In truth, until the events of this week at Westminster, the opening salvo of this spring’s Scottish party conferences – the Liberal Democrat gathering this weekend in Hamilton – looked as though it would be a rather uninteresting affair. However, the formation of the new Independent Group of MPs has given the occasion some unexpected spice.
The Liberal Democrats still find themselves in the electoral doldrums. Between October and December (there have not been any separate Scottish polls since Christmas) they averaged 7% in vote intentions both for Westminster and for the Scottish Parliament constituency ballot, representing no change since 2017 and a one point drop since 2016 respectively. True, at 8%, the party’s average standing on the Scottish Parliament regional ballot were three points up on what it achieved in 2017, while a mega British poll of Westminster voting intentions released earlier this month by YouGov put the party’s Westminster rating in Scotland a little higher at 9%. But even these somewhat more optimistic readings still leave the party a far cry from the days when it was a coalition partner at Holyrood and subsequently at Westminster.
It has, of course, been Willie Rennie’s misfortune to have had to pick up the pieces ever since he became leader in the immediate wake of the party’s initial crash in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. But eight years later, he still shows little sign of making much impression on voters. According to the most recent Survation poll in October, just 16% think favourably of him while 27% do so unfavourably. The most common reaction among voters by far is either to say they do not think either favourably or unfavourably of him (37%), or that they don’t know what they think of him at all (20%).
The Liberal Democrats have, of course, long sought to occupy the ‘centre ground’ of British politics. At the same time, the party (and before it the Liberal Party) has long been the most pro-EU of the three main British parties, and ever since the June 2016 EU referendum has been arguing for a second referendum in the hope that this would result in a reversal of the original decision. But even though south of the border, at least, it has been alone in adopting an anti-Brexit stance, it has struggled throughout Britain to convert this formula into electoral success.
Now the party finds itself with potential competitors for the centrist but pro-Remain space on the political spectrum. The new Independent Group of MPs have presented themselves as opponents of the extremism that they believe has afflicted their former parties. They claim to occupy the ‘mainstream’. At the same time, all eleven of the MPs who have joined the group are opposed to Brexit and are in favour of holding a new EU referendum.
It is, of course, very early days. We have no reliable indication as yet as to how much electoral support the new group might gather (initial estimates put the figure for Britain as a whole at between 8% and 14%, but probably less than that in Scotland). Indeed, the group is not as yet even registered as a political party. However, the overlap between the stance of the new group and that of the Liberal Democrats poses an obvious question – are they going to fight each other at the ballot box? After all, Westminster’s first-past-the-post electoral system alone is likely to prove a substantial obstacle to any attempt to turn the new group into a successful electoral force, and consequently it is unlikely that either it or the Liberal Democrats will be able to afford the luxury of engaging in a battle over who best represents the ‘centre ground’.
The Liberal Democrats’ UK leader, Sir Vince Cable, has already acknowledged that argument. It was also the conclusion to which the SDP rapidly came when, in 1981, the ‘Gang of Four’ – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams – broke away from the Labour party because they felt it had become too left-wing and because they were opposed to the party’s then support for leaving the Common Market. Yet securing agreement with the then Liberal Party over which of them should fight which seats proved to be a difficult process. Activists in both parties fought – sometimes publicly – over which of them should have the right to fight the constituencies where they appeared to have the best chance of winning. Meanwhile, this time around, there is the added complication that the Liberal Democrats’ reputation is still tarnished by what many voters consider to be the sins of its role in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster. That consideration may well make the new group wary of aligning themselves too closely with the Liberal Democrats, at least as they are currently constituted.
The formation of the new group potentially presents the Liberal Democrats with an opportunity to reverse the post-coalition decline in their fortunes. But if that is to be the case, the party may have to ask itself some tough questions about how it can best ensure that this opportunity is taken. By an accident of timing, this weekend’s conference gives the party’s Scottish and UK leadership an early opportunity to ascertain how their activists feel about the new group – and even perhaps to begin to reveal a little more about their view about how they think the party should respond. That should be more than enough to ensure that this weekend’s conference is rather interesting after all.