Is Willie oor John Swinney?

Well it looks like newly elected Mid Scotland & Fife MSP Willie Rennie will this week become Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.  Willie, who previously served as MP for Dunfermline, takes up the leadership challenge at a difficult time for a party that’s had its fair share of ups and downs.  The good news is that Willie knows the party better than most and as Caron outlined, has the personal qualities required for the task.  The bad news is that, while not quite at 1989 levels, the party has taken an electoral kicking for some of the reasons I listed in my previous post and needs to rebuild and quick.  So what kind of leadership can we expect from Willie and what might his short, medium and long terms objectives be?  While I am sure I will take some flak for this I can’t help thinking that Willie has the potential to change the Lib Dems in the same way that John Swinney began the transformation of the SNP.

John Swinney took the reins of a party desperately in need of modernisation and professionalisation that was struggling with internal politics and the inability to communicate well internally and externally.  Alex Salmond owes a huge debt to John for making some of the difficult early decisions that created the effective SNP campaigning machine that exists today.  I was speaking with the Chief Executive of a large Scottish local authority last weekend and we spoke at length about the work that John did when he was the SNP leader, much of it out of view of the media and electorate.  While Swinney took his fair share of flak, the party that he passed on to Salmond was a very different one from that which he inherited in 2000.  Scottish Labour once had the best campaigning machine and were experts in getting their vote out come election day.  At this election I was told of unions that offered Labour candidates offices and lines for phone canvassing only to be told by the candidate that they couldn’t find anyone to staff them.  Compare this to the SNP’s campaigned machine which is highly motivated, focused, strategic in its thinking and engaging all members of its party.

The Scottish Lib Dems now needs a leader that is prepared to make some of the difficult and unpopular decisions within the party in much the same way that Swinney did with the SNP at the end of the 20th Century.  It will no doubt be a thankless task but if done right it could transform the fortunes of the Lib Dems and lead to a party that is better equipped to make reality it’s overarching aims of creating a fairer, more liberal and prosperous Scotland.

So here are some of the questions I’ve been pondering since last week:

*     What should the Scottish Liberal Democrat brand represent to voters?  If we think ‘safe’ when we speak of Volvo, ‘engineering’ when we think of BMW and ‘design’ when we mention Apple, what word does the Scottish Liberal Democrats own in the mind of the Scottish voters?
*     How does the party position itself amongst the other bigger parties and within the context of the coalition to ensure relevance and distinctiveness?
*     How should the party change it’s internal workings to make it a better campaigning machine?  My own view and that of a number of others is that the party is sometimes too Federal and would benefit from organizing and leading more from Edinburgh than the local, regional or UK party level.  This statement will no doubt horrify many of my colleagues who believe very strongly in the idea of decentralisation, as do I.  However power needs to be decentralised to the most ‘effective’ level.  I would argue that some organising, decision making and campaigning is best done at the national level.
*     Do we still want to be the party of grassroots campaigning?  The Lib Dems grew out of community politics and some of the ideas encapsulated in ‘Focus’ leaflet type campaigning.  David Milliband, in his recent leadership bid for the Labour Party, spoke about building a network of community organisers and I think he was on to something.  It’s about engaging local community organisers and opinion formers in issues that are important to them.  It’s an idea that the Lib Dems were once the best at but which we became complacent about.  Also the party has been woefully slow to capitalise on the fact that many communities organise and communicate as much online as they do in the town hall.  Just check out how the SNP engaged voters online to see what is needed.
*     What Gets Measured Gets Done.  The party needs to professionalise and learn some of the best lessons from business in terms of how to measure progress towards its goals and key performance indicators (KPI’s), even outside of an election period.  There are a number of different models for this but my preferred one is to start a Balanced Scorecard system within the party so that the party on any given day can see up to date figures on our main KPI’s.  This type of traffic lights system would have shown lots of reds prior to the election but would have at least alerted us to what and where to focus resources on.
*     The Vision Thing.  This was brought back to me recently at a meeting with the General Manager of one of Scotland’s top hotels.  He believed his job was to both articulate the vision and to drive that vision through attention to detail.  Any new leader needs to be able to paint a picture of what things will look like once the work is done.  I personally believe that setting the vision and attitude is the most important job of any leader.  Yes, they have to be able to deliver on their promise but if you don’t have a vision that will galvanise activists and excite voters then you are in big trouble.
*     How will we work constructively with the other parties at Holyrood in the best interest of the people of Scotland?  The SNP’s gradualist wing are making noises about being open to a confederal arrangement that bears striking similarities to the Lib Dems supported ‘Steel Commission’.  I realise this is all part of Salmond’s divide and conquer strategy to put a wedge between the Lib Dems and Labour/Conservatives yet I also think a federal structure, where the Scottish Parliament has more powers, is in the best interest of the Scottish people.  In addition to this I also believe that if we as Lib Dems are to champion ‘evidence-based policy’ then we should be supporting the idea of minimum pricing on alcohol.
*     What will Willie’s Clause 4 moment be?  For most successful party leaders there comes that totemic change in policy or constitution that is less about substance and more about a repositioning and signalling to the outside world of where the leader intends to take the party.  For Blair it was Clause 4 and for Cameron you could argue that it was his hug a husky moment.  These are intended as symbols of change.  So how will Willie signal to both the party and the public that there is a new kid in town?  I have a couple of ideas that I’ve already put to senior members of the party which would allow the party to capitalise on some soft areas of the SNP and Tory vote while at the same time highlighting the distinctiveness of the Lib Dems.
*     Will we take on vested interests in Scotland?  I joined a party that I saw as being in the radical centre of politics but too often we seemed to be part of a cosy Holyrood consensus.  One of the things I’ve always liked about the Lib Dems is that its funding isn’t overly dominated by unions or large donors.  This of course makes fundraising more difficult but it should also give us an independence of thought that distinguishes us from the other parties.  There are a number of conservative (small c) vested interests in Scotland that should be taken to task for holding back the prosperity, life-chances and freedom of Scots.  Too often we stick to the status-quo and safe option and do our radical roots and history as a party a great disservice.
*     Does the targeted seats strategy still make sense?  In the second half of last year I spent two months driving around meeting nearly 500 members of the Scottish Lib Dems to get their views on the state and future direction of the party.  One thing that came up a number of times is the danger in throwing the majority of our resources at a small number of target constituencies and essentially making the rest ‘black-holes’.  I have two main issues with this strategy.  The first is that it does the people of Scotland a disservice because we essentially ignore large swathes of the country and let Labour and the SNP tear lumps out of each other uninterupted.  As we don’t invest in those constituencies, even outside of election times, they wither and it makes it harder for us to build roots in them longterm.  My second issue is that it makes our campaigning unbalanced.  We now have some excellent campaigners and candidates in our target areas while members and activists in non-target areas receive no investment to build their capacity and strengths as a local party.  Perhaps the idea of adjusting our targeted seats strategy does mean that we move towards a type of campaigning that focuses more on the regional vote (much like the Tories)?

So if Willie does become the new Scottish Liberal Democrat leader this week I’ll be one of the first to congratulate him.  He’s a skillful and experienced politician and I am in no doubt that he recognises the challenges ahead of him.  He also has the potential of being a transformational figure within this party’s history and making the Scottish Liberal Democrats electable once more at Holyrood.  Onwards and upwards.

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