SP21 Party Profile – Scottish Liberal Democrats

Keep tabs on all the latest polling, articles and information ahead of the 2021 Scottish Parliament election in the Ballot Box Scotland Holyrood Hub!

Leadership

Leader

Willie Rennie (2011 – )
MSP for North East Fife (2016 – )
MSP for Mid Scotland & Fife (2011-2016)
MP for Dunfermline and West Fife (2006-2010)

Deputy Leader

Alistair Carmichael (2012 -)
MP for Orkney and Shetland (2001 – )
Note that unlike other parties, the Scottish Lib Dem Deputy leader isn’t a public-facing role.

Holyrood History

In the early years of the Scottish Parliament, the Lib Dems were consistent performers. They came a close 4th in the first three elections, one seat behind the Conservatives. In 1999 and 2003, this allowed them to form a governing coalition with Labour. In return, they were able to abolish up-front Tuition Fees (1999) and introduce a form of Proportional Representation to local council elections (2003).

As a major driving force behind adopting PR for Holyrood itself, these early elections were also the start of the Lib Dems’ slightly odd relationship with it. Though they placed 4th in votes, they placed 2nd in terms of constituencies won, with the list seats correcting for that disproportionality. In fact, over this period their constituency vote climbed ever upwards, whilst their regional vote went downwards.

In one respect, you could say PR put the Lib Dems in a worse position, putting them behind the SNP and Conservatives. On the other hand, quite apart from their strong support for the principle, I’m sure the party much preferred “4th and in government” to “2nd and in opposition to an unchallengeable Labour majority!”

Their coalition with Labour lost its majority in 2007, though the Lib Dems themselves only dropped one seat, and a narrow SNP minority government took office. That allowed the Lib Dems to retain some influence as an often-necessary partner for passing budgets and other legislation – being crucial, for example, for the complete abolition of Tuition Fees by ending the Graduate Endowment Fee.

A year after entering coalition with the Conservatives at the UK level, the party had a catastrophic Holyrood election in 2011. They lost over half of their vote and two-thirds of their seats, including every mainland constituency – some they had held for decades at Westminster. 2016 was effectively static, though they traded two list seats for constituencies, and they slipped into 5th place behind the Greens for the first time.

(2021 Polling Average figure is as of 1st of April.)

2016 Vote Distribution

What might happen this time?

More than any other party, the Lib Dems’ final tally of seats in this election is going to come down to where their votes are as much as how many they get. For the party that had the largest hand in introducing Proportional Representation to Scotland, they have been pursuing an interesting strategy since 2011. Broadly, they have withdrawn into certain key strongholds to shore up their vote, whilst it declined across the rest of the country. This is a strategy that works extremely well for First Past the Post, and thus the UK Parliament, but is poorly suited to PR.

We can see the effect of this in 2016. What looks like a static result based on national figures, with the bright spot of constituency victories, actually disguised a much worse performance than 2011. At that election, the Lib Dems lost 25 constituency deposits. In 2016 that almost doubled to 48.

They lost about a third of their votes in the South region, which caused them to lose their list MSP there. They also lost votes in the North East region, where they did still elect an MSP. Additionally, in 2011 the party should actually have won 6 seats, but the SNP caused an overhang in Lothian that denied them a seat there. Obviously, that’s an invisible little quirk to all but election nerds, but it further demonstrates the impact of the retreat to strongholds strategy.

For a time in the middle of this term, they were benefitting from such a Brexit Bounce that one poll even had them overtaking Labour. That has long since dissipated. One month out from the election, their regional polling average was around 6%. If that was their result on the day, it wouldn’t be much in the way of growth, and they might be hard-pressed to make any gains. It would have to be extremely well concentrated in those key areas.

Key Seats

Note that in the regional vote charts, “Seat 7” indicates the minimum “safe” vote share to win the final seat in 2016. This safe value can be different for each party, as the assumption being made is that their vote changes but everyone else’s stays the same. It’ll also be different in 2021. This isn’t a predictable measure, but instead something we can only pinpoint after the fact.

South Scotland (Region)

This is historically a strong area for the Lib Dems, particularly in the Borders where David Steel’s 1965 by-election victory heralded a revival of the then Liberal Party’s fortunes. In 2007, the Lib Dems had an MP, two MSPs, and 18 councillors (in three councils) across the South. By 2017, they were down to 3 councillors (in two councils), as a loss of 1.7% of their list vote the previous year had unseated Jim Hume.

South will therefore be a key barometer of whether the party has genuinely begun to re-emerge from those strongholds. In pure percentage terms, it’s their second-best hope of gaining a seat. On the other hand, of historically liberal areas, it’s the one they’ve clearly suffered the worst collapse in and building back from that may prove difficult.

West Scotland (Region)

The West region includes the area which is Westminster’s East Dunbartonshire constituency. This was former UK Lib Dem Leader Jo Swinson’s seat from 2005-2015 and again from 2017-2019. Although never as strong at Holyrood, they maintain some strength in the equivalent areas, as well as residual support in Renfrewshire and Inverclyde.

A slight uptick in 2016 makes this narrowly their strongest region where they don’t have an MSP. Although they’ve never had the same depth of support here as elsewhere, they might have proven a more attractive option for residents of leafy suburbs in seats like Eastwood in the years since Brexit, which could boost them slightly.

North East Scotland (Region)

Of the party’s historic strongholds, the North East sits in the middle ground between the complete collapse of the South, and the successful retreat to strongholds of Edinburgh, Fife and the Highlands. The party still has a list MSP here, but it also hasn’t regained any of its constituencies at either level, nor is it close to doing so. And in 2016, it dipped from 6.8% to 6.0% of the vote. Should that decline continue, there may be trouble.

