04 June 2007

Leadership Challenge... powered by Google

Readers will note the presence of MyBlogLog on this site, and how it's the only widget I have kept since I upgraded to New Blogger at Christmas. One of the reasons I like it is the ability to have a quick glance at how people find this.

Yesterday, according to MyBlogLog, I got 27 visits as a result of the phrase 'nicol stephen leadership critics tavish scott' being googled. The thing is, I haven't written in any detail about this (I mentioned rumblings in passing, though). When this makes its way onto Google, however, it's time to think about it.

You can see why the mutterings have started: Nicol Stephen routinely describes his party as the 'Party of Real Momentum in Scotland', and there has been an upward trajectory. In 1997, the LibDems (with Jim Wallace in charge in Scotland, and Paddy Ashdown at the UK level) took 12.98% of the Scottish vote. This went up to 16.41% in 2001 (under Wallace and Charles Kennedy), and 22.63% in 2005. It culminated in the Dunfermline & West Fife By-Election win which appears to have been consolidated if the LibDem win in Dunfermline West last month is any indication. In terms of actual seats, the party has been on a slow, steady upward trend since the days of the Alliance. The Liberals and SDP won a combined eight seats in 1983. This went up to nine in 1987, which the unified party held onto in 1992. They made a net gain of one in 1997, held firm in 2001, and won 11 constituencies in 2005 despite the reduction in the number of seats available.

The trend isn't confined to Westminster elections either: for European Elections, in 1989 the party (still in its infancy) picked up 4.29% of the vote. This went up to 7.21% in 1994, 9.81% in 1999 and 13.1% in 2004. The old FPTP system didn't bear fruit for them, but the PR system implemented in 1999 has given them one seat in Scotland's delegation to Europe.

The issue is the Holyrood election. Jim Wallace oversaw a split trend: they started in 1999 with 14.15% on the Constituency Vote and 12.43% on the Regional. In 2003 the Constituency Vote increased to 15.13% (and they gained Edinburgh South), but the Regional Vote went down to 11.78%. Fortunately for the party, they held onto a net total of 17 seats and Jim Wallace stayed in Government. 2007 is the continuation of that story: the Constituency vote went up to 16.17%, but the Regional Vote again went down to 11.3% - a record high on the Constituency Vote, a record low on the Regional.

This could be brushed aside, with focus given to the Constituency Vote and the win in Dunfermline West. The problem is the overall outcome: a net loss of one seat, with Gordon lost (albeit in understandable circumstances), Roxburgh & Berwickshire lost, and Argyll & Bute lost, depriving the Holyrood group of one of its key figures in Geroge Lyon. Given that the gain in Dunfermline was cancelled out by the lost of their Regional Seat in Mid Scotland & Fife, and that conversely the losses in Roxburgh & Berwickshire and in Gordon were compensated by the gain of a Regional MSP in the South and North East repsectively, the loss in Argyll & Bute has been the killer blow. A net loss was the outcome no one prepared for, and Nicol Stephen is now the first Liberal(Democrat) to oversee a net loss of Scottish seats since 1970, when the Liberals ended up with three Scottish MPs, down two on the 1966 Election.

Worse was to come. The Coalition plans went badly, with rumours that two LibDem MSPs all but blackmailed Nicol Stephen into rejecting Coalition with the SNP. Now, judging by the article that Richard quotes, it's likely that the group would have voted down a Coalition whatever happened, but the 'fear that Tavish [Scott] and Mike [Rumbles] would have walked', shows that those two in particular appeared to be in control at that meeting, rather than Nicol Stephen. The fact that those two now have senior frontbench positions makes things even more awkward: Scott is the Party's Finance Spokesman; Rumbles is their Spokesman on Rural Affairs. So those two have damaged Nicol Stephen's authority within the Party, and are now in a position to damage it further.

In addition, Stephen's performance at FMQ's did nothing to inspire confidence. Dull and re-assuring works when you're Deputy First Minister, leader of the junior party in a Coalition government. It does not work when you're leader of an Opposition party, one of three, vying for attention from the third spot, behind Labour and the Conservatives. Stephen had no impact in the Chamber, and his question rambled, vaguely skirting around a couple fo issues rather than tackling them head-on.

So where does this leave Nicol Stephen? It leaves him leading the 'Sack Race', the Party Leader less likely to be there at the end of the year. Six months ago, Annabel Goldie had this dubious honour. Most were predicting doom for the Tories, and lamented her performances at FMQs, while a brief flirtation with Labour was angrily rejected by activists, and their 'principled opposition' approach ridiculed by most people. I still think the Tories have a lot to think about over the next few years, but the short term is positive: they held on to third place, and their position on inter-party relations, luckily for them, is the best one for the situation Scotland finds itself in, and the Tories, suddenly, have influence.

Six weeks ago, the Sack Race leader was Jack McConnell. The party was, apparently, doomed, London was unhappy and the vultures were circling. However, McConnell is starting to adapt to life in Opposition (his questions at FMQs were too long but the style had something going for it, with the 'not so sure' mantra and the 'yes or no?' question, a hallmark of Opposition performances). Add to that the weakness of his potential challengers: Wendy Alexander lacks the killer instinct (we know this, otherwise she would have challenged McConnell in 2001) and her Hungry Caterpillar line sank somewhat; Andy Kerr is seen as the heir to McConnell's support base, so his challenge has to wait until a vacancy in order to be credible; and Charlie Gordon is at best a stalking horse. Not only that, but Labour have not admitted defeat in this election and will not do so in this Session until one of four things happens: either the Party loses a By-Election where they were in contention (so either lose a seat or fail to make the key gain); or the Party has a bad Westminster Election (in which case the Labour MSPs will be caught up in a massive row engulfing the whole Labour Party); or the Party tries and fails to oust the Salmond Administration in a no-confidence vote (in which case they've missed their big chance); or they succeed in a no-confidence vote but don't manage to put an administration together themselves (in which case there'll probably be another election). So McConnell, like Goldie, has bought some time.

Nicol Stephen, however, has not bought any time, and what he has left is running out. The question is, who will wield the knife, or will the former Deputy FM suffer the same drip-drip of speculation and criticism that put an end to Charles Kennedy's leadership at Westminster?


Davie Hutchison said...

It would be very entertaining to see them try and force Foulkes to go for the leadership of Scottish Labour.

Been a presistant rumour for a while now but I think based more is deperation (oh no not Wendy) and despair (on no not Andy).

neil craig said...

The drop in the Lib's reional vote is even more outstanding if we remember that this is where, with the disappearnce of the S&SSP & decline of the Greens votes should have been available. The fact that the local votes held theoretically suggests the people were happy with their local representatives, or more practically since most people don't know their candidate, with the concept of the Libs as a party but not with the leadership & such inanities as 1005 renewable electricity.