Ian Swanson: Chance for modest Lib Dem recovery

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ONLY six months ago, Liberal Democrats held some of the most important roles in government. Now most of their leading figures have been kicked out of Westminster, they are down to just eight MPs and have been replaced by the SNP as Britain’s third biggest party.

The price the Lib Dems paid for their controversial decision to go into coalition with David Cameron and his Conservatives after the 2010 general election was far higher than the party leadership expected.

New UK leader Tim Farron is coming north this weekend for the Scottish Lib Dem conference, which meets in Dunfermline with just over six months to go next year’s Scottish Parliament elections.

All the polls show the SNP set for another overall majority of MSPs and Labour faring badly, but what are the prospects for the Lib Dems?

The party’s Holyrood contingent was reduced from 17 to five at the last elections in 2011, a year after the coalition deal at Westminster.

But Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie is looking on the bright side. He insists despite a “challenging” year for the party, there are reasons to be cheerful.

Party membership has increased by more than a third since the general election, he says.

And the Lib Dem group of MSPs punches above its weight, harrying the SNP government over issues from early years education to the failings of Police Scotland.

Insiders say the party feels optimistic – if only because they feel they have reached rock bottom and the only way they can go is up.

And they were given a boost by a surprise victory over the SNP in a Highland Council by-election earlier this month – “the first win anywhere for years” according to one activist.

The Lib Dems are aiming to double their Holyrood seats from five to ten in May, but one source suggests seven or eight might be more realistic.

Mr Rennie himself, currently a list MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, has high hopes of winning the North East Fife constituency. But any other gains are likely to come from the regional top-up lists.

Lothian is one of the targets after former MSP Margaret Smith narrowly lost out last time. The party also came close to winning list seats in the West of Scotland and Highlands and Islands.

The Lib Dems hope their strong stance on issues such as nursery education, mental health and particularly policing – they opposed the principle of a single force and have been highly critical over stop-and-search and other controversial policies – will have made an impression with the public.

They hope the Labour Party’s shift to the left under Jeremy Corbyn allows them to capture some more centrist voters to rebuild their support.

And they claim many people who were hostile to the coalition with the Tories are now drifting back to the party.

But the Lib Dems’ chances of progress could be dented by the Greens who are expected to do well at the elections, partly thanks to their backing for independence. In many cases, the Lib Dems and Greens are competing for the same voters.

It’s likely to be a long time before the Lib Dems return to anything like their former strength or have a serious prospect of being in power again.

There is a chance of modest recovery though. The very fact they are no longer in government is a plus – but it will be a while before they can live down their five years in bed with the Tories.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com