Thursday, October 25, 2007

Third party facest its toughest choice

Column which first appeared in Newcastle Journal, Saturday 20 October 2007.


For most of the last 80-odd years since the old Liberal Party last held power, the third party in British politics has struggled to make a mark in what is still essentially a two-party system.

During the 1950s, the party’s MPs could be accommodated within a single taxi, and even as recently as the 1990s still numbered in the low teens.

But from the 1992 election onwards, the Liberal Democrats’ representation in the Commons finally started to climb towards more respectable levels, culminating in the current high water mark of 63.

So what has gone wrong? Is the party’s current desperate plight down to bad leadership? Or has it simply been a victim of deeper political forces, beyond the ability of either Charles Kennedy or Sir Menzies Campbell to control?

Well, the way the party has handled its leadership issues over the past two years has certainly done little to enhance its credibility in the eyes of voters.

Having unceremoniously knifed Mr Kennedy in January 2006, the Lib Dems had a chance to make a fresh start under a new leader from the talented younger generation of MPs.

Instead, the party opted for the "safe" option of Sir Menzies Campbell, even though it was obvious from the outset that he lacked the skills to prosper as a party leader in the current, media-driven era.

There’s been a lot of talk this week about whether 66-year-old Sir Ming was a victim of ageism - but I would say only in the sense that he seemed like a throwback to a bygone political age.

But the party’s leadership travails disguise a much more deep-seated problem for the Lib Dems which predates the leadership of Sir Ming and arguably also that of his predecessor.

It is this: that while most Liberal Democrats are left-leaning folk who believe in tax-and-spend, redistribution and greenery, most of the seats they hope to win are in right-leaning areas which don’t.

The North-East is obviously an exception to this. The Lib Dems’ three target seats at the last two elections have been Labour-held Durham, Blaydon and Newcastle Central, although boundary changes will alter that next time round.

But the Celtic fringes of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall aside, most of the marginal seats which the Lib Dems are either defending or targeting are in the Tory-dominated South.

This in turn leads to what, for them is a difficult but recurring political dynamic - that when the Tories go up, the Lib Dems tend to go down, and vice-versa.

Hence at the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections, when the Tories did extremely badly, the Lib Dems managed to almost treble their numbers of MPs from 22 to 63.

But moreorless ever since David Cameron took over the Conservative leadership in December 2005, the Lib Dems’ poll ratings have been in the doldrums.

Messrs Kennedy and Campbell, then, were not so much victims of their own leadership shortcomings, as victims of Mr Cameron’s success in reviving his own party’s fortunes.

It against this backdrop, then, that the party must now choose its third leader in little over 18 months, with the choice already seemingly narrowing to a straight fight between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne.

So who should they choose? Well, in the light of the dilemma outlined above, clearly the answer is the one who would cause the most difficulties for the Tories.

Eighteen months ago, this would have been Mr Huhne. Up against Sir Ming and Simon Hughes, he was the most right-wing candidate in the field, the moderniser up against two veterans from the past.

Up against Mr Clegg, however, he finds himself positioned as the “left” candidate, a redistributionist advocate of higher green taxes against the man who wants to get the state off our backs.

I personally remain unconvinced by Mr Clegg. Some Lib Dems seem to speak of him as if he is some sort of new Kennedy – John F., that is, not Charles.

He’s surely not that good. But there can be no doubting that, with good looks and charisma allied to rightish-leaning views, he is the candidate most feared by the Tories.

As regular readers will know, I am intensely suspicious of setting too much store by charisma when choosing political leaders, based largely on the country’s experiences with Tony Blair.

But given the difficulties faced by third parties in even getting the media to take notice of them, having a good communicator as leader will certainly help – as Dr David Owen showed when leading the SDP in the 1980s.

The strategic dilemma now faced by Lib Dem party members is not a million miles away from that faced by Labour when it chose Mr Blair in 1994.

Can they bring themselves to vote for someone whose views they know to be well to the right of their own, in the knowledge that he is the candidate most likely to win them more seats?

While I think we will find the answer to that question will yes, I also think they will get rather more than they bargained for – just as Labour did with Mr Blair.

If he wins, I would expect Mr Clegg to complete the Thatcherisation of British politics by abandoning, as New Labour did, any serious commitment to redistribution and tackling inequality.

But either way, I hope for the Liberal Democrats' sake that whoever wins is granted the kind of loyalty which the party's leaders used automatically to merit.

Both Paddy Ashdown and Mr Kennedy were given the chance to fight two general elections, and they repaid that loyalty by increasing the party’s number of MPs each time.

It made a bad call by going with a “caretaker leader” in the shape of Sir Ming, but the party must now put aside its internal differences and dig in for the long haul under Mr Clegg or Mr Huhne.

British politics badly needs a successful Liberal Democrat party. It is high time it stopped playing the nasty party and got its act together.

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These gays and Jew lovers should be kept clear off.

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