GE24 Party Profile: Scottish Liberal Democrats


The last of the parties in this series to have won seats at Westminster in recent elections, the Lib Dems have had a very muted role in Scottish politics in recent years. From the second Scottish force at Westminster and supporting architects of the Devolution settlement, they’ve dropped to variously the fourth-or-fifth party in Scotland. With apologies to Alex Cole-Hamilton, who I know is a very keen supporter of BBS, especially since the party slipped into fifth behind the Greens at Holyrood it has often felt entirely invisible. That’s perhaps been worsened since 2021 when they fell below the 5 seat threshold necessary for “full” party status in the Scottish Parliament, with an according reduction in their allocated chamber time and committee representation.

Despite that low profile, the Lib Dems have one thing going for them at Westminster elections: they are really, really good at digging into a tiny number of seats. That allowed them to win four times as many seats as Labour in Scotland in 2019, despite winning only half as many votes. This is a bit of a double-edged sword for the Lib Dems going into this election however. It means that their key sets should be relatively easily held, even as their vote share slips, but it has left them with next to no capacity for growth outwith those areas. Still, when compared to collapses in 2011 and 2015, “quiet stability” is likely infinitely preferable.


Note: For simplicity, this section only looks at elections starting from 2005, which was when the previous boundaries came into effect. Notably, this included a significant reduction in the number of Scottish seats from 72 to 59, correcting a historic over-representation that was no longer felt necessary following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

Vote Shares

Something that may come as a surprise given the Lib Dems were the second Scottish party by number of MPs for almost two decades is that not only was their 2005 share their peak, it was also the only national election in my lifetime they came second (beating the SNP) in vote share. That wasn’t to last, as in 2010 Scotland’s love for being just a bit different to England saw the party lose votes despite growth down south, slipping back into third place.

Entering into coalition with the Conservatives after that election proved almost immediately fatal for the Lib Dems, crashing spectacularly at the Holyrood election the following year then at Locals in 2012. Voters across the UK showed the party absolutely no mercy in 2015 and this time Scotland was no different. Support plummeted to levels last seen by the preceding Liberal party in the 1970’s, eroding even further in 2017.

The Lib Dem fever that gripped the UK during the Brexit Summer of 2019 was never felt to the same degree in Scotland, with polling capping out at a mere 13% here compared to 23% in GB-level polling. Unfortunately for the Lib Dems, even that modest enthusiasm had largely drained away by the snap election in December, allowing them growth but still coming just short of making it into double figures.

At time of writing, the BBS poll average for the Lib Dems (last updated on the 10th of June) was 7.8%, representing a loss of about a sixth of their vote compared to 2019.

Seat Shares
Seat Shares (Categorised)

Similar to the Conservatives, the Lib Dems have never had any sustained presence in the core Urban/Central Belt seats, though they did win the Dunfermline and West Fife constituency within that bloc at a 2006 by-election. Instead, they were the dominant force across the Highlands, and very firmly entrenched in Orkney and Shetland. They also had notable strength in Aberdeenshire and North East Fife, the primary Borders constituency, and two of the Urban Affluent seats. As with every other party, their 2005 and 2010 seats were absolutely identical in Scotland.

When they collapsed in 2015, which would have happened regardless of the Independence referendum in their case (having been thoroughly mangled at Holyrood in 2011), it was that Orkney and Shetland seat that just about held out against the SNP tide. Despite a further vote slide in 2017, the combination of tactical voting plus good old Lib Dem targeting led to them bumping back up to 4 seats, split evenly between Highlands/Islands and Urban Affluent categories. Effectively, they sacrificed the remains of their support in Aberdeenshire and the Borders to shore up a smaller number of key seats, which is exactly how FPTP needs you to work. They also famously missed out on North East Fife by just 2 votes, the narrowest miss anywhere in the UK that year.

Come 2019 and the Lib Dems managed to hold steady in overall seats, whilst suffering probably the greatest indignity of any party: they lost their leader’s seat. Although they were able to gain North East Fife, East Dunbartonshire’s Jo Swinson, who in the rush of the Brexit Summer had declared herself a future Prime Minister, was turfed out. This was an absolutely astonishing (and shattering for the party) result, as the last time the leader of a primary UK party had lost their seat was Labour’s Arthur Henderson in 1931.

Possible Outcomes

Note: Obviously, your personal perception of a good or bad result will depend on how much you like a given party. For the purposes of this piece, good and bad relate to how an impartial observer might view the result, taking into account other elections and the general situation facing that party. They are not a commentary on whether such results would be good or bad for the country.

Good Result

Here’s the weirdest thing about the Lib Dems this election: if they win 4 seats, strictly speaking they’ve doubled their wins versus 2019, without looking like they have any more seats. That’s because on the new constituency boundaries, they would not have won either North East Fife or Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. The latter especially had a majority of around just 200 votes on its old boundaries, and had I kid you not over 20,000 new voters added to it, completely wiping that out. In reality, it will be incredibly easy for the Lib Dems to hold North East Fife at least, so in my view they don’t get any points for doing so. CSER is a taller ask but since the SNP are polling extremely poorly, again they simply have to win that to be seen as having an adequate election never mind a good one.

The only real growth prospect then is Mid Dunbartonshire, a minimally expanded and rebranded East Dunbartonshire. They can’t believe their luck (or, perhaps, successful letter writing campaign) that the final form of that constituency is what it is. Alternative and frankly more coherent proposals, since they didn’t split Kirkintilloch in two, would have ruined their chances of winning the seat. As they remain the leading non-SNP force in the new seat, they have a very good chance of winning it this time.

If they can come out with 5 seats despite a further decline in their vote, that’ll be a good result. A really good result isn’t to win any more seats, I simply don’t see that as being realistic given where the party is now. Instead, it would be to regain second place and register significant vote share growth in the other two core Highlands seats: Argyll, Bute and South Lochaber on the one hand, and Inverness, Skye and West Ross-shire on the other.

Bad Result

A disappointing result for the Lib Dems would be if they do fail to pick up that fifth seat. If the redrawn CSER proves resistant to them despite the SNP’s woes, that’ll be a very poor outcome indeed. I simply can’t see them failing to win at least 3 seats though, so if they somehow did fail to improve on their notional 2 MPs, that would be unspeakably bad for them.

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