Nobody puts the Liberal Democrats in the corner… Except for the Liberal Democrats

In an entirely unsurprising turn of events, sole-competitor Alex Cole-Hamilton has taken up office as Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Scotland’s politicos love a good change of leadership, so we’ll see a spate of articles about the Lib Dems’ policies and relationship with other parties. All of that is very much outwith the scope of Ballot Box Scotland – but what is in my field is a look at the fascinating story of their support in recent elections, and where it might go from here.

When Willie Rennie took the reins of leadership after the 2011 Scottish election, he inherited a party in the early stages of collapse. Though they’d held onto their status as Scotland’s second largest Westminster delegation the previous year with 11 MPs, their support had plummeted after they entered into a coalition government with the Conservatives, and they lost 11 of their 16 seats at Holyrood.

With little time to recover and the coalition still ongoing, they dropped from 166 to 71 councillors in the 2012 Local Elections, and then lost their MEP in the 2014 Europeans. Exiting the coalition era with just a single MP in 2015 may have been somewhat blunted by the fact they were hardly alone in having a bad election that year in the face of the SNP landslide.

The Survival Strategy

Though the post-coalition period has seen some bright spots, those have simply masked a steadily worsening position for the Lib Dems. As I noted in my pre-SP21 profile of the party, the very obvious strategy they have been following in recent years is to focus as much of their effort and resource as possible on winning a small number of constituencies. 

That ensured they regained the two mainland constituencies of North East Fife and Edinburgh Western at the 2016 Scottish elections, even as they lost their regional MSP in the South and deposits in almost twice as many constituencies as in 2011. It led to them winning 4 MPs in the snap UK election in 2017, even as their overall vote share declined. Though 2019 looked positive for them, they were bruised by the loss of their UK-wide leader’s seat here, and the Brexit Bounce of that year has long since receded.

In a piece following his resignation, Rennie stated his belief (and I’m paraphrasing here) that this general retreat to a few core seats was a strategy for long term regrowth, and one that had previously borne fruit for them as the then-Liberal Party slowly revived from the 60’s onwards. Circumstances now are so different however that I’m really not sure that is the case. For one thing, the original Liberal revival came in the pre-Nationalist era.

Certainly, the SNP existed, but they weren’t really competing with the Lib Dems, and politics was dominated by Labour and the Conservatives. The Lib Dems were able to insert themselves into certain seats in part by appealing to the natural voters of whichever of the two was less dominant locally as a safe middle ground.

These days, with politics in most seats polarised between the SNP and the strongest not-SNP party, that bidirectionality no longer exists. There’s nowhere that SNP voters might lend their vote to the Lib Dems to stop another party, and the Lib Dems are their challengers in precious few areas.

The other big difference is that First Past the Post was the only game in town before devolution, so “pick some constituencies and campaign hard in them” genuinely was the only strategy that was going to work. We now have forms of Proportional Representation for the Scottish Parliament and local councils, and these do require broader campaigning.

It’s clear from election results that hasn’t been happening to any real degree. We can see the impact of their core seats strategy by looking at the Scottish Parliament regional vote stretching back as far as 2007. The core seats at Holyrood are the four they won in 2021 (Orkney, Shetland, Edinburgh Western and North East Fife), plus the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross seat they were clearly targeting. Together, these seats account for just 5.5% of voters.

What we can see is that although their overall national vote has been practically static since their 2011 collapse, in those 5 core constituencies, it’s almost back to 2007 levels. However, that necessarily means it has continued to shrink elsewhere. In fact, there is just one constituency outside that core where they polled a regional vote in double figures – 10.9% in Argyll and Bute, and even that was down 2.2% versus 2016.  Back in 2007, when their core was much larger, their vote share in these 5 seats was about 2.7 times higher than in the other 68 constituencies. Now, the ratio is 6.7 times more. 

If we look at the constituency vote, which I’ll not chart for the sake of brevity, the ratio has grown from 3 to 11.3 times. In fact, they won more votes in the core this year than in 2007, at 50.2% vs 43.5%. That perhaps highlights the other issue for the party, which is that they aren’t fully translating their constituency support into the much more important regional vote.

In 2007, their vote in those core seats was 14.3% of their national total in the constituency element, and not far behind at 12.9% for regional. Now, it’s 39.5% vs 27.9%. Given that they are now winning their two mainland constituencies with shares larger than in their pre-collapse era, it’s clear a large part of that constituency vote is tactical.

If the aim is to use strength in core constituencies to lift the party further upwards and deliver seats elsewhere, it doesn’t appear to be working. In both Lothian and Mid & Fife regions even fully matching their constituency share wouldn’t have delivered a second MSP via the list. And having abandoned large parts of the country, at this point it may be too late for them to successfully turn any other constituency into a core seat in the next cycle.

A Look at Local Losses

Scottish Borders

Part of that 60’s Liberal revival was when David Steel won a by-election in the Borders. The party then held the main constituency for decades, and in 2007 won 10 councillors. In their 2011 collapse, they still at least held a list seat in the South. Losses in the 2012 local elections were quite mild as they still won six council seats.

But by 2016 it looks very much like they had decided to largely withdraw from the Borders, rather than using the area as a stronghold to help defend their regional seat. They lost that MSP, and then saw their representation slashed to just two councillors the next year.

Bearing in mind that their total regional vote across Scotland was roughly the same in the last three elections, we can see the clear effect of the core seats strategy. From a still very respectable 15.1% in 2011, they slid down to 8.4% in 2016, which will largely explain how they lost their South Scotland MSP that election, and they were down to a further residual vote of 6.3% by this year.

