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Commentary 318 – May 2007
13 May 2007 (21:45:23)

“WE CAN LOSE EVERYWHERE”

There is not much disguising that the local elections in England were a poor performance for the Liberal Democrats.

Results in Scotland and Wales are analysed elsewhere in this issue. In England, however, despite the caveat about vote share falling only slightly, the inescapable fact is that the Lib Dems lost heavily to the Tories in the south, and were massacred in some places the party had controlled for years, while not making gains in the north from Labour in remotely comparable quantities.

Explanations for local factors in play range from dustbins (Bournemouth), to planning (Waverley) and internal splits (Torbay and Leicester).

It is true that the party’s vote share looked acceptable by historical comparisons, but the haemorrhage of seats has turned a floodlight on fundamental problems.

There will also be those who blame Menzies Campbell’s low-profile leadership.

The party’s main problem is not dustbins or disunity (though neither helped), or its leader’s inability to inspire the party or connect with voters (though that did not help either).

It is that the party has no strategy beyond an assumption that local activism will keep the show on the road through incremental growth by tapping into transient grievances.

This worked for 20 years or so, but if the party has no idea of its target audience and no clear image, other than on the fading issues of Iraq and tuition fees, it cannot hope to grow.

Despite this, the party refuses to take clear stances for fear of causing offence to anyone who might vote for it. ‘We can win everywhere’ becomes ‘we can lose everywhere’ if the Lib Dems continue to have minimal core support and must win most of their voters’ allegiance afresh at each election.

The party needs three or four policy issues as clear and controversial as Iraq to make a serious impact on public opinion, yet its response to the local elections appears to be ‘business as usual’.

Hoping that gains from Labour will balance losses to the Tories, and that the reverse might happen under a failing Tory government somewhere down the line, might sustain the party forever, but will not move it forward.

It ought to be obvious where the party’s core vote should come from: youngish, better-educated, professional people who are liberal on social issues, concerned about the environment, open to the world and diversity, and hostile to both Labour’s police state and to what lurks in the Tories behind David Cameron’s grinning façade.

Such people voted Lib Dem at the last general and Euro elections in proportionately greater numbers than any other demographic group, yet nothing is being said or done to cement their allegiance.

Of course, anyone is welcome to vote for the Lib Dems and the party needs to talk to other groups.

Yet its persistence in seeking never to take a stand for fear of giving someone offence prevents the party from securing long-term growth.

Campbell has simply continued the policy of drift that he inherited. Where he has made a decisive stand, his efforts have been directed against internal opponents and not directed outwards at the public.

He has replaced a simple and easily-understood taxation policy with one of such complexity that it is incapable of being explained on the doorsteps, or indeed anywhere else. He has thus allowed the Tories to steal the ‘green tax’ mantle without the public being aware that the Lib Dems ever wore it in the first place.

On defence, he used up reserves of credibility and capital to make it clear that the Lib Dems oppose one half of Britain’s Trident capability but not the other, a position likely to convince no one.

Barring some unforeseen catastrophe, the party would look stupid were it to ditch two leaders in as many years, and in any case Campbell is a symptom and not the cause of the party’s lack of political clarity and strategic grip.

The Lib Dems cannot rely for success on one of the other parties happening to be out of action at any given moment.

Neither party is truly out of action now, and the Lib Dems need that core vote to sustain them, which they cannot gain by ducking controversy.

FORTY YEARS ON

It is 40 years since the Six Day War brought about a division in the Middle East that has remained obstinately in place ever since.

Articles in this issue by Michael Meadowcroft, among other things a former EU special adviser in Jerusalem, and by Matthew Harris, secretary of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, illustrate the gulf in perceptions even between those of similar political outlook on most other matters.

This is one of the pre-eminent foreign policy issues and it is a crucial influence on everything from regional instability to international terrorism.

Yet neither the Liberal Democrats nor, so far as anyone can remember, the party’s two predecessors, has seen fit to debate Israel, Palestine and their futures at a conference.

Contributions to, and the outcome of, such a debate, might very well give offence to supporters of both sides, but that is not a reason to avoid saying what the party’s view is on this vital topic. This is another controversy that should not be ducked.

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