A small but vocal group of Lib Dem activists came together last Saturday in Glasgow to debate the current state of and prospects for the Party in Scotland. Although mostly drawn from Glasgow and the West of Scotland members travelled from as far afield as Irvine, Bo’ness, Edinburgh and the North of England.
The meeting heard a comprehensive report of the London Conference of the Forum on 18 June and were treated to a rousing speech from our regrettably ex-MSP for Glasgow Region, Robert Brown. Robert’s speech has been posted in full on Caron Lindsay’s blog here.
The Q and A session that followed Robert’s speech and a series of short discussions in an Open Forum session produced the observations below:
Attitudes to the Party leadership and the coalition varied but outright praise for both was muted. Some speakers felt strongly that Nick Clegg should have resigned after the disaster of the May local and Scottish Parliament elections. There was also condemnation of the leadership’s stance of apparently accepting the necessity of adopting Tory policy on cuts and tuition fees before the general election and yet campaigning otherwise during it. The often passive, equivocal role that the Westminster Parliamentary Party appears to be playing was criticised. In particular there was dislike of the way that Liberal Democrat spokesmen are being seen to champion Tory policies which run counter to Liberal Democrat principles of supporting the freedom of the individual within a supportive state and a strong and stable society. Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg drew particular comment for appearing to relish the announcement of the cuts programme.
Whilst there was broad acceptance of the rationale for coalition there was limited enthusiasm for the end result. It was felt that trumpeting the achievement of 90% of our manifesto was useless when it was our support that permitted the Tories to push through a raft of their own policies that our members and voters consider unacceptable. As an example, public pensions are already affordable yet we are supporting the current further Conservative attack on them. We need to distance ourselves more from the Tories and better publicise the distinctiveness of our successes.
The failure of the leadership to adequately prepare for coalition negotiations or to learn the lessons garnered in Scotland and Wales in running coalition administrations was noted. It was felt that the coalition agreement should be re-visited to make it more flexible in dealing with inter-party disagreement and the development of new policies. The lay Party should also seek to take ownership of the agreement through Federal Conference.
The Scottish Party and Parliament
The Scottish Executive was strongly attacked as being remote, weak and ineffective. It produces annual action plans that it does not publicise and has presided over a withering away of Party policy-making. Party membership is declining swiftly without any action being taken and the Party has organisational and structural difficulties that are not being addressed. In addition, senior figures in the Scottish Party are not doing enough to project a strong Scottish voice at Federal level.
The Scottish Parliamentary Party It was felt that the Party had become too prone to criticise what it disliked without proposing alternatives. It seemed at times during the last Parliament that the entire rationale of the Party was to bash the Nats. We need to concentrate more on cooperation to achieve success where our policies are close to other parties. It was felt that less attention should be paid to focus groups and more effort put into developing our own distinctive vision. There are encouraging indications that the new leader is taking these views on board. We also need to better articulate our wish for more powers for the Scottish Parliament and in this connection it was felt that neither the Westminster Parliamentary party nor the Federal Executive really understand the implications and necessities of devolution and that they need to raise their game in this respect.
Scottish Council Elections 2012
The councillors present voiced their horror at the electoral prospects for next year. At best it will be an election where we fight to hold what we have. Again it was felt that the leadership was out of touch with the havoc being wrought by its actions and there was a need for the Scottish Leader to distance himself from coalition policy. It was felt that the best way ahead was to champion a revitalised form of community politics where there is concern to foster effective communities and effectively devolve power.
What Role Should the SLF seek to undertake in Scotland
The SLF in Scotland should formalise its role and seek influence and change within the Party. It should seek to promote debate within the Party on tactics and values and take policy initiatives to Scottish Conference.