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Commentary 296 – June 2004
18 June 2004 (14:48:33)

THE CAUSE THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME

‘Say No’ said the UKIP leaflets, a misguided but clear and simple message. Where was the one that said ‘yes’ to Europe? Not in Liberal Democrat leaflets, at least not loud and clear. Yet again, and despite a good slogan in ‘Making Europe Work for You’, the Liberal Democrats have failed to go determinedly after a pro-European vote that is far larger than the party’s own support, and which has nowhere else to go.

All manner of explanations can be advanced. Some are valid, like the coincidence of the European and local elections, which meant there was a concentration on the latter in target areas and a reluctance to divert resources elsewhere.

Some are not valid, like the feeling that, for the third European election running, the Liberal Democrats have sought to attract votes despite - and not because of - their support for the European Union.

It is true that the party was very close to winning a second seat in both London and the south west, that its haul of MEPs increased and that it was pushed into fourth place by only 1.2 per cent of the vote.

But a party with the standing and aspirations of the Liberal Democrats should not be pushed into fourth place, or anywhere near it, and particularly not by a party that is only one step up the scale in respectability from the BNP.

Look behind UKIP’s simple slogan at its references to ending ‘overcrowding’, to Britain being ‘full’ and, bizarrely, to “doing whatever is necessary to return crime levels to those of the 1950s” (hanging? birching? transportation to the colonies its members no doubt wish Britain still had?).

This is not a party that simply wishes to come out of the EU; something poisonous has been released into mainstream politics, and it is something that will compete with the Liberal Democrats for the floating protest vote.

The possibilities of taking a robust line and fighting a proper campaign on Europe were graphically illustrated by the north west. In that region, the Liberal Democrats picked up a second seat and easily outpolled UKIP. The north west benefited from a long-planned strategy to take the second seat and, in Chris Davies, from an MEP prepared to put his time and money into building up his regional party, an example from which certain other MEPs could learn.

It was a different, and far better, story in the local elections. The public’s lack of trust in prime minister Tony Blair, since the Iraq war, delivered the Liberal Democrats some startlingly good results, in particular in northern England, although there were losses in the south.

Two new factors came into play. For the first time, the party was able to make compensating gains in Labour strongholds at a time when it was losing to the Tories in their historic areas (for comparison, look