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18 August 2023

Is a Labour-Lib Dem coalition Scotland’s future?

The parties have governed together before and it could suit both to do so again.

By Chris Deerin

It stretches the memory a bit now, but it wasn’t really so long ago that the Liberal Democrats were a major force in Scottish politics. If Donald Dewar was the father of devolution, Jim Wallace, who became deputy first minister in the inaugural Holyrood government, was its avuncular uncle.

The party only came fourth in the 1999 Scottish Parliament election, with 14.2 per cent of the constituency vote and 12.4 per cent of the regional vote, giving it 17 of the 129 seats. But this was enough to make the difference between a shaky minority Labour administration and a secure coalition that would guide the early days of the fledgling parliament. Dewar and Wallace, men of intelligence and integrity, were the right leaders with the mettle for the moment proportional voting entered British politics. The long days and late nights while the power-sharing deal between the two parties was thrashed out felt like a new politics in practice, as bargains were struck over who would get which job and which policies were in or out.

The future, as well as the present, seemed bright for the Lib Dems then. As rural affairs minister, Ross Finnie ably handled the 2001 foot and mouth crisis. There was a healthy mix of mavericks on the backbenches – outspoken troublemakers such as Donald Gorrie, John Farquhar Munro and Mike Rumbles – and promising young talent in Tavish Scott and Nicol Stephen. Wallace ended up as acting first minister on three occasions, including the difficult fortnight that followed Dewar’s untimely death.

Then it all went wrong. In 2007 Labour and the Lib Dems both suffered the consequences of voter fatigue with the status quo and increasing interest in Alex Salmond’s dynamic SNP opposition. The years that followed the Nats’ rise to power would be dominated by the extremities of the constitutional argument, a debate in which the Lib Dems could find little purchase. 

Today the party barely amounts to an electoral afterthought. It holds just four seats at Holyrood and the same number among the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. This week a YouGov poll put the Lib Dems on 6 per cent ahead of next year’s general election, and not much higher for the 2026 Holyrood election. When it came to surveying the popularity of Scotland’s political leaders, YouGov didn’t even bother to include Wallace’s current successor, Alex Cole-Hamilton.

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[See also: Who’s afraid of the Lib-Lab coalition?]

It may not matter to the more tribal activists in the other parties, but some things have been lost with the decline of the Lib Dems. There was a free-spirited truculence among its representatives from more far-flung parts of Scotland, who had little time for the mores and obsessions of the central belt. There was also a deeply-felt commitment to the idea and spirit of devolution, and a willingness to work across party boundaries – there’s little of that to be found in today’s fiercely divided parliament.

As the ground finally begins to shift in Scottish politics, is a route back to relevance opening up for the Lib Dems? After all, the UK party is hopeful of increasing its share of Westminster seats next year, mainly in those marginals it will contest against an unpopular Tory government. In the recent Somerton and Frome by-election, its candidate easily overturned a Conservative majority of 19,213.

One might expect something similar to be happening north of the border, but alas matters are not so straightforward. The polls show little sign of a rise in support among the Scottish electorate, whose voting habits are still heavily driven by their constitutional preference. The upheaval that has followed Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation has solely been to the benefit of Labour, which is closing in on the SNP’s long-sustained lead.

Then there is the question of profile. Having been reduced to four MSPs in the 2021 Holyrood election, the Lib Dems no longer have an official role in the weekly First Minister’s Questions. They are less likely to be asked to take part in TV and radio broadcasts, and consequently find it hard to draw public attention. By-elections wins in Somerset and images of Ed Davey smashing up walls of blue bricks are of peripheral interest to Scottish voters.

The party will hope it can go no lower than it already has, and seems confident of holding its existing Scottish seats next year. But the prospect of making actual progress seems slim, with floating voters likely to make a direct choice between the SNP and Labour. Of the smaller parties, the Greens, in coalition with the SNP in Edinburgh, are in a better place to win headlines.

The pollsters I speak to hold out little prospect of a Lib Dem comeback, with only one small sliver of hope. As the 2026 election approaches, and if the SNP continues to deflate at its current rate, the possibility of a devolved Labour administration will become more realistic. It is vanishingly unlikely that Labour would win an overall majority, and it would therefore have three options: to govern as a minority, with all the difficulties this entails for passing a legislative agenda; to strike an informal deal with the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, in the event there is a unionist majority in parliament; or to seek a formal coalition with the Lib Dems.

That last possibility might refocus attention on the party as the election draws nearer, giving them the public hearing they have been denied for so long. It would probably suit Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, for that to happen, and therefore he may start to talk up the prospect of a deal.

It’s not much to cling on to, but it’s something at least. Alex Cole-Hamilton as the new Jim Wallace? As unlikely as it seems, it’s probably the only hope this once proud party has.

[See also: What is the Lib Dems’ general election strategy?]

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