Gauging morale at the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference is as important as any motions discussed or policies debated. The Scottish Liberal Democrats have suffered heavy defeats at every election since 2010. It’s as important for the party apparatus to maintain activists’ enthusiasm for forthcoming elections as it is to devise distinctive policies. If the party is to return as a force in Scottish politics then it is crucial that their members stay the course. Luckily, with nearly 20,000 new members joining in the UK since last May, there is enough fresh enthusiasm to retain hope.
The challenge to keep morale up lies with their Scottish leader Willie Rennie MSP and party leader Tim Farron MP. The leaders’ speeches were lined with optimism. Tim Farron gave a stern defence of the EU, which was warmly received. Rennie used his speech to criticise the failings of police centralsiation, the drop in education standards and waiting times in hospitals. Consistent themes he has pursued at Holyrood and FMQs. He said it was time for Scotland to move on from the independence debate.
Against an almost certain SNP majority the fight to remain relevant is that bit tougher. Rennie has used the new powers to propose an increase on income tax rates by 1p. He argues it will pay for a £500 million investment in education to rival England’s pupil premium. It might seem bizarre that the Liberal Democrats are advocating a tax increase this year after campaigning to cut income tax for the lowest paid workers in 2015. But Rennie has also indicated plans for a Scottish zero-rate band. The details are yet to come, but the intention is to move people on low incomes out of tax.
The most important test of morale and relevance will of course be 5 May. The Scottish Lib Dems are aiming to increase their parliamentary group from 5 MSPs. There are mixed feelings amongst members, but current polling suggests they could emerge with only a handful of MSPs. What will embarrass the party apparatus is that they will most likely be all white men as Alison McInnes is not top of the regional list in North East Scotland. In response the party approved a motion (tabled by leader Willie Rennie) to make the top 5 target Westminster seats all women shortlists and the top of the European Parliament election list female. Now it’s just the simple matter of the Lib Dems winning seats to make the motion meaningful.