A disturbing letter signed by Willie Rennie has been sent to prospective Conservative voters in May’s council elections. He tells people “It is clear that any votes for the Conservative candidates in North East Fife will help the SNP come first”. A PS adds: “The Liberal Democrats are the only ones who can stop the SNP coming first here in May. Every Conservative vote will help the SNP.”
This is arrant nonsense. It’s certainly true that a vote split between LibDem and Conservative candidates allowed the SNP to win NE Fife in the 2015 General Election because there only one MP was being elected and general elections are organised on the principle of first past the post (FTP).
Council elections are completely different, however. Wards are multi-member so each ward will elect 3 or 4 candidates and voting takes place on the basis of single transferrable vote (STV). In other words, electors rank candidates, giving a 1 to their favourite, a 2 to their next favoured candidate and so on, with the candidate they want least elected receiving their highest ranking.
It makes no sense to say that voting Conservative or indeed Lib Dem or Labour “helps the SNP come first”; the opposite is true. Tactical voting is always risky as it depends on predicting how others will vote; if you want to stop the SNP under STV, you should rank the Unionist parties 1, 2, 3 according to party preference.
Either Mr Rennie is seeking deliberately to mislead voters in North East Fife or he genuinely doesn’t understand the difference between FTP and STV voting systems. This would be a truly staggering piece of ignorance for a politician of his standing and experience, and from a party which supposedly champions proportional representation. Perhaps it is an entirely innocent mix-up by one of his minions, and Mr Rennie means no deceit.
In that case, Mr Rennie should lose no time in apologising and enlightening his constituents as to how STV operates. Voters in Scotland find it hard enough to cope with the vagaries of three different electoral systems, FTP, STV and the additional member system (AMS) for Holyrood elections. The last thing they need is an irresponsible party leader who compounds the muddle.
On the other hand such underhand scare tactics may indicate a desperation to cling on to what little power the Lib Dems have in Scotland, whatever the cost to their reputation. Because – and this is the larger untruth implied by Mr Rennie’s letter – the LibDems are a million miles away from being a strong opposition to the SNP.
The last two elections have all but wiped them out in Scotland beyond isolated pockets of support. At Holyrood Mr Rennie leads only 5 MSPs while the Scottish Conservatives have 31 MSPs, making them the official opposition. At a UK level, the Lib Dems have been reduced to a rump of 8 MPs under the lacklustre Tim Farron. The latest poll (Survation 19/3/17) gives the LibDems only 4% of the UK vote. They have all but disappeared from our airwaves.
While Mr Rennie has recently adopted a hard Unionist line, few will have forgotten his previous vacillations after the referendum where in a rush to “move on”, he declared he would allow MSPs and activists to back independence in future if they wished. Unlike the other parties, Scottish Conservatives have been the only clear and consistent upholders of the Union.
Mr Rennie will doubtless argue that Fife Council is a different arena where the LibDems can form a bulwark against the SNP. Really? In 2007-12 the LibDems enabled the SNP to form an administration by going into coalition with them. Although the SNP-LibDem coaltion was ousted by Labour in 2012, LibDems continued to form a majority on the NE Fife Area Committee so they bear a large measure of historical responsibility for much that has gone on here, including the poor state of our roads and pavements, the Madras debacle and the huge, unsustainable developments threatening the edges of Cupar and St Andrews.
The truth is that in North East Fife Lib Dems have ridden on the back of Conservatives for too long. Everyone knows that Ming Campbell’s long reign up here depended on voters seeing him as an honorary conservative, and the Ming effect is well and truly past now that voters have the option of electing the real thing. The Scottish Conservative Party are fielding committed local candidates in every NE Fife ward, who have already been out on the streets for weeks meeting residents. A Conservative shake-up of Lib Dem sway at Fife Council and particularly NE Fife is long overdue.