Unlike the South, in addition to the MSP, they have multiple councillors in every council in the region. That strong local base should count in their favour for holding the seat. That said, they’ve went from 10.6% of the vote in equivalent UK Parliament constituencies in 2015 to 8.8% in 2019, a decrease of 1.8%. They’ll be hoping that doesn’t foreshadow a similar decline in 2021.

Highlands and Islands (Region)

As they currently control both Northern Isles constituencies, the Lib Dems didn’t justify any list seats here in 2016. However, despite that static result nationally, their vote went up by 1.2% here. That ends up making the Highlands and Islands one of the party’s more likely bets for gaining a list MSP, if their vote share does indeed go up nationally. It’s entirely reasonable to believe they’ll have done some digging back in on the mainland via their Westminster seat here that would amplify that.

There is also practically zero risk of an SNP overhang here because they’re vanishingly unlikely to win Orkney or Shetland, which means the Lib Dems won’t be facing a raised bar. On the other hand, as the region has the fewest seats overall, it already takes more list votes on average to win a list seat than anywhere else.

North East Fife (Constituency)

The then-Liberals first won the UK’s North East Fife constituency in 1987, with Ming Campbell holding the seat until 2015. The Holyrood seat was likewise Lib Dem until 2011, when SNP success was so unexpected that I have it on good authority the then First Minister exclaimed “Rod F***ing Campbell?!” on hearing of his candidate’s victory here. That was a short lived victory, as Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie flipped the seat in 2016.

Although current polling has most models spitting out an SNP victory in this constituency, that seems unlikely in reality. The boundaries of the Holyrood seat are more favourable than Westminster’s and the famous 2 vote SNP  majority in 2017, and the Lib Dems won that seat in 2019 anyway. They’ll have bedded in well, and a stagnant national vote in 2016 disguised a 15.4% surge here, which simple models can’t account for. I’d be surprised if this changed hands again.

Edinburgh Western (Constituency)

Similar to North East Fife, this was a seat the party lost in 2011 but regained in 2016. The 2011 loss was particularly unfortunate for them, as it meant they went without any MSPs in the Lothian region, despite otherwise having enough votes for one – the SNP won one too many seats here, and that knocked the Lib Dems out of the last list seat that should have been theirs.

Though it’s a more marginal seat than North East Fife, I do expect a somewhat similar dynamic between polling, projection, and result to take place here, with it being much harder for the SNP to win this seat than polling is suggesting. However, I would rate it the more likely of the two mainland constituencies to turn – and if it does, it risks re-running 2011 and leaving them short a Lothian MSP entirely.

Caithness, Sutherland and Ross (Constituency)

Caithness, Sutherland and Ross is effectively the one existing gap in the party’s retreat to strongholds strategy. Whereas they have the Holyrood equivalents for their other Westminster seats, they haven’t got this one. Rarely for a Scottish Parliament constituency, this one is actually marginally larger than the Westminster seat, which is Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.

The question here then is whether or not they’ve dug in enough to close the gap. Given how marginal their Westminster win is this could be a tough one, but as the masters at flipping individual seats against a national tide, they certainly can’t be written off.

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2 Comments

  1. You say this about the Lib Dems:
    “For the party that had the largest hand in introducing Proportional Representation to Scotland, they have been pursuing an interesting strategy since 2011. Broadly, they have withdrawn into certain key strongholds to shore up their vote, whilst it declined across the rest of the country. This is a strategy that works extremely well for First Past the Post, and thus the UK Parliament, but is poorly suited to PR.”
    The last sentence is totally correct but I would question the implication that the Lib Dems changed their strategy after the introduction of PR. They have always (post-1980, anyway) pursued what they call a target-seat strategy. This means that they put little or no effort into seats they have no chance of winning. The candidates in such seats are referred to not as paper candidates but as paperless candidates. At the moment they are pouring huge resources into East Dunbartonshire. It would be interesting to know what they are doing (or not doing) in the rest of the West Scotland region. But a lack of money and, more importantly, activists in most West Scotland constituencies suggests that they will be doing little or nothing in, for example, Dumbarton constituency. One of the reasons for pouring huge resources into East Dumbartonshire is, of course, the fact that it is, on paper, the Lib Dems most winnable seat at the next General Election. Incidentally, the term that was used by the Liberals in the 1970s for most Scottish constituencies was ‘Black hole’. These constituences had no party organisation and had not had a Liberal candidate for several decades. I suspect that the vast majority of Scottish constituencies have gone back to being black holes, at least as far as organisation is concerned. Candidates are produced for these seats from among a pool of party members who are willing to have their name put on a ballot paper. They usually have no connection with the constituency and may never go near it. They might not even attend the count.

  2. One other point relevant to the strategy pursued by the Liberal Democrats is their belief that bits of paper through letter boxes do not have much impact until at least three pieces of literature are put through the same letter box. That’s why the Lib Dems put out so many bits of literature in an election campaign. Now, according to that belief, putting out one piece of literature in the whole of the West Scotland Region would make little or no difference to their vote. Whereas putting out four pieces of literature in one constituency might have an impact.
    By and large, Labour, the Conservatives and the SNP rely on their national level of support. The Lib Dems, particularly at the moment, do not have that luxury.
    We can see an example of this in East Dunbartonshire. In the last year I have received no literature from either the SNP or the Labour Party. Neither party, in this area, seems to be doing any campaigning. Indeed, the SNP appear to have done no campaigning in the area since retaking the seat in 2019. They appear to have learned nothing from the dismal performance of the SNP MP who was elected in 2015 and then lost the seat in 2017.
    Moreover, if the Lib Dems win a seat on the List in the West Scotland Region we can expect the Lib Dems to use that MSP to provide huge resources for their campaign to regain the East Dunbartonshire seat at the next General Election. And, going by past performance, the SNP will do nothing in response.

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