That gap has been more than filled by the Conservatives, who have turned the Borders into a major bastion of their revival. Indeed, their share in the main Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire constituency was their best anywhere in the country. It’d be a tall order to make enough of a dent in that to return a Lib Dem MSP in South by 2021, especially as they are much weaker in Ayrshire, East Lothian and Dumfries & Galloway.

Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire

Heading northwards to Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, which make up the bulk of the North East Region, we’ve seen a somewhat different pattern of decline. Even as recently as 2017, the party were strong enough at local level to stay in double figure vote shares in both the city and shire, and in the latter elected their largest councillor group anywhere in the country, with 14 seats.

Though I’d identified the North East as a seat at risk in the preview, by the day of the election I was confident enough of their chances to have the seat down as likely in my final projection. I thought that in particular their large base of councillors would help boost them. And then they lost it, as their vote across this portion of the region fell by almost twice as much as it did in the region overall.

Again, the challenge for the Lib Dems trying to mount a comeback here is Conservative strength. Of the two most Liberal-leaning Aberdeenshire seats, West is Conservative held, and they ran the SNP very close in East, whilst in both seats the Lib Dem share plummeted. If the country remains polarised between the SNP and the “Locally Strongest Non-SNP Option”, the Lib Dems won’t get a look in here.

Next year’s local elections will be particularly interesting to watch, as their share has held up well even as the parliamentary vote slipped away. However, even if they remain steady, they’ll probably lose seats in Aberdeenshire. They elected 4 of their 14 there last time only because the Conservatives underestimated their own support and failed to stand a second candidate. You have to assume the latter won’t make the same mistake again.

Additionally, all Aberdeenshire by-elections since then have been in wards with Lib Dem councillors, yet all have seen the party lose support. Incumbency effects may boost their sitting councillors, but if I were the Aberdeenshire Lib Dems I’d be braced to lose as much as half of the council group. That could contribute to a further withering of the party’s local presence and therefore base from which to attempt to retake the regional seat at Holyrood in 2026.

Few Prospects Anywhere Else

If we look beyond the regions they’ve lost MSPs in at the last two elections, the pickings are even more slim. Even in Highlands & Islands, the party could be at risk. Despite comfortably holding Shetland in the 2019 by-election, it actually became a marginal for the first time at the full election – usually it’d be the opposite way around! There’s now a very real prospect they could lose the seat in 2026.

If they continue to neglect their overall regional vote, which fell a total of 2.1% and in 6 of the 8 constituencies this year, they might find they aren’t in line for a compensatory seat via the list. That would make winning Caithness, Sutherland and Ross even more important for them. Emerging from the 2026 election with just 3 seats is now a credible scenario. At this point I’d say it’s “credible but unlikely” – but then, I said it’d be unlikely they’d lose their North East seat this year, didn’t I?

The West Scotland region is the only other place that was vaguely a prospect for them this year, including as it does the East Dunbartonshire area that former leader Jo Swinson represented before her shock (second) defeat in 2019.

Although I have it on good authority they did make some effort in the Bearsden and Milngavie area, they gained a paltry 0.5% in Strathkelvin and Bearsden’s regional vote and dropped 0.7% in Clydebank and Milngavie’s. They never did as well here at Holyrood as at Westminster (or Council) level, and given it seems unlikely Jo Swinson will attempt to mount another comeback at the next UK election, they are unlikely to regain that seat anyway, which will further weaken them there.

That leaves us with two regions thus far unmentioned – Glasgow and Central Scotland. The Lib Dems are to all intents and purposes non-existent there. In 2017 they elected a single councillor in Rutherglen (part of the Glasgow region, though not the city, where they lost their last seat), on a personal vote, and that was it – indeed, within Central they didn’t stand a single council candidate in either Falkirk or North Lanarkshire in 2017. They’ve done abysmally in these regions in all of the last three Holyrood elections, and these would be the last places we’d expect to see them re-emerge.

Conclusions

In May, Alex Cole-Hamilton could claim the distinction of having won the most votes of any individual MSP in the history of the Scottish Parliament. But that personal success was emblematic of his party’s broader electoral failures, as it reached its lowest ebb in the Devolution era. In choosing to follow the old retreat to strongholds strategy they effectively ended up prioritising, whether they intended to or not, Westminster representation over Holyrood recovery.

It’s all well and good winning constituencies, but when dealing with proportional representation, a consistent 6-8% of the regional vote in much of the country nets you more seats overall than stonking 50%+ victories in a handful of constituencies and next to nothing everywhere else. The Greens have demonstrated as much.

The Lib Dem’s approach since 2011 could instead have been to dig into a wider range of key constituencies, not necessarily with the aim of winning them, but of preserving and bolstering their regional vote. In that case, it’s possible they could still have MSPs in the North East, South and perhaps even West regions – albeit likely at the cost of MPs.

The simple reality of politics is that firstly, it’s easier to get people who already vote for you to continue doing so than it is to get those that have stopped voting for you to return. In Scotland, both the Conservatives and Labour can attest to how hard it is to recover after losing a large portion of your base. But secondly, voters also like to vote for parties they feel are likely to win and who they perceive to be locally active and involved.

By withdrawing from most of the country, the Lib Dems have over the past decade let their former voters settle into the habit of supporting new parties, and the local presence that could help reverse that has evaporated. Looking ahead to 2026 the question is will they find themselves celebrating further reinforcement of their leader’s already staggering majority in another otherwise bleak election, or instead have sown the seeds of longer-term revival?

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