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Commentary 317 – April 2007
29 March 2007 (09:43:37)


The Conservatives’ decision to oppose identity cards, and commit themselves to scrapping the project if they win the next general election, is significant for Liberal Democrats because it provides an important and tangible policy on the which the Tories’ stance is unambiguously better than Labour’s.

That does not mean that the Lib Dems can do, or indeed ought to do, a deal with the Tories if there is a hung parliament, but it at least makes it possible.

The significance is that, to have any negotiating power at all in a hung parliament, the Lib Dems must credibly be able to deal with either of the other parties.

With the conceivable exception of 1992, that has never in modern times been the case.

The whole world has known that, not merely would the Lib Dems and their predecessors have preferred to deal with Labour, but that it would have been impossible for any party leader to sell a deal with the Tories to the party rank and file, most of whom have spent their political lives fighting them.

This meant that the inevitable questions from the media about which party the Lib Dems would prefer to support have always drawn tortuous answers because no one could admit the truth.

Menzies Campbell’s policy of refusing to speculate about hung parliaments worked for his first year, but would have become less tenable as an election approached even without the confusion over his Harrogate speech (see Radical Bulletin, page 4).

The Tories’ move on ID cards allows him to say honestly that the Lib Dems would talk to either of the other parties and see which would deliver best against his party’s manifesto.

It is measure of how deep Labour has sunk into the sewers of authoritarianism that it is even thinkable that the Lib Dems might deal with the Tories.

Deep historical divisions exist between the two parties and there are plenty of Tories who would find a deal with the Lib Dems as unpalatable as would most Lib Dems.

What is more, the large number of Lib Dem/Tory marginal seats would make such a deal hugely problematic, and would anger many of the party’s voters there.

But with Labour bent on turning Britain into a police state, with ID cards, DNA databases, arbitrary powers and the most thorough assault on liberty ever seen in this country outside wartime, that party is now a profoundly unattractive potential partner.

Tony Blair has proved, contrary to what Paddy Ashdown once thought, the most illiberal prime minister since the Duke of Wellington.

He will soon take himself off, no doubt, to the American lecture circuit to enrich himself off the back of his illegal war and support for covert torture in ‘extraordinary rendition’.

Set against Blair’s record, talking to the Tories is at least a possibility to contemplate in the, admittedly rather unlikely, event that there is no overall control in the next parliament.

Lib Dems will find the idea of working with the Tories barely conceivable, and sayings about devils and long spoons come easily to mind.

But given Blair’s record, the idea of working with Labour is hardly more conceivable and, if the Lib Dems do have some negotiating power, then turning the tide on civil liberty is one of the most important things they could do with it.


Scottish local government elections do not normally command much attention in England, but they should do so this May.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats’ negotiating skills at that country’s last parliamentary elections saw them secure the Lib Dem holy grail of the single transferable vote for local elections. This will be put into effect for the first time in May, making predictions all but impossible since the new system should in itself change the way people vote by removing the necessity for tactical voting.

Lib Dem electoral reform enthusiasts have often sounded like religious obsessives when discussing the introduction of STV, claiming that it would solve all problems as though it were the second coming.

The experiments with proportional representation in England and Wales have avoided STV because it is easy for detractors to depict it as impossibly complicated with members of the same party fighting each other across huge constituencies and a counting system of baffling complexity.

Results in Scotland will show not just how well each party has done, but what degree there is of public rivalry between candidates on the same slate and how well the public has understood the system.

STV delivered an advance in March for the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, where it is the Liberal International member.

There are elections too, though not by STV, in Wales for its assembly and councils.

Both there and in Scotland, the Lib Dems have been able to use their strength to secure many worthwhile measures.

STV, or indeed any kind of PR, makes coalition politics pretty well inevitable. The trick is to work within that without having the Lib Dems vanish into a consensus culture where there is little difference between any parties.

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