The past decade hasn’t been kind to the Liberal Democrats. Once able to claim the title of Scotland’s second largest party, if only by number of MPs at Westminster, the political fallout from their coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 has left the party somewhat shattered. Each Holyrood election since 2011 has been worse than the last and their tally of councillors has dwindled.
Even a degree of Westminster recovery in 2017 turned to bitter ashes in 2019 when their Westminster leader, representing a Scottish constituency, became the first major UK party leader to lose their seat at a general election since 1945 (also a Liberal in Scotland). I’ve written in the past about how the party’s strategy since their collapse, of withdrawing into a very small number of areas, has often allowed strong results in those areas to mask wider decline, so I won’t re-tread that ground here.
Of course, aspects of laser-targeting have long been a calling card of the Lib Dems, as that was the only way to win under First Past the Post. Their pre-STV map of local representation therefore largely mapped closely to areas they had MPs – the Borders, Aberdeenshire, East Dunbartonshire, North East Fife and western Edinburgh, alongside the historical oddity of a majority in Inverclyde. The Highlands and Northern Isles were notable by their comparative lack of Lib Dem councillors, due to the dominance of Independents.
Two things are very evident in this chart. Firstly, that the Lib Dems have always been smaller and less widespread than the other Westminster parties. Even at their STV-era peak, they only fully contested just over half of councils. Secondly, the impact of their post-2010 collapse, shown as an immediate crash in their number of fully contested councils, then sliding to only contesting three-quarters overall in 2017, after they’d lost most of their councillors already.
This year there’s something of a recovery in the Lib Dems’ spread of candidacies, with the widest range since 2007. However, that’s mostly from re-appearing on some councils they’d previously stopped contesting, as they’re only up one council in the full-slate stakes. Alongside the islands councils, West Dunbartonshire returns to the non-contested pile – their one candidate in 2017 is the only one they’ve ever stood in my homeland since STV was introduced.
However, they are standing in all three Ayrshire councils after being entirely absent from the county last time, and have similarly found candidates for Falkirk and North Lanarkshire. East Dunbartonshire, Stirling and Argyll and Bute move into the fully contested category, whilst South Lanarkshire and Inverclyde (both short by 4) become partly contested. That evaporation in Inverclyde is particularly notable, given that final FPTP-era majority.
There’s an interesting but only slight difference in this chart compared to the previous. It was 2012 that was their low point in terms of total wards, meaning that in 2017 they stood in more wards within the smaller number of councils they contested. This year is again however their highest tally since 2007. It’s a notably mixed bag across the country though.
Beyond the changes noted in the previous section, they are also up in Midlothian (by 1), Dumfries and Galloway and Glasgow (both by 2) and Moray (by 4). They are down in Clackmannanshire and Renfrewshire (both by 1), the Borders (by 2) and East Renfrewshire (by 3).
Candidates and Councillors
Candidates Nominated and Councillors Elected
As you’d expect, looking at candidates and councillors tells a story of first sharp decline then stagnation. It’s notable that their number of candidates took such a hit between 2007 and 2012 as well. That really emphasises just how much damage the Lib Dems took as a result of the coalition. It wasn’t simply that they lost support, but that they had such an exodus of members they simply couldn’t stand as many candidates even if they had wanted to.
They are back on the up this year, including record numbers in Ayrshire, and I have a bit of a theory as to why that is despite last year’s Holyrood election showing continued decline. It’s actually quite simple – that whilst the 2019 Brexit bounce dissipated almost immediately in terms of votes, they retained some of the new members they’d picked up. Thus, they were better positioned to stand candidates in places that by 2017 they barely had shells of branches. They are still far below their 2007 figure however, so although they may have recovered some breadth, they are still lacking their former depth.
Although the Lib Dems have suffered a fair bit lately, they’ve not quite slipped into the bounds of a 1:1 ratio between wards and seats. Both 2012 and 2017 saw them win pairs of councillors in a handful of wards. That has helped keep their overall number of councillors up, but it does mean they are still represented in fewer than half as many wards as they started out with.
Share of Votes and Seats
If you’re reading these entries as they are published, you’ll have seen the gap between the two lines in chart getting wider and wider as we go through the parties. As the Lib Dems capped out at contesting just over three-quarters of wards, they’ve always done a few % better in those than their national share suggests. Even by this measure though they haven’t been able to get into double-digits since 2007, and of course a lot of their absent areas would have been very poor for them anyway.
This chart is the same seat numbers as in the candidates and councillors chart, just shown as a share of the total. We can again see how badly their collapse has impacted the Lib Dems, as prior to that their share of seats was slightly higher than their vote share. Since then it’s been lower, and in fact the gap widened in 2017 despite a marginally higher vote share.
Although their highly concentrated vote share is contributing to a lack of Lib Dem representation in some areas, under STV it is something of a blessing. If you compare with the Greens who generally have a more even spread of votes – and thus have performed better at Holyrood lately – the Lib Dems ended up with 3.5x the number of seats as they did for only 1.7x as many votes. STV is very poor at delivering proportionality for small parties with an even distribution of support but quite good when, like the Lib Dems, it’s much more concentrated.
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.
It is actually extremely hard to guess how the Lib Dems are going to do this time around. There are places they will go backwards, places they should go backwards but may be saved by the decisions of other parties, and places they should advance. Picking out what makes a good or bad result in that context is a challenge. Similar to Labour, the past decade has been so rough that simply avoiding further collapse would be positive.
In general terms then, I’d say a good result is holding roughly steady with at least 65 councillors. In the aftermath of last year’s election I’d have been expecting further decline, but their polling for Holyrood has improved a bit since then. A really good election would see them winning at least 70, and picking up more seats in places like Dundee, Edinburgh, Fife and Highland.
Losing a few seats won’t in and of itself be a disaster for the Lib Dems. They are highly likely to drop out of Inverclyde and Renfrewshire councils as their last remaining councillors there, who both had 30+ years of representation, are standing down this time. They clearly weathered their party’s slump via a personal vote, so it wouldn’t be fair to count those likely resulting losses entirely against the party. Anyway, one of those has been evened out with their surprise Moray councillor in an uncontested ward.
Instead, I reckon this hinges on what happens in Aberdeenshire. 14 councillors there in 2017 made up 20% of their national tally, but they lost a lot of support across the shire at Holyrood last year. In theory that puts them in line for losses in May, though some poor decisions by the Conservatives and SNP (standing only one candidate each in East Garioch, for example) might boost their chances. Losses here, if not balanced by gains elsewhere, would make for a poor day for the Lib Dems.
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