Left is not the right way to go
THE Liberal Democrats are the big winners in British politics this year. If you do not believe me, just listen to every speaker at their conference in Bournemouth repeat the litany of their 2004 achievements.
A by-election victory in Leicester South in July, with a near miss in Birmingham on the same day, has given leader Charles Kennedy the momentum he needs to attract publicity and gain credibility.
Nor are the party’s successes purely electoral. Mr Kennedy’s opposition to the war in Iraq has been reasoned and moderately expressed. Together with Menzies Campbell’s prodigious media profile, it has won the party many admirers. At the same time, the Lib Dems have remained remarkably united in public, with tensions mainly hidden beneath the surface.
And Kennedy’s own difficulties earlier in the year, when he missed Budget day and nearly missed his spring conference through illness, have largely been forgotten and served, in any case, only to underline that this particular politician retains the admirable quality of being a normal member of the human race.
So it is a happy party that has descended on Bournemouth. With the Conservatives still in the doldrums and Labour being tested by adversity, Britain’s third party is, says Mr Kennedy, "stronger than ever". The only problem with this relative success is that it will bring more public scrutiny in its wake. Questions will begin to be asked. What are the answers?
The Lib Dems are addicted to parliamentary by-elections. And by-elections in which they take on and beat the government of the day are the class A drugs of third-party politics. But what do they really tell us about prospects for the General Election?
The public takes a different view from Mr Kennedy and his team on this, seeing these contests as, at best, an enjoyable distraction or, at worst, a crushing and intrusive bore. The electorate - those who take part anyway - have realised that by-elections will not make or break this Government. They can be used, instead, to "send a message" to the people in power.
Ironically, this year’s by-elections were also rather comforting for Labour. As long as the Lib Dems are beating the Conservatives into third place, a Tory revival is postponed and Labour look more secure in power.
No wonder Tony Blair’s political position was strengthened following July’s results. What is more, the run of by-elections in urban Labour seats - Brent, Leicester, Birmingham and Hartlepool - is distorting Liberal Democrats’ views of their own party.
IT can make sense in these seats to campaign from a position to the left of Labour. Opposition to the Iraq war has helped make inroads into the Muslim protest vote. Government policies on student tuition fees, the council tax and health service reform can easily be attacked in a way that appeals to traditional Labour supporters.
These campaigns fuel the naivety of party activists and some MPs, persuading them that the Government is in peril, and that this sort of left-populism will work in a general election. Party strategists should be handing out large pinches of salt whenever a by-election is fought.
These contests have also persuaded many Lib Dems that they should target traditional Labour seats at the next election. But the vast majority of Lib Dem prospects are in Tory areas. Gains from Labour will only ever be the icing on the cake.
The party risks spreading its campaign resources too thinly and pushing its political messages in the wrong direction. A big move to fight hard in many more Labour seats could turn into an expensive political cul-de-sac.
Opposition to the war in Iraq has given the Lib Dems credibility but they are in danger of coming across as a one-trick pony. And will this stance help them in the General Election?
The Iraq conflict is unlikely to have a very high profile during the election campaign, partly because the two other parties have no interest in continuing the argument and partly because the voters do not rate it as an election issue. So the Lib Dems need urgently to broaden their appeal.
Can they find the other issues that they will campaign on in the run-up to polling day? And this is where it gets difficult. The election will be fought on the economy and public services, and the Lib Dems have so far not communicated a clear enough message on either.
The Kennedy team has skilfully dropped some of the party’s previous spending commitments. Higher taxes are no longer meant to be on the agenda, except for a new higher rate of income tax for earnings over 100,000 that now sticks out like a sore thumb.
But the centre of gravity of party sentiment remains firmly with the tax-and-spend brigade. This damages the party’s chances of being seen as real reformers or pro-decentralisation. The Lib Dems are passing up the opportunity to be the real modernisers in British politics. Having consciously eschewed the arguments for greater choice in public services, they are going to have to come up with a convincing alternative.
SO when will the Lib Dems get serious? Perhaps they will not. And maybe they do not think they need to. The Lib Dems have come a long way with their blend of campaigning flair and clever oppositionism.
Most commentators are assuming another handsome Labour majority after the next election, so there will be few questions about hung parliaments, still fewer about what the Lib Dems would do with power.
In describing his political approach, Charles Kennedy has rested on the post-modern thought that the old politics of left and right is no longer relevant. In the meantime, his foot-soldiers put in the political boot where ever they get the opportunity. The combination is serving him well.
But the moment cannot be far away when the party will need to be more daring. For now, success is measured by their ability to avoid the key questions. A sure sign of real progress will be when the answers start to come.
Alan Leaman was Liberal Democrat director of strategy from 1995 to 1997 and was previously head of Paddy Ashdown’s office. A version of this article first appeared in Policy Review magazine: www.policyreview.co.uk
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