Page last updated at 22:23 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

Fight is on for the middle ground

By Andrew Black
Political reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Nick Clegg
The Lib Dems are putting more resources into Labour-held seats

When the squeeze is on, it's tough being a smaller party.

With the forthcoming UK election expected to be the most hard fought for many years, a potential squeeze on the Liberal Democrat vote is one of the foremost issues on the party's mind.

Not that the party is currently in bad shape - in terms of Westminster success, it is the number two party in Scotland, and growing talk of a hung UK parliament could provide the opportunity for coalition government.

As all the conferences have been doing of late, the focus of the Scottish Liberal Democrat gathering in Perth is on the UK election.

The party in Scotland is positioning itself as direct challengers to Labour - a strategy which paid off to a certain extent in 2005.

The difference this time round is the party's move to pump more resources into Labour-held target seats where the Lib Dems say they can swing it their way, areas like Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, where the party is already represented at the Scottish Parliament.

Due to the massive swing the Tories need to claim victory, its been predicted it may be a lot easier for Labour to lose its overall majority. What does that mean? A possible Labour/Lib Dem coalition - including ministerial jobs

In policy terms, the Lib Dems, as always, say they are fighting for a fairer society by proposing big tax changes and more emphasis on a better start in life for children.

And, with the middle ground a crowded field these days, (David Cameron declared at the Scottish Tory conference his party was back in the "centre" of UK politics) the Lib Dems will want to assert themselves as the truly original socially conscious party.

This is the challenge facing the Lib Dems, with Labour and the Tories telling voters they should be backing a party with a realistic chance of winning.

But what about that possible election result?

Due to the massive swing the Tories need to claim victory, it's been predicted that it may be a lot easier for Labour to lose its overall majority.

What does that mean? A possible Labour Lib Dem coalition - including ministerial jobs?

This was an arrangement which constituted the Scottish government for two terms at Holyrood, though it didn't come without its tensions.

More powers

And a stroke of good timing for the conference as well - UK leader Nick Clegg will be delivering his speech as Prime Minister Gordon Brown gives evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry on the Iraq war - an issue used by the Liberal Democrats to maximise their vote in the last UK election, which helped produce their best result.

But the conference isn't all about the election - the Lib Dems may be Scotland's number two party at Westminster, but, at Holyrood they're number four.

The SNP has now released its draft version of the independence referendum bill, which can only be passed with Liberal Democrat support.

So the Nationalists want to give voters the option of voting for either new powers for the Scottish Parliament - which the Lib Dems are big fans of - or full independence from the UK, an idea they don't find so attractive.

There are those in the Liberal Democrats - including MSPs - who disagree with the leadership's stance of opposing the bill, on account of the position not being very liberal or democratic.

Don't expect a huge level of discussion on that particular topic though - Scottish leader Tavish Scott confirmed his party's position following a debate on the issue at the party's autumn conference - behind closed doors.

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