Notwithstanding the understandable effervescence emanating from the party’s results service, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, overall, the elections yesterday were not very good for the Lib Dems.
With over a hundred councils still to declare (at least according to the BBC), it is hard to conclude anything much from them yet, especially when one recalls that last year’s results had us losing seats all day until we eventually ended up making a net gain of, erm, one. Nonetheless however, it is hard to see how we are going to recover to such an extent. At the moment (2pm), the BBC has us just a bit ahead of Labour in terms of net losses of councillors.
The positive side of that story is that where the Tories seem to be makiing the most impact, it is in areas where they are already strong. There is very little evidence of a Tory revival in the North (Gideon Osbourne breezily claimed on Today this morning that their gains in Birmingham was evidence of a Northern revival – one wonders if he has any idea of where his Tatton constituency actually is) – where they have been making gains, it is in the few places they weren’t wiped out a decade ago. Where they have been having landslide victories, they tend to already have an MP. Once again, national swing is only telling part of the story.
Partly because we are at the mercy of the electoral system, the Lib Dems have a sad history of failing to live up to our ever declining ambitions in Assembly elections, and once again we have failed to break our duck of 6 AMs. Back in 1999, I remember being confidently told by the then-Lib Dem Chief Exec that we would get 11-12 AMs. In 2003, at least one person predicted we’d get up to around 10. This year, people were talking of 7-9 AMs being a sure thing. The worst thing of it all is that, on paper, they should have been right. Because the system is only semi-proportional (2/3rds FPTP, 1/3rd list), each region has 4 top ups and we are the fourth party, we need to make fairly modest gains in each region to significantly increase our number of assembly members. In South Wales Central, we only needed an increase of 1% to double our Assembly Members. The fact that we have failed to do this twice now ought to be setting off alarm bells about how we fight the Welsh air war.
This was echoed by my own experience. I spent the last week being a footsoldier in a non-target constituency in Wales. We got a disappointing result, but our vote held up in our target polling districts. The national campaign didn’t just fail to boost us in the polls, it failed even to cushion the work we were doing locally.
Initial thoughts? All those ‘cheeky’ references in the media didn’t exactly help, however Lembit might like to dress it up. In and of themselves, I doubt they cost us votes, but they did make it tougher to get a coherent message across. They were an unnecessary distraction.
After three campaigns at the helm, Mike German can’t avoid responsibility. His performances on TV failed to impress. True, none of the Welsh Party leaders exactly set the world alight, but as the longest-serving leader, Mike really should have stood out.
The Scottish results are coming agonisingly slowly now. One thing everyone must surely now agree on is that Scotland must now either adopt a single electoral system for both locals and Parliamentary elections (Ken Ritchie of the ERS reported on News 24 that people seemed to cope with STV better than with AMS judging by the numbers of spoilt ballots, which is ironic given that STV is always presented by its critics as a ‘complicated’ system), or they should have each set of elections on a different year (a la Wales), or preferably both.
Like Wales, the Scottish results that have been coming in are static for the Lib Dems. However, the Scot Lib Dems have the mitigating factors of a) the SNP bandwagon and b) the fact that it is a more authentically proportional system than Wales, which makes it tougher to gain seats. Nonetheless, our failure to win seats such as Edinburgh Central and Strathkelvin & Bearsden was very disappointing.
But, behind closed doors of course, I doubt the SNP are exactly delighted with the result. It remains unclear whether they will win the plurality – at the moment it looks as if they haven’t – and even if they do, it will be by the smallest of margins and in the context of a clearly unionist majority in the Parliament. This isn’t the result that the SNP were confidently predicting last week. Support for their key policy has plummeted during the election campaign.
If Labour manage to form a coalition, this is the last hurrah for the SNP; if the SNP manage to form a coalition, it may well prove just as fatal in the longer term. Simply put, I remain doubtful that they will be capable of managing the transition from repository of protest votes to a party of government. I’m aware that people say that about the Lib Dems all the time, but we’ve now run Scotland for 8 years and not been punished by the electorate. Meanwhile, I am struck by the number of SNP policies that are merely lifted from the Lib Dems (and some, like local income tax, I don’t think are particularly well thought out). The real problem the SNP have is that they are a one-man band. What happens if the sheen of Salmond starts to get tarnished, if he goes under a bus, or if he simply gets bored? A power vacuum may yet emerge in Scotland, and that is a real opportunity for the Lib Dems, if they have the initiative and dynamism to take it.
Finally, there is the Ming Question. I think it is unfair to put too much blame at Ming’s door for this set of unimpressive results. After all, for all my frustrations, I’m accutely aware that our results in Scotland and Wales are almost identical to 2003, and the same questions were not being asked about Charles Kennedy at the time. Perhaps, in retrospect, they should have been, given that the Tories and the nationalists were in a much greater slump back then, and we failed to capitalise on the fact. I haven’t seen anything about Ming’s performance that gives me cause for concern; equally, I’ve seen a number of positive developments which haven’t yet had time to bed down. But the main lesson from this campaign seems to be that we need to work on our air war – there’s only so much we can do on the ground when the national party messages are not coming across and being drowned out by our opponents’.