I did wonder whether I should bother writing a post about the Lib Dems.  I mean, it appears to be patently obvious that the party has been utterly screwed by their participation in a coalition with the Conservatives at UK level, with the loss of 300,000 votes in May’s Scottish Parliament election symbolic of the electorate’s feelings towards the party.  But my look at the parties in the Scottish Parliament wouldn’t be complete without it…

I suppose the first thing to point out (which is pretty obvious) is that there is no real distinct Lib Dem voter.  I’ve been teaching first years at university who can identify that, at least traditionally, the working class vote Labour and the middle class vote Conservative.  But where do the Lib Dems fit into that?  Well, one answer to the question as to “who votes Liberal Democrat” was “middle class people who don’t think they are middle class”.  Which I liked – and I liked it, because it’s almost true.  Lib Dem voters – at least prior to 2010 – tended to be well-educated (with a degree) but still considered themselves to not be middle class enough to vote for the Conservatives.  Hence the choice of Lib Dems.

Also, prior to 2010, the Lib Dems had a “protest vote” thing going – particularly in the wake of their opposition to the Iraq War – those who also opposed the war saw the party as aligned with them, and voted accordingly.  This led to an increase in ethnic minority voting for the Lib Dems (and a corresponding reduction in ethnic minority voting for Labour) which is in spite of a lack of ethnic minority Lib Dem MPs.  Outside of those criteria, there was limited appeal for the Lib Dems, though they were able to pick up tactical voters (the lesser of two evils for both natural Labour and natural Conservative voters when their own candidate was third in a two-horse race), issue voters (those who made up their mind on a particular issue) and swing voters (those who made up their mind late on in the campaign).  It’s not exactly the easiest thing to campaign to an electorate when your primary targets are tactical, issue and swing voters.  But anyway, they did well enough up to 2010 – and in that election, the relative popularity of Nick Clegg helped them get into government.

But that’s at UK level.  And the (small-c) conservative leanings of the Orange-Bookers at the head of the party (Clegg, Laws etc) do not have the same appeal for the party in Scotland, where the electorate as a whole is much more centre-left leaning.  So, inevitably, governing with the Conservatives – and making hard decisions (to enter office for the first time) and making policy u-turns (on issues like tuition fees) did not play well here.  The inherent tension between the historic Liberal Party (which is fundamentally more freedom-seeking, individual liberty focused, neo-liberal economically) and the Social Democratic Party (which, as the name suggests, tends towards more centre-left, state-interventionist economic and social policies) is beginning to show in the party.  And though Scotland has much more of a history with the Liberals than with the Social Democrats, it is the politics of the latter which has dominated Scottish political thought in the last quarter century.  So while the Lib Dems have tried to address this balance by campaigning on more conservative policies in constituencies where the electorate are more centre-right inclined (like the South-West of England for example) and campaigning on more social democratic policies in more centre-left constituencies (Birmingham, Sheffield, most of Scotland) this duality of electoral strategy appears to have caught up with them.

In Scotland, the party now have just 5 MSPs, with no mainland constituencies.  They won Orkney (Liam McArthur) and Shetland (former leader Tavish Scott) which they have historically held since the 1950s, in part due to the fact that an independent candidate finished second in each.  They won three additional members in the north-east (Alison McInnes), Mid-Scotland and Fife (new leader Willie Rennie) and the South of Scotland (Jim Hume).  There are Scottish council elections in May next year, and while the Lib Dems currently have around 160 councillors, that number is likely to take a considerable hit.  With a lack of representatives, at all levels, the party’s ability to function, to utilise their representatives as key activists, to promote what they have done at different levels as a means of attracting more voters, is surely questionable.

The biggest question for me though, is how long a) the federal Lib Dem party can survive with the inherent tension between Orange Bookers and social democrats at its heart and b) how long the Scottish party stays a part of that structure.  I sense that Willie Rennie and his (limited number of) MSPs are more social democratic than they are allowed to be, but now lack the power of numbers to make a break from the UK party.  For the foreseeable future, the Scottish Lib Dems simply have to survive.  In my post on the Scottish Tories I mentioned that there is a considerable chunk of the Scottish electorate which might vote centre-right if they saw an option which wasn’t Tory.  Thus, there’s a market there for the Orange Book Lib Dems to exploit – but I think they could only do so away from the UK party’s coalition.  Then again, the name might be tainted too much by association now.

Oh dear.  I seem to have come over all glum again.  The future’s bleak.  The future’s Orange.