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Commentary 316 – February 2007
25 February 2007 (22:50:07)


The Liberal Democrats’ debate on Trident will evoke uncomfortable memories for some Liberator readers of the way debates on disarmament were conducted 20 years ago, with opponents of nuclear weapons being depicted by the party leadership as sandal-wearing loonies who would destroy the Alliance’s standing with voters.

This culminated in the mendacious assault on the credibility of the party conference by David Steel and David Alton in Eastbourne in 1986, the effects of which can still be seen, for example in Charles Kennedy’s casual insults about ‘activists’ after the last general election.

Let’s hope that, whatever else is said and done in the run-up and during this debate, two things can be avoided – imputations by the party leader that a large proportion of his followers are mad, and a myopic obsession with how the media will interpret whatever is decided.

The reason to avoid the first is simply that attempts at short-term damage limitation by blaming ‘activists’ when anything goes wrong at conference invariably leads to long-term damage for the leader who makes the allegation.

In public, it would simply appear that the Lib Dem leader thought a substantial part of his own party was a rabble in the grip of irresponsible delusions. Once ideas like that take hold, they cannot easily be shifted by MPs going on television to state that most of the party is sane.

The damage will be done not if the issue is debated robustly, but if it is conducted in terms of one side trying to destroy the other.

Good debates about serious issues can engage the public’s attention and interest, whatever their outcome and any individual opinion. In an age when neither Labour nor the Tories encourage open discussion of anything much, it is possible that people interested in politics but deterred by the way it is conducted would find a Lib Dem debate impressive.

The legacy of the then leadership’s reaction to Eastbourne has hung over the party ever since, with a perpetual need to justify democratic policy making.

Menzies Campbell will no doubt gain in public standing if he wins the Trident debate but, if he allows a fair debate to be held without recriminations, he could also gain were he to lose it.

That means he should make it clear to his aides and spin doctors that he will immediately sack any of them who briefs to the effect that the conference lacks credibility, that those who attend it are irresponsible fanatics or that ‘activists’ need to be muzzled and controlled.

The main reason for the damaging fall-out from past defence debates was the question that is never far from the lips of politicians: “What will the media think?”

Nowadays, that depends in part on what one means by ‘the media’. Most people get their news from television and radio, which has some obligation towards balanced coverage.

The circulation of right-wing newspapers is, with the exception of the Daily Mail, in precipitous decline, and there is not much point in the Lib Dems trying to fish for votes among Mail readers.

It is easy to overstate how much news is disseminated from websites and blogs, but news and comment sources are wider than in the past and becoming more so.

It is also easy to overstate the importance of newspapers written by, and aimed at, people who are unlikely to vote Lib Dem other than perhaps tactically.

Even if the party could appeal to the mindset that concurs with the Mail, Telegraph and Express, it should not.

Whether on defence or anything else, there is no point in the Lib Dems ending up in that ground where New Labour and Cameron’s Conservatives shift around interchangeably.

It is wrong in principle for the Lib Dems to compete in the authoritarian populist stakes with Blair and Cameron.

But it is also wrong pragmatically. What is the point of voting Lib Dem when you can get the same from the other two parties, if that is what you want?

Conversely, why vote Lib Dem if you don’t like the other two parties and the Lib Dems offer you nothing different?

The party can succeed only by applying its principles to stake out its own turf and use a consistent message to attract like-minded people.

In the 1980s, the Alliance tried being everything to everyone and it ended in failure.

In the 2000s, the Lib Dems should recognise that some people genuinely oppose the party, will never vote for it and should not have any effort wasted on courting them – especially not at the cost of alienating those who might vote for it. The former already have two parties to vote for.

The Lib Dems can actually manage this feat when they choose to – over Iraq and civil liberty, the party has ploughed a lonely furrow and been proved right.

But on those issues, there was little internal disagreement. The outcome of the Trident debate is important, but the way it is conducted could be even more so, as could the way its aftermath is handled.

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