Can the Liberal Democrats win back voters?

Hidden behind the events in Paris, last weekend, Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader Willie Rennie made his appeal for former party supporters to come running back in time for the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary elections.

This is just the latest in a long line of attempts made by Lib Dems north and south of the border to win back those who abandoned the party after they went into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. The 15% swing in votes in this year’s general election resulted in in one of the party’s worst ever election results and their position as the 3rd party has come under threat.

However, much to everyone’s surprise, Liberal Democrat membership rose by more than 20,000 following the electoral disaster and since then there has been a steady rise in the number committed to donating at least £12 a year to the party.

Gaining new members is all well and good, but the Lib Dems still have to try and win back those Scottish supporters they lost to the SNP in the past five years. It is clear to see that the majority abandoned the party following the Conservative coalition in 2010 as their share of seats in Holyrood dropped by 12 in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections.

Speaking on Saturday, Mr Rennie addressed the cause of the problem: “Although many understood that we went into the coalition to hold the Conservatives back and to deliver Lib Dem priorities others found any connection with the Conservatives too much. Now that the Coalition is over I want to make a direct appeal to them to consider the Liberal Democrats again.

“Scotland needs strong liberal voices in parliament and the bigger the team of Liberal Democrat MSPs the stronger that voice will be. With just five MSPs we have stood up for the police, for nursery education, for civil liberties, for colleges and for a strong economy.   With the votes of former supporters we can achieve so much more.”

So can the Liberal Democrats really come back into a position of authority in Holyrood?

Their rise of supporters following the election was certainly something not to frown at. However, the classic post-election “sympathy vote” and incentives such as a £1 membership fee for young people will have certainly contributed to this supporter surge. What’s more, the latest Scottish opinion polls are placing the Lib Dems with between 5-7% of the vote, a figure not too dissimilar to what they gained in the 2011 Holyrood elections.

However, Willie Rennie has noticed a rather large, if difficult group to target resources on. Scottish politics is well-known for being at times barbaric and if a party falls out of favour once, it can be difficult to get back up to that same position. You only have to look at the difference in seats won by the Scottish Conservatives in Westminster who, in particular, slipped up over the poll tax. They gained 21 seats in 1983, but just 1 seat in 2015.

Trying to win all those supporters back in time for the election in May next year will be a challenge, yet the SNP are potentially in a precarious position as they look to attract and retain non-independence supporters when the majority of their party demands another referendum. For some, the possibility of independence may become so big a risk that they will feel unable to support the nationalists.

Saying that, the position the SNP have found themselves in is nothing less than dominant. It seems inevitable that they will get a simple majority in Holyrood and with up to 60% support in opinion polls, an unprecedented absolute majority may even be possible. The SNP have benefited from the three major parties making mistakes and the room for one of those to return to the top of Scottish politics seems slim.

Despite Rennie’s call to arms, I believe it is unlikely that the Liberal Democrats will be able to make up much more ground before May which is a shame; a party with a huge majority in Parliament is always going to get its own way because there is no effective opposition to bring them to account. This is especially true for a party like the SNP who do offer some fairly radical policies and are certainly not near the centre of the political spectrum.

Inevitably at least 50% of Scots will feel as though the nationalists will be unable to represent their views in Holyrood. The Liberal Democrats, as centre-line party that does actually have a similar political ideology to many in Scotland, should be in a position of power similar to that seen pre-2010. The nature of Scottish politics makes it difficult for parties to recover after a mishap and with Labour now out of the running, the question is who can honestly challenge the SNP in 2016 and beyond?

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Ruairidh Campbell
Based in the Scottish Borders/Glasgow, Ruairidh has written extensively on everything from rugby to politics with work published in publications including the Scottish Rugby Union's website, Scottish Field Magazine and Edinburgh Rugby's match-day programmes.
Ruairidh Campbell

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