The local election count of Friday, 4 May was really tough if you were a Lib Dem. Apart from losing my own ward in Edinburgh, I had to hear about colleague after colleague – some with many years of service – losing their council seats all over Scotland.
It is ironic that these same elections have led to 23 out of the 32 Scottish local authorities being run by one type of coalition or another, because one of the biggest issues that my colleagues and I found lost us support on the doorstep (apart from the issue of trams in Edinburgh) was our Westminster coalition with the Tories.
Despite all our protestations that these were local elections and that all parties engage in coalitions at the council level, or that everyone knew in advance that we support PR and the more consensual form of government that this implies, many of those who had in the past supported us were not prepared to do so again, because they believed we were propping up a UK government whose values were in direct conflict with theirs.
When we tried to argue that we had moderated the impact of the nasty Tories, (for instance by taking millions of people out of paying income tax), it cut no ice. The voters’ perception was that we had betrayed our roots; that we were too close to our partners and were quite content to let them get on with their priorities without putting up enough of a fight against them. In vain we pointed to the ranks of apoplectic Tory backbenchers griping to the Prime Minister that those pesky Lib Dems were strangling their efforts to sort out the country’s ills in accordance with their manifesto.
Part of the problem for the Lib Dems was that many of the changes we are forcing on the Tories (in areas such as education and the health service) are relevant only to England and Wales. They are unseen here in Scotland. Unfortunately, the other part of our problem was down to perception – in particular that of our leader, Nick Clegg. He is seen by many as another “posh boy”, just a slightly more liberal version of David Cameron.
It is unfortunate that they can look so similar, the casual voter looks at them together, listens to them speaking, looks at the body language and concludes that Nick is operating in David’s shadow. This is not the reality. If it were Charles Kennedy or Paddy Ashdown standing next to Mr Cameron, far fewer people would buy into this myth, but it is not, so we have a problem.
We entered into the UK coalition because we believed it was best for the country. The numbers didn’t add up for going in with Labour, and a “confidence and supply” agreement would have been likely to evaporate early and lead to chaos on the financial markets. We are committed for the five years of this parliament, so what can we do?
We could of course replace our leader, but for presentational reasons? That is not our style, we don’t do spin. And anyway, then what? We have already effectively agreed our joint programme. Should we renegotiate it? This could all lead to the very instability we were trying to avoid.
Instead, the Lib Dems need to get right back to first principles and ask ourselves ”What are we for? What do we want for the country? What reason do people have to vote for us? What do they get when they do?”
We have always been a party of the community, with strong local roots. We believe in sustainable self reliance and have long championed environmental causes. We need to reclaim this mantle.
We also believe political decision-making should be pushed down to the lowest practical level. This means councils should have the power to decide the level of local taxes in their community, as they are best positioned to judge what is needed. It also means the police force should be controlled locally not nationally, an issue where we are clearly different from the other parties. We need to get out there and explain why everyone should be as concerned as we are.
We have always championed sustainable renewable energy generation so we need to refresh our take on this policy rather than encourage the flirtation with nuclear power that seems to have enticed some of our UK ministers.
We believe in investment in our public transport infrastructure. As energy prices rise inexorably, this is a policy that more and more people will realise is of long-term benefit. A connected economy is a more efficient economy, and in these days of globally competing city regions, Scotland still has some catching-up to do.
We are for the liberty of the individual. The debate about same-sex marriage is the ideal forum for us to express that view, to let people see that we value our freedoms and can be relied upon to fight all the way to keep them.
Scotland’s government is one of the most centralised, controlling administrations of the past 70 years – we need to articulate why this is wrong, for individuals, communities and the country as a whole. This low point in our political fortunes gives us the impetus to relaunch ourselves in Scotland. In Willie Rennie we have a fresh, committed leader, who is clearly speaking with his own voice. We just need to remind people of what that voice stands for.
Finally, there is the big issue: separation from the UK. Both independence parties did well, with the Greens making an even greater percentage gain in seats than the SNP. However, no-one I spoke to on the doorstep realised that the Greens favour independence; many who voted for them would be astonished to find out that they did. But of course it’s all about perception, isn’t it?
• Tim McKay was Liberal Democrat councillor for the Inverleith ward of Edinburgh city council until 4 May.