Lib Dems will have a tough job convincing voters they are not Tories in disguise, writes Tom Peterkin
WHEN the Scottish Liberal Democrats head to Aberdeen for their Scottish conference this weekend, there will be signs which appear to suggest that the party is in rude health. There will be others that suggest quite the opposite.
The healthy number of UK ministers speaking from the conference platform shows a party which has planted its paws on power at Westminster after decades in the wilderness.
The other side of the coin will be the paltry number of MSPs (down by 11 to just five in the 2011 Scottish election) – a reflection of the unpopularity of the Lib Dems’ Faustian pact with the Tories.
So the big challenge for the Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie is how to restore his party’s fortunes north of the Border. With the European elections fast approaching, Rennie believes that his party must look to the continent as it fights back and attempts to reassure the Scottish public that they are not Conservatives in disguise.
According to Rennie, the big conference message will be that the Lib Dems are the party of “in”. As Lib Dems, they believe in the benefits of being “in” Europe and “in” the United Kingdom.
“You have got Ukip who want to take us out – the Tories that are flirting with an exit and Labour are so petrified by this, they won’t even lift a finger to keep us in Europe. Then, there is the SNP, whose independence plans risk Scotland’s place in Europe and the UK,” is how Rennie characterises the differences between the parties. According to Rennie, the Lib Dem belief in Europe is based on pragmatism rather than ideology. Rennie is of the view that embracing Europe safeguards millions of jobs and gives Scotland a bigger international voice.
Arguing that the Lib Dems have been a force for good in the coalition, Rennie will argue that his party has kept Conservative Euroscepticism at bay.
He will tell activists that the Lib Dems have delivered “real progress” on jobs (130,000 in Scotland), tax cuts for the needy and improved pensions.
Rennie will attack the record of Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. His targets will include his controversial abolition of corroboration and increasing numbers of “illiberal” police “stop and searches”.
He will attempt to pick holes in the SNP’s claim that it provides stable and good government in Edinburgh. Looking beyond Scotland, this weekend’s conference will see Rennie perform a balancing act, which emphasises the differences between the Lib Dems and the Tories while acknowledging their shared achievements. The success of this approach will become clear towards the end of May when the country goes to the polls for the European election.