyrood and in European elections (not that we’re going to have any more of the latter, unless we’re lucky) whilst they remain ahead in the UK Parliament and Councils. Yet the Lib Dems have something the Greens do not – a perception in the media and public that they are a “major” party, whilst the Greens are a “minor” party.
A large part of the reason for that is that the Lib Dems typically stand a full slate of candidates for UK General elections, whilst the Greens have at best managed half – and this time round, we’re only doing three. Now, I accept the reality at the moment that the Greens aren’t quite up there with the SNP, Labour and the Tories – but I’d argue neither are the Lib Dems.
Let’s start with their Holyrood situation. Last year, I wrote a bit about how the much vaunted Lib Dem Fightback in Scotland looked more like a retreat. Winning four constituencies – still viewed by too many as “real” seats – and their vote share holding steady was seen as some kind of success. Underneath the surface however, there was a lot to worry about. They lost an MSP in South, with a probably irrecoverable loss of votes on present trajectory. Their only remaining regional MSP in North East suffered a loss of votes too. And although their overall share of the vote was stable, they lost a whopping 48 constituency deposits compared to 25 in 2011. In 2016, the Lib Dems did what they do best – pulled into a clutch of strongholds.
Let’s move onto the Council results. On the face of it, the Lib Dems held up quite well, with a slight bump in vote share and only losing 4 seats. With 247 candidates in about 230 wards, they also came in a bit ahead of us Greens who were 218 for 218. But the geographic spread of Lib Dem candidacies was much poorer – whilst the Greens lacked candidates entirely in four councils; Angus, Inverclyde, Shetland and the Western Isles (those councils accounting for about 5% of the Scottish population), the Lib Dems were missing in eight.
With not a Lib Dem to be seen in any of the three Ayrshire councils, or North Lanarkshire, or Falkirk, or the three island councils, the tally of totally Lib Dem free councils was some 17% of Scotland’s population. In addition, they failed for the first time to stand a full slate of candidates in Glasgow with 20 out of 23, and lost their last councillor in the city. And in Edinburgh, although their vote share increased above the Greens, they came in at 6 seats to the Greens 8. That was primarily down to a huge shoring up of votes in the Edinburgh West area – the median Lib Dem vote share being 5.5% vs the Greens 12.3%, giving us a far better spread of votes.
As I suggested they might be in that earlier post, the Borders were disastrous for the Lib Dems, their vote share halving and losing two thirds of their seats, taking them down to just 2. There were also notable losses in the Highlands, going from 15 to 10, and Fife, from 10 down to 7, even though these are places the Lib Dems hunkered down and boosted their vote share in certain key areas. Lib Dems aren’t winning across Scotland, they are being sucked up into key parliamentary targets – which, as I’ve said previously, is a fine strategy for avoiding a wipe out but it merely weathers the storm. Growth is a long way off.
And finally, those Westminster candidacies, the glowing jewel in their major party crown. Of the 59 candidates across Scotland a third of them – 19 – don’t just live outside the constituency, but outside the council area(s) that make it up. In fairness, a few of these are pretty innocuous, like the West Dunbartonshire candidate coming from Helensburgh in Argyll & Bute and the Aberdeen North from Ellon in Aberdeenshire. Others are pretty remarkable, with 9 of the 19 being Edinburghers shipped out into the provinces.
The three Ayrshire seats are being contested by Edinburgh Lib Dems. So too are Inverclyde, the Western Isles, Livingston, Glenrothes, Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath and Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk – the latter really ramming home the “Lib Dems are going extinct in the Borders” point. A couple of other corkers are another Helensburgh native appearing in East Renfrewshire whilst Banff & Buchan has a brave soul from Dunblane.
Now my point is not that it’s the worst thing in the world to live outside the constituency – that’s fine, lots of people do it, and often there is a connection in some form be it work, family or previous history in the area. But the sheer number of Lib Dems with quite remarkable distances to go, and the fact that some of them (the Ayrshires most notably) coincide with areas the Lib Dems put in little or no showing in the Council elections is a reminder that these days, Scottish Lib Dems are spread pretty thin. Add in that Holyrood retreat, those missing council candidates and disappearing seats in formerly solid Liberal areas, and this really doesn’t look like a major party, but rather a pressure group of the comfy centre with cash to burn.
All of this puts them in a fundamentally different position from the SNP, Labour and the Tories in all respects except one – funding. Despite their recent troubles and their haemorrhaging of members, the Lib Dems still manage to attract large donations as well as long-established support. That, and that alone, is what allows them to play at being a major party. It’s nothing more than a charade that satisfies the broadcasters and the media in general. I won’t add to the screeds that have been written about the minimal engagement of Greens this election, but I can say if we had the money the Lib Dems do we wouldn’t be standing in so few places – and we wouldn’t want for genuinely local candidates to contest the seat.