Lib Dems will have to rely on tactical voting to hold off SNP, says Ashdown

Nick Clegg MP in St Albans

Paddy Ashdown has conceded that the Scottish National party has taken a lead over the Liberal Democrats in many of the party’s key seats, forcing the Lib Dems to rely on tactical voting to survive.

The former Lib Dem leader admitted that his party’s private polling shows that Alex Salmond, the former first minister and SNP leader, was ahead in the fiercely contested seat of Gordon, where the long-standing Lib Dem MP and deputy leader Sir Malcolm Bruce is standing down.

With the party facing a wipeout at the hands of a substantial SNP advance, Ashdown said it needed to rely heavily on Labour and Tory voters swinging behind the new Lib Dem candidate, Christine Jardine, to defeat Salmond in Gordon. Bruce held the seat with a 6,748 vote majority over the SNP in 2010.

“I’m very confident that the private polls in Gordon are right and they put us within reach of winning, provided people realise including third and fourth parties in Gordon, that the right way to ensure that Mr Salmond does not end up in parliament is to vote Liberal Democrat,” he said.

That gloomy message was reinforced when party leader Nick Clegg told Scottish Lib Dem activists meeting in Aberdeen that the party would need to show the same “incredible resilience” it had demonstrated in government to defeat Salmond in Gordon and the SNP more widely.

Implying he knew his party was behind, Clegg said: “That resilience will see off the SNP challenge in the seats we hold. And it will wipe the smile off Alex Salmond’s face in Gordon too. I’ve heard the the predictions. I’ve seen the polls. But let me tell you this: we will do much better than anyone thinks … [It] won’t be easy, but winning shouldn’t be.”

Insisting that tactical voting was an entirely normal and justified strategy to pursue, Ashdown also implied that tactical voting by non-Lib Dem supporters would be needed to hold Sir Menzies Campbell’s seat of North East Fife.

Speaking after the latest Scottish poll, by Survation for the Daily Record, put overall Lib Dem support at just 4%, Ashdown said: “We’re clearly facing a challenge from the SNP, given the situation in Scotland.”

Polling evidence shows that more former Lib Dem voters have swung behind the SNP since 2010 than to Labour or the Tories. Lib Dem strategists have told the Guardian the entire Lib Dem election campaign in Scotland is focusing solely on holding its 11 current seats, rather than running a Scotland-wide campaign.

“We’re fighting all of them to win,” Ashdown said. “I have seen the polls; we’re fighting to win all of those. I believe we’re winning in some or even, if you want, most, but we’re within reach of winning the rest.”

Salmond, who has already served at Westminster as MP for the neighbouring seat of Banff and Buchan, is expected to play a leading role in the SNP’s national election campaign, with the party seeking to win dozens of seats across the country.

Party officials remain extremely worried about Danny Alexander’s chances of holding his Highlands seat of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey against the SNP challenger and Highlands council leader Drew Hendry.

Faced with a long-term collapse in the Lib Dem vote, which has ebbed away since Clegg went into coalition with David Cameron’s Tories in 2010, they would not be attempting to win new seats. Activists in other areas have been told to raise their own money and organise their own campaigns.

The Lib Dems’ 11 Scottish seats include constituencies held by three current and former UK cabinet members: the current Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael in Orkney and Shetland, his predecessor Michael Moore in the Borders, and Alexander.

Moore’s seat is under heaviest threat from the Tories. In addition, the party is fighting to hold seats held by two former UK party leaders, Charles Kennedy in the Highlands and Campbell, who is standing down from his seat in North East Fife. Of its Scottish seats, only Carmichael’s and Kennedy’s are regarded as secure.

Lib Dem anxieties have been heightened by constituency polling by Lord Ashcroft which showed that the SNP would win Gordon, Alexander’s Inverness seat and Kennedy’s seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, plus the Lib Dem seat of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine held by Sir Robert Smith.

Party strategists insist, however, that Ashcroft’s polling is wrong because he refuses to name local candidates in polling questions. When local voters are reminded who their Lib Dem MP is, the Lib Dem score will rise significantly, they say.

While Ashcroft shows the SNP are 19 points ahead of the Lib Dems in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, Lib Dem polling puts their vote ahead of the SNP if Smith is named. Frequently, voters are unable to name or recognise the SNP candidate.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Severin Carrell Scotland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Friday 20th March 2015 19.12 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010