Andrew Whitaker: Scottish Lib Dem plans may not be enough

Lib Dems still labouring under weight of Clegg's ill-judged coalition, writes Andrew Whitaker

Willie Rennies championing of workers rights is aimed at undoing some of the damage done by the coalition. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The launch by the Scottish Liberal Democrats this week of a plan to hand state grants only to firms who pay workers the living wage, in a move that had internet giant Amazon and its employment practices firmly in its sights, came as a surprise from a party that until last May was part of a government that did not exactly put employment rights at the top of its agenda.

To say the Liberal Democrats are no longer a force in Scottish politics is to state the obvious as the fourth session of the Scottish parliament comes to an end today.

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The party north and south of the Border continues to pay a heavy price for the five years Lib Dem ministers enjoyed the trappings of office in coalition, ferried around in chauffeur-driven cars and carrying big red ministerial boxes.

There is no evidence to suggest the Scottish Lib Dems are likely to recover from the pounding the party took at the Holyrood elections in May 2011, just a year into the coalition, when the party that was part of the ruling executive in the first two post-devolution parliaments was reduced to just five MSPs.

Anti-Tory voters north and south of the Border may never forgive the party once viewed as part of an anti-Tory alliance, and on which basis they may have voted for it, for being involved in the Tory-led coalition’s polices such as the bedroom tax and harsh austerity.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie often appeared uncomfortable about the agenda of the coalition, particularly in areas like the bedroom tax, which many viewed as a form of eviction of low-income people from social housing.

There was certainly no suggestion of him “going native” as the former Highland MP and chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander appeared to do to such an extent that he was viewed as an ally of many Tory ministers in pursuing an austerity agenda.

Rennie must be cursing his luck, having led his party through its worst period of unpopularity since it was formed from the wreckage of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the late 1980s.

Had he been the leader of the Scottish Lib Dems during another period, the former Dunfermline and West Fife MP may have been viewed as a strong voice for social 
justice, rather than being tarnished by his association with a government that it is possible he may not have cared for, 

Rennie has had a good parliament, despite his party being at its weakest in the 17 years of devolution. He has managed to cause problems for SNP ministers who have a seemingly cavalier attitude to civil liberties, such as their ill-fated plan to abolish corroboration, as well as being consistent in opposing the creation of a single nationwide police force – something that many would say he has been proved right, given some of the difficulties Police Scotland has faced.

Rennie also stepped out of his own party’s comfort zone when he backed calls from Labour MSP Neil Findlay for the Scottish Government to use its powers to hold an inquiry into the controversial policing of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, something the supposedly “left of-centre” SNP refused to do.

Perhaps such an approach drove Rennie to face up to Amazon, which despite being in receipt of millions of pounds of taxpayers cash in state subsidies for its Scottish operation in recent years, admits that it does not pay all its workers the Scottish living wage rate of £8.25 per hour – a voluntary rate, which is above and beyond the statutory minimum wage of £6.70 for over 21s.

No-one would ever mistake Lib Dem politicians for champions of workers rights, but Rennie does appear to be genuinely concerned about the issue of “workplace justice” and not simply because Amazon’s Dunfermline base is within the Fife region for he is hoping to be re-elected as an MSP on 5 May.

When the Lib Dems were formed in 1988, at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s unpopularity over the Poll Tax, the party was moulded by an anti-Toryism and outrage over growing inequality, despite a lack of “an understanding of class”.

Paddy Ashdown, who became leader soon after the Liberals were reincarnated as the Lib Dems, took an anti-Tory approach despite initially officially retaining the party’s “equidistance” between Labour and the Tories – a stance many on the centre-left viewed as “pious” at a time when large sections of the UK electorate wanted to see the end of Thatcherism.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ashdown seemed to be forever laying out challenges about the conditions he required Labour to sign up to before he would consider working with Neil Kinnock or John Smith to keep the Tories out of power, which infuriated many in the Labour camp.

Moves towards Labour support for proportional representation (PR) were key among such demands.

However, it’s almost certainly the case that had the Tories been defeated at the 1992 general election, and a hung parliament had emerged as many had predicted, the Lib Dems would have propped up a minority government led by Kinnock, who was well disposed to PR.

In the early 1990s, the late Charles Kennedy was a leading figure in pushing for a progressive alliance between his own party and Labour to break the logjam of Tory dominance.

But to fastforward to 2010, the decision of Nick Clegg to go into government with the Tories effectively smashed that informal “anti-Tory” alliance.

The championing of employment rights by the Scottish Lib Dems may offer a new progressive direction for the party, but such is the anger many feel about the coalition and the “Tory-lite” approach of Clegg, it may not be enough to make a difference for Rennie and his colleagues.