A MATTER OF CHOICE
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
With the conceivable exception of 1992, that has never in modern times been the
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
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
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
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
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
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
WILL IT WORK?
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
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
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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