Resurgent Liberal Democrats are ready to recapture the party’s traditional Scottish heartlands in a snap election and are targeting the prize scalp of SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford.
The party’s election chief in Scotland says it has come through the dark times of the Coalition when its “existence was in jeopardy” and is finally on the rise again under new leader Jo Swinson.
After disappearing off the electoral map in many of its Highland and Borders strongholds over the past decade, Scottish election co-ordinator Alex Cole-Hamilton revealed the party has even set its sights on hitherto no-go areas for the party. The Lib Dems’ uncompromising anti-Brexit stance has been at the core of a revival which saw it finish second UK-wide in this year’s European elections, while recent UK polling has also put the party second behind the Tories and ahead of Labour.
“We’re very excited about the prospect of a general election whenever it comes,” Cole-Hamilton told Scotland on Sunday.
“We’re ready for it, we have all our candidates in place and we’re already building our credibility at a constituency level.
“The reason for that is that things have changed for the Lib Dems. We now stand in the space occupied by the majority of Scots who want to see Scotland strong at the heart of the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom strong at the heart of Europe.
“We have never entered an election with such a message of clarity and a different offer from any other party. That’s been really helped by the warm reception that Jo Swinson has received.
“I go door knocking in West Edinburgh two or three times a week and her name constantly comes up and people are proud of her – people are proud to have a talented female Scottish leader mixing things up at the heart of Westminster.”
The five years of coalition with the Tories at Westminster between 2010 and 2015 proved disastrous at the ballot box for the Lib Dems, who were blamed by voters for the years of austerity which followed. A period of electoral oblivion ensued when many questioned whether it even had a long-term future.
“This is quite an emotional time for me,” the Edinburgh West MSP admitted. “We have fought several survival elections where out very existence was in jeopardy. We managed to cling on largely down to the stoic leadership of Willie Rennie.
“In a lot of ways, I refer to this as the ‘out from under the stairs’ election that’s coming. It’s not about consolidation or survival – it’s about expansion, it’s about growth.
“And it’s about people being proud to consider themselves Liberal Democrats again.
“I meet people, new people at dinner parties, and they ask what I do. I tell them, and they ask which party. I used to say Lib Dems with a slight guarded tone and now I say it with pride and people say: ‘Yes that’s what I am.’ That didn’t used to happen for the period of coalition.
“Now we are genuinely looking at seats we’ve not held for years and seats we’ve never held as realistic prospects.”
Among the key targets for the party is the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency held by Blackford, the SNP Westminster leader. His capture of the seat in 2015 from former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy came amid claims of dirty tricks on both sides. Tensions heightened when Kennedy died shortly afterwards following a long battle with alcoholism.
“A lot of the polls, particularly in recent weeks have pointed to a notional Lib Dem gain, particularly in Ross, Skye and Lochaber,” said Cole-Hamilton.
“There is still tremendous affection for Charles Kennedy in the constituency and a lot of anxiety, residual anxieties, as to the way he was treated. It’s true to say that the Highlands are rediscovering their liberal traditions.
“They have seen the chaos that three years of negotiation around Brexit have brought and a lot of people who’ve supported independence in the past are starting to feel reluctant to heap more chaos that independence and the negotiations around forging an independent Scotland would bring.”
The Aberdeen South constituency, once a Holyrood stronghold of former Scottish leader Nicol Stephen and now held by Tory Ross Thomson, is also in the Lib Dems’ sights, while former MP Alan Reid is seeking to recapture the Argyll and Bute constituency he formerly held. The North East Fife seat held by Stephen Gethins with a majority of just two is also in the Lib Dems’ sights.
The traditional stronghold in the Borders seat of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk – which the party held for decades – is also in play. The Lib Dems are even confident of muscling their way into the Edinburgh North and Leith, the seat held by the SNP’s Deidre Brock, despite polling just 2,500 votes two years ago, against the nationalists’ 19,000
“The demographic vote in the constituency, the Remain vote and the No vote all put that on the map for us as a massive target,” Cole-Hamilton added.
But the SNP has rejected claims that Blackford is under threat, pointing to the most recent YouGov poll in Scotland which had the SNP 31 points ahead of the Lib Dems in Westminster voting intentions (43 per cent SNP vs 12 per cent Lib Dem). Blackford also increased his majority to almost 6,000 at the last election.
SNP deputy Westminster leader Kirsty Blackman MP said: “The SNP will be targeting every single Lib Dem seat in Scotland – including unseating Jo Swinson and winning back East Dunbartonshire with our excellent local candidate Amy Callaghan.
“Scotland cannot afford another right-wing Tory-Lib Dem coalition, which would threaten to impose devastating austerity cuts on our communities all over again. It is clear the Lib Dems are desperate to do another deal with the Tories – they must be stopped.
“At the coming election, the SNP will put Scotland’s opposition to Brexit and our right to choose our own future as an independent country at the heart of the contest. As the polls show, the SNP is the only party in Scotland capable of stopping Brexit and protecting Scotland’s interests.”