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Lib Dems: A Party Without A Message?

28/02/2016 20:58 GMT | Updated 27/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Spending this weekend treading the "radical centre ground" of the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference (their words, not mine), it's difficult to define what the party offers to politics in Scotland right now.

Unlikely to return more than a handful of MSPs post-election, the Liberal Democrats are even facing being relegated to fifth place in the Scottish Parliament. The majority of polls have them retaining their two island constituency seats, Orkney and Shetland, whilst list seats have varied between one and a particularly generous six.

I almost feel bad for the Lib Dems. As is the case in the rest of the UK, many feel the party sold out by going into coalition with the Conservatives. This isn't new, of course, as we witnessed in last year's General Election, but this poses a problem for the Scottish branch of the party in the run-up to May. At worst, the Lib Dems have been branded to be as right-wing as the Tories. At best, they are believed to have no backbone and few morals. Trust levels remain low and Willie Rennie is one of the least popular political leaders in Scotland.

Previously the only party to discuss federalism as a resolution to the unstable UK constitution, their calls have now been drowned out. No one seems to remember that this has long been one of the Lib Dem's key aims. Instead, the SNP and - to a certain extent - Labour have started to successfully push this agenda, blithely ignoring the fact that it was Lib Dem policy first.

The reason Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur are proving to still be popular in the islands is precisely because these communities remember it is a party that backs strengthening local powers. Whilst this has a certain amount of appeal throughout Scotland, for the islands it is imperative. The differences between these islands and mainland Scotland results in centralisation impacting these regions far worse than elsewhere in the country.

The SNP, to its credit, has tried to address this. A recent consultation and working group on giving more powers to the islands indicates the Scottish Government is at least willing to consider a more federalist structure. But the party has a history of centralisation and despite its argument that more devolution would be "for the good of the Scottish people", spreading powers beyond Holyrood to local communities seems to be of little interest.

For the Lib Dems though, this is only a card they can play in the remote northern islands. The idea does not seem to wash outside of Orkney and Shetland.

In an attempt to persuade mainland Scots, the party is being smart by trying to turn the focus to education and policing - two areas where the SNP have not been doing so well. But Labour has tapped into the education tactic as well, and despite both parties having the same 'Penny for Education' policy, the Lib Dems have received far less coverage on it.

Lib Dem voices are being ignored throughout Scotland, either because they have been tarred with the same brush at the UK Conservatives (a problem which strangely doesn't seem to impede the Scottish Tories) or because people just don't know what the party stands for. The party is well aware of this, hence the #LibDemFightback campaign - but so far it doesn't seem to be going particularly well for them.

At the Lib Dem conference, speeches abound about the party's record both in government and as an opposition party. It oversaw the introduction of several environmentally-friendly policies (many of which have now been overturned), held a referendum on electoral reform, helped win the argument again tax credit cuts, and managed to hold its own against many of the more right-wing Tory backbenchers.

Few people seem to appreciate any of this, though, and simply highlight the negative legislation brought in between 2010 and 2015. Perhaps as we continue under Conservative rule, more people will come to realise how much of the more extreme Tory agenda the party actually managed to stop.

I hope the tide starts to turn for the Lib Dems. Indeed, they campaign on many issues that many other parties hold dear: a more proportional electoral system, reformation of the House of Lords, devolving power to local communities. And whilst I don't agree with much of their policy, they could help to form one of the strongest cross-party oppositions to the Scottish Government at a time when this is desperately needed.

The Scottish Parliament is made a little richer by Liberal Democrat presence. It's a shame that most people cannot see it.