Friday, 25 July 2008

Glasgow East: The Aftermath (Part 2)

With apologies in advance to Stephen Glenn, this post will focus on everyone’s favourite political irrelevance – the Liberal Democrats.

Now I know Kenny Gibson got slated for his motion entitled “The Irrelevance of the Liberal Democrats” which, quite rightly, was included in the watchdog Crap Holyrood Chat. But I can’t help but think he might have a point – even if that is maybe isn’t quite the right forum to air that particular view.

Glasgow East’s result only served to emphasise that point of view. They had someone who, by all accounts was a fairly able candidate and will – presumably – get a chance in future elections. But to amass only 915 votes and lose their deposit in a constituency where they’d consistently performed reasonably well in the past is simply not good enough.

Now you can (and Stephen Glenn probably will ) make the point that this election was, from the off, a two horse race, and the Lib Dem vote was squeezed further by the resurgent Conservatives (who were smart with their candidate selection and ran an efficient campaign). But even so, their performance – lost deposit and all – is simply not acceptable for a party that claimed to be “The Real Alternative” government.

So I suppose the question is this: what are the Liberal Democrats (good for)? I guess that’s 2 questions really. It’s not enough to be a political party with (fairly substantial) representation – both at Westminster and Holyrood – without having something to define yourself by.

For all the Lib Dem bluster about standing up for civil liberties where were they when Alex Salmond wanted to allow the Scottish people their democratic opportunity to decide on Scotland’s future? Nick Clegg has hardly established himself as a political heavyweight since he took on the leadership. Indeed if you showed 100 people in Scotland a photograph of him how many of them (excluding members of his party) be able to tell you who he was?

I guess I’m trying to be constructive here. For the Lib Dems to be good for anything they’ve got to re-define themselves ala New Labour or Cameron’s “green” Conservatives (complete with new tree logo). But without the charismatic leader, that seems a difficult process. But they better do it quickly, or they will become an irrelevance, both in Scotland and the UK.

Unfortunately for them, it seems the future’s bleak. The future’s orange.

Over to you Stephen...


Jeff 26 July 2008 at 08:16  

I think they clearly suffered from 2 left-of-centre parties being the main challengers.

So of course there was much more scope for the righter-wing Tories to gain votes and, for that reason, I do feel that the Lib Dems were on a hiding to nothing before kick-off.

Even still though, that doesn't change the fact that the future looks very bleak indeed and, as you say, they desperately need to find a way to get Clegg in the media limelight and come up with some audacious policies.

And yes, I'm v surprised I beat Mr Glenn to the 1st comment here....!

Stephen Glenn 26 July 2008 at 10:23  

Erm...Malc, I already had posted my views on that yesterday evening. I have to agree with a lot of what you wrote.

One other factor is that at present the party is looking at a major policy review which means that the big idea, the big vision like we had going in the GEs in 2005, 2001, 1997 etc and the distinctive voice have not yet been formed. Some of the proposed changes I don't feel we should be making but I'm glad that we are a party that openly allows discussion and debate on such things on such things so I'm ready to state my case.

I think over the last 20 years we have defined oursleves a little bit more clearly, what we re currently doing now it looking for that next step to be considered serious contenders for Westminster and that not help us Scottish Liberal Democrats much at present as the party is looking toward the Cameron threat to their gains over the last 11 years a little to the detrement of those of us who's only Tory threat is from behind and as Jeff says have to stand out from 2 historically centre left parties (both rather more centre or beyond than left just now though).

Stephen Glenn 26 July 2008 at 10:26  

As for beating me Jeff I was having an enjoyable evening last night after posting my own thoguhts and enjoying a somewhat lazy Saturday morning rather than up at dawn to head to Glasgow. So am only just catching up of the Scottish Blogosphere's evening now. :)

Ideas of Civilisation 26 July 2008 at 13:05  


That's a fair question but one which in some ways affects all parties.

You can argue that we are past the stage of ideology being a driving part of UK politics. In many ways the closest anyone gets to that is in the argument for constitutional change i.e. independence.

The type of society we live in now is very far removed from that found even 30 years ago, shown in the standards of living that we have now.

The issues which would have marked people out as working class, middle class, etc just a generation ago – home ownership, car ownership, foreign holidays, material possessions, university attendance, etc – are far more blurred now than before. This can only create challenges for all parties.

Therefore it we move beyond the old style two-party system (Labour-Tory; left-right) then this does present a challenge firstly to get people to vote (witness declining turnout and party activism) and then to attract them to vote for you.

