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Resisting the urge to do the deal makes it game on for #LibDemFightback

Resisting the urge to do the deal makes it game on for #LibDemFightback

Gareth Brown, Associate

The Scottish Liberal Democrats will descend on Perth this weekend for their Spring Annual Conference with a bit of a spring in their step and, for the first time in a while, it’s probably justified.

Their performance in the Scottish Parliament elections last year was hailed as a roaring success, with Willie Rennie and Alex Cole-Hamilton making gains from the SNP in North East Fife and Edinburgh Western. Of course their vote percentage marginally fell, and the arithmetic of the list is such they didn’t end up with any additional seats – but why let detail spoil a good party!

Success? Well, it depends how you define success, and success should always be considered in context. In the context of a complete meltdown at the 2015 General Election, and a complete rejection of the party’s message that it went into government (a decision not fully endorsed by the Scottish wing of the party it’s worth remembering) for the economic stability of the country, they pegged the Conservatives back, pupil premium, personal allowance etc., things could have been an awful lot worse.

All things considered, I think their chipperness about the Holyrood result is justified. But is the #LibDemFightBack on? Well, that’s a different proposition entirely but on balance I think it is, at least in a small and slow way.

On a general level, there is sense it probably couldn’t get any worse than it already is/was. Holding their five seats at Holyrood following a wipeout of biblical proportions at Westminster only a year earlier supports this view and, if we accept this is the case, then the only way is up.

The avenue to a fightback in England, where Labour’s weakness has not been filled by UKIP in the way the SNP has filled it here, is much clearer. However, a more nuanced consideration of the current political landscape suggests there is an opportunity for them somewhere in the mix of the emerging constitutional anarchy and the woes of the Scottish Labour Party.

Let’s consider the former first. There is absolutely no doubt that the Scottish constitution will be the main battleground for the Local Government elections in May – and Willie Rennie knows this. It was significant that he resisted the urge to be the party to “do the deal” with the SNP on the budget, despite his natural tendency towards collaboration. A crass analysis would suggest that they simply don’t think they have recovered from their last attempt at collaboration for the good of the country, but there is more to it than that.

Rightly or wrongly, the deal on the budget, regardless of what was actually in it, was a vote on the SNP and its continued threat of a second independence referendum in the wake of Brexit. Willie knew that even had he been offered the world by Derek Mackay, he couldn’t take it, and despite their public line on being all ears,  he was never going to (and therefore listed demands they knew Derek Mackay couldn’t meet) for two reasons.

Firstly, among other issues, the party has been pretty strong in its opposition to another referendum, and has been fairly unambiguous on its position in the event one were to be held. Thankfully for Willie, there seems to be a consensus that they have been clear on this. Again, regardless of what they could have got for supporting the SNP on the budget, the party knows that appearing soft on the constitution would have been a deal they could never sell on the doorstep.

Secondly, which leads to the point about the challenges facing Labour, the party knows that not all unionists in Scotland are Conservatives, despite what some Tories might have us think. They know that there are people out there, naturally in the centre ground of Scottish politics, who are frustrated with the direction Labour has taken under Corbyn (despite their views on Kezia Dugdale), but who can’t quite bring themselves to vote for the Tories. These same people also probably voted passionately to remain in the referendum on EU membership, a further cause for frustration at Corbyn and reluctance to support the Tories. To their credit, there is no doubt that the Lib Dems, both in Scotland and UK wide, have created a position of strength and clarity on that as well as staunch remainers.

With local government elections coming up, reaffirming their stance on the Scottish constitution and Brexit will be key themes emerging this weekend. The party knows there is an opportunity to position themselves as the natural home for this group of people, and there certainly is.

The key question, of course, is how many of these people are out there. The answer to that question will determine the scale of the #LibDemFightBack.