Ian Swanson: Lib Dems have good story for Scotland

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LIBERAL Democrats from all over the UK are due in Scotland this weekend as the party conference season gets under way.

Nick Clegg and his party have shunned their usual conference resorts and opted to hold their 
annual gathering in Glasgow in a bid to underline their commitment to the Union.

Even more significantly, they have booked again for next year, planning to hold their 2014 UK conference at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre just a couple of weeks after the independence referendum. “It’s meant as a statement that the party is confident the Union will still be there, in one piece,” says an insider.

In many ways the Lib Dems have a good story to tell in Scotland – their policy of home rule within a federal Britain is long-established and consistent as well as probably being quite popular; the party was in government with Labour for the first eight years of devolution; and they showed how coalition could be made to work long before Nick Clegg and David Cameron formed their partnership.

But the bad news for the party in Scotland is that none of that counts for anything any more.

The decision to form a coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 general election changed people’s view of the Lib Dems across the UK, but perhaps especially in Scotland where the Tories have been repeatedly rejected.

The biggest policy U-turn the party made once in government – abandoning its opposition to tuition fees – did not affect Scotland, but that made no difference. The sense of a party betraying its principles was just the same – and they paid the price. At the 2011 Holyrood elections, the Lib Dems were reduced from 16 seats to just five and at the Edinburgh City Council elections last year the party went from being the biggest party and the senior partner in the administration to having just three councillors.

Party leaders in Scotland acknowledge the Westminster coalition has done them no favours.

But one insider says the party is at least doing better at highlighting the policies it is pushing within government. And he says the attitude of Scots Lib Dems towards the coalition is now “unease rather than hostility”.

But the announcement by former minister Sarah Teather that she will quit the Commons at the next election has done nothing to boost confidence. The insider says: “When one of the stars of the party decides she’s had enough of being an MP and cites party policy as the reason you wonder how many others think the same but are keeping their powder dry until nearer the election.”

Nevertheless the mood in the party is now said to be “stoical”. “There is a feeling we have reached the bottom of the trough,” says one source.

“We are still desperately short of visible activists on the ground. But the referendum campaign has given people a sense of purpose that wasn’t there before, because they are part of something bigger and not just working away on their own.”

A distinct Scottish Lib Dem conference is tucked into the proceedings in Glasgow on Saturday, though the agenda – including land reform, support for business and the importance of sprinklers – is unlikely to deflect attention from the main event.

Having the UK party up for the conference may give Scottish Lib Dems members a boost and allow Nick Clegg and his colleagues to talk up the Union. But they should not count on an enthusiastic reception from the public. Scottish voters don’t forget that quickly.