Tom Peterkin: Lib Dems must look on the bright side

Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IN 2006, Willie Rennie was sitting in an office in Inverkeithing waiting to go out on the stump in the Dunfermline and West Fife 
by-election.

As a Liberal Democrat candidate for this Westminster seat, he was hoping to overturn a Labour majority but his party had been hit by a succession of scandals.

Charles Kennedy had just publicly admitted he had a drink problem and was no longer party leader. Mark Oaten had quit as a party spokesman after an affair with a rent boy was made public and Simon Hughes was confonted with evidence he had phoned gay chat-lines.

Not surprisingly, Rennie was pessimistic. He then went campaigning in the housing estate across the road. Apart from two old dears who had a laugh about recent events and an angry man, who used the choicest Anglo-Saxon terms to tell him to go away, the scandals were barely mentioned.

The reaction of the punters lifted Rennie’s gloom and he went on to win the by-election, though he subsequently lost it and ended up in the Scottish Parliament.

Yet as the Scottish Lib Dem leader heads to Dundee for his party’s Spring Conference today he takes strength from his party’s ability to overcome difficulties. Rennie feels that his party is “pretty robust”. With the party tied into an unpopular Westminster coalition and hit with a near wipe-out at the Scottish election, Rennie has not had his troubles to seek.

With just five MSPs at Holyrood, Rennie’s party is miles away from the influential unit that once held the trump cards in a Labour-Lib Dem pact at Holyrood. The party’s reputation has taken a further battering from the Chris Huhne fiasco and the damaging publicity created by the former chief executive Lord Rennard’s alleged harassment of women.

It is clear that the problems engulfing the UK party are not helpful for the Lib Dem cause in Scotland. But, according to Rennie, there are reasons to be cheerful. Holding Eastleigh in the by-election caused by Huhne’s resignation, in spite of the party’s travails, was a boost.

At local government level in Scotland, the party increased its share of the vote in the Rutherglen by-election. In the Kirkintilloch by-election it increased its share of the vote from a pathetic 2 per cent to a creditable 26 per cent over five weeks. Whatever one thinks of the coalition, Rennie maintains that Lib Dem policies, such as tax cuts for those on lower and middle incomes, pension rises and softening the Tory approach on welfare reform, are popular.

He also believes that the Lib Dems’ long-term commitment to increasing Holyrood powers means they have a key role to play in creating a new Scottish constitutional settlement in the event of a No vote in 2014.

The road back from scandal may be rough but the beleaguered activists gathering in Dundee today can take a little bit of heart from Rennie’s optimism.