Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Naughty children


Looks like Patsy Calton got out just in time. The Guardian reports a ruckus in the ranks of the LibDems.

A group of 'radical' LibDems (that phrase sits oddly together, doesn't it? Bit like saying 'radical golfers' or 'radical librarians') has attacked the party leadership, accusing Cheers Kennedy of trying to "neuter the party conference" and blame the membership for the poor results of the election.

In the sinister-sounding party magazine Liberator (which sounds a bit like calling your pet kitten Tiger), they accuse some in the party of "spinning the line - both before and after polling day - that the party's handicap is [being] too leftwing." They worry that the party is being seen as more anti-Labour than anti-Tory, especially at a time when New Labour is itself seen as more and more right-wing.

The article also accuses the party's strategists of slipping new policies past the membership, without exposing them to the scrutiny of the party conference.

Reading this article, I'm reminded not so much of arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic (which is what I hope the Tories are currently doing), but of a group of survivors of the shipwreck arguing about who's going to control the rudder on the lifeboat. Yet it's not even as if the LibDems had a bad election: they were the only party to have a significant gain in both their share of the vote and their number of MPs.

I can't help wondering whether some perspective was lost during the campaign - after a bad start, things began moving in their direction, Cheers started looking more and more like a leader (some thought), the anti-war stance was looking popular, they were going up in the polls. They had an unpopular government and an oppositon people couldn't quite bring themselves to vote for. The surge of which David Steele used famously to speak - could it be coming, at last?

Talk of 100 MPs and holding the balance of power was silly, and served only to push expectations beyond reality. In the end, the LibDems made life difficult for themselves - they started to believe the hype they'd pushed for years, nay, decades ("breaking the mould of British politics", "go back to your constituencies and prepare for government"). They allowed the media to portray their victory (well, their fairly good performance) as a defeat - 'only' 62 MPs, 'only' three seats taken off the Tories. Stunning results like Solihull and Manchester Withington (when was the last time we saw a 17% swing to the LibDems, outside of a by-election?) were overlooked. Trying to find a winner, the media ended up landing on the Tories by default. Howard and his cronies looked absurdly triumphant in defeat, when the 'natural party of government' should have been wailing and gnashing its few remaining teeth at the prospect of twelve years or more in opposition.

Chances like this don't come very often in politics, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the LibDems backtracking at the next election. Successful though they've been, they're now facing the inevitable problem that any successful party faces - finding a role for itself and a platform to stand on which is consistent and understandable to the electorate. The fact that they've let the success feel like failure will only make the fall-out bitter, when it should be constructive.

But the problem for the LibDems is in some ways worse than for the other two main parties. Used to being the opposition, a party which has never in any living person's memory been in national government (the Callaghan pact doesn't count), they've allowed themselves to be labelled as the Place Where You Mark Your Protest Vote. There was a hell of a lot to protest about this time round, sure, but protest votes do not on their own make enough votes for a victory (except in student seats, and no one does childish politics better than students). Without a coherent strategy for national government, caught between the Scylla of social liberalisation (cannabis) and the Charybdis of middle-class appeasement (removing top-up fees), unable to call themselves Right or Left for fear of losing half their seats (and this problem will be worse next time), 38 of those mythical 100 seats were not gained. If the Tories had been in power, the LibDems might not have gained Withington, Falmouth and Rochdale; but they would sure as hell have hung on to and gained many more seats (Newbury, Guildford, Orpington, Isle of Wight, Dorset West, possibly Maidenhead... the list goes on).

Now they face a situation where prevarication and obfuscation won't serve them any more. If the breakthrough's going to come, if they're going to surpass the 23% barrier, if they're going to have those magical 100 MPs, they've got to decide which side of the fence they're looking from. They'll lose MPs in the process, but you can't make an omelette without some wastage.

It's probably too late. This was probably their chance. Maybe the omelette analogy is a good one - yellow, fluffy, and too insubstantial for a meal.


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