For a great while the Lib Dems succeeded by not being Labour (the government) or the Tories – a third way if you pardon the expression – with Iraq being a key example of this. But now as disquiet with the Labour government goes and many people simply want a change the Tories begin to rise again (or the SNP in Scotland).

As I’ve said before there is little or no substantial difference (beyond the constitution) between the SNP, Labour and Lib Dems in the Scottish Parliament, and not even really the Tories. At that point those who still vote will look for the appearance of competence or a different path from whoever is in government. The SNP are clearly the beneficiaries of this just now.

In the longer term (assuming a referendum is held and independence doesn’t happen) this will be a question that the SNP will equally have to confront, and in fact it would happen in an independent Scotland too I suppose.

So yes, the Liberals should now wonder what they are for. But they’re not the only ones.

Malc 26 July 2008 at 15:17  

Indeed Ideas of Civilisation, that's where I was going to go with the next post - a kind of "where do the parties go from here?". So, I'll see how that pans out when I get an opportunity.

Stephen, apologies for making you the standard bearer for Lib Dem views - but I kinda guessed I'd get a rise out of you on it! And I read your piece after I posted - we're not saying anything which is in conflict really.

Good stuff guys, thanks for reading. I think I'm back for good now...

Sam 26 July 2008 at 16:50  

In England the Lib Dem's have a more than substantial representation in pure voting numbers (not for nothing do they go on about proportional representation), and a very healthy presence on most local councils. They are the third party of Westminster politics but that is as much a product of FPTP & traditional 2-party politics.

In Scotland, do they not simply suffer in the present political climate from the success of the SNP's single-issue platform?

Similarly, given that the Glasgow East result was almost certainly a protest vote against Labour (or more specifically Gordon), the subtle policy differences between the other parties was never going to affect the result much.

And in a general election with a similar swing (unlikely as it might be) to that mentioned by Malc, the Lib Dems would be a clear second.

Not bad for a party without a recognisable leader or identity.

Malc 26 July 2008 at 19:41  

Several things on that Sam.

First - there'd be a lot of argument about the SNP being a single issue platform, though given the point made by IofC that each of the parties in Scotland occupy the same (middle) ground, the fact that they stand out on an issue gives them something for voters to identify them with.

Second - I'd agree that LD's 3rd party status is a result of FPTP - and PR would ultimately sort that.

But I disagree that in a General Election with a similar swing Lib Dems would be a clear second. Unless you just mean in Scotland. But UK-wide, they'd end up the 4th party (behind the SNP) if the Tories swept up in England and the SNP won Scotland.

And steady on with your generalisation about Glasgow East. The SNP have been successful in government up here. I agree that a lot of it can be attributed to protest voting but maybe - just maybe - some think an alternative in Scotland is working.

Otherwise, not bad. Keep them coming!

Sam 27 July 2008 at 00:48  

Ok I realise my outsider's view may lack understanding of the complexities, but really? Isn't the convergence on the middle ground the defining feature of party politics since New Labour? Certainly seems like it down south, and that also seems to be what IofC says (& you allude to). Thus the only issue which they do stand out on is devolution. Maybe calling SNP a single-issue party was a bit glib, but I already called you a Socialist once this month so I had to try something else to get a rise!

I did mean just in Scotland would the Lib Dems come a clear second (using your "little fantasy"), but I disagree that UK-wide they would be 4th. Surely 3rd in Westminster carries more weight in Westminster than 1st in Scotland? I'm not attempting to marginalise devolution or suggest the SNP isn't successful in government (bar the attempt to tarmac a Site of Special Scientific Interest), but they simply, inherently, have no appeal & little influence south of the border.

It is a generalisation but its also true that all by-elections produce at least some protest voting. But as I said just above that doesn't mean the SNP doesn't present a successful alternative to Labour, I agree with you that it has been far more successful in government than I for one thought it would be.

By the way, good to see you back, hope you're all sorted.

Malc 27 July 2008 at 10:37  

Okay Sam. I agree, convergence on the middle ground the defining feature of party politics since New Labour - and that's certainly on eof the interesting features of party competition (or lack therof) in 21st Century UK politics.

With regard to my "Lib Dems being 4th comment" I meant statistically - in terms of seat numbers - that might be a likely scenario. I mean if the Tories win 400-ish seats and Lab fall to 180-ish, they're still clear 1 and 2 parties. But if the swing in Scotland means the SNP win 49 seats and the Lib Dems 7, on the basis that the Tories have swept up in England, there's a good chance that the Lib Dems wouldn't take more than 49 seats across the UK - making them the 4th party in UK seats, behind Con, Lab & SNP. That's all I meant by that - but it won't happen coz I doubt there will be a 22.5% swing in a General.

It's nice to be back!

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