Last year in a Scottish local council ward a penguin got more votes than the Liberal Democrat candidate.
Actually it was an independent dressed in a penguin suit, nevertheless across the country they lost 74 councillors in elections that mirrored their performance in recent polls across the north of England.
Whether the site of sassanach Lib Dems heading for Glasgow this weekend for their party conference will appease the Tartan Army of Scottish voters remains to be seen.
The decision of the “catastrophically depressed” Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather to quit at the next election might be dismissed as a fit of pique by a sacked minister, but her declared reasons for going bear some examination. This is because they address the major problems Lib Dems have had in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester since the coalition was formed.
Before 2010 the party managed to be an organisation that disaffected Tories could vote for in the South while fed up Labour voters could switch to the Lib Dems on the basis that they were sort of on the left and were reasonably progressive.
Now in office the Lib Dems have been tainted in many of their ex supporters eyes by the difficult decisions of government. It will ultimately be a decision for the whole electorate in 2015 whether the pupil premium, lifting the poorest out of income tax and other Lib Dem backed measures will be enough to save them from electoral oblivion, but Teather has highlighted some problems they will face in getting a reasonable vote in the North and Scotland.
Her central charge is that Nick Clegg’s party no longer fights hard enough on issues like social justice and immigration. She cites Lib Dem support for a cap on welfare, a £1000 visa charge plan for immigrants and the government’s vans touring London urging illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest.”
A large number of Lib Dems are deeply worried about association with the Conservatives but feel it is a price worth paying to have some influence in office. However one has the impression that there is a faction who have enjoyed their time in office and are quite happy with the party moving right.
The Lib Dem conference is by far and away the most democratic of the three gatherings we shall witness this autumn. It remains a place where real policy is made but there is nothing on the agenda about the strategy for the crucial period coming up for the party.
Do they stick with the coalition till the end? What will they do if the Tories emerge as the largest party in 2015?
There will be plenty of talk about this in the bars of Glasgow but on the conference floor the theme will be the creation of jobs. The Lib Dems say a million have been created since 2010 and they want a million more. They want to double the number of businesses and train the apprentices for them. They will be debating an end to Britain’s four boat Trident nuclear submarine fleet and only want an in/out EU referendum if more powers are planned to be devolved to Brussels.
Good progressive stuff but the hand of the party’s right can be seen in the resolution on whether to restore the 50% tax rate for those earning £150,000. Conference can vote to endorse George Osborne’s cut to 45% or go back to 50% only if a review indicates that the tax take would exceed the cost of its introduction.
The improving economy is strengthening the position of right wing Lib Dems who would feel quite comfortable with another deal with the Tories, but that approach will be hard to sell in working class areas of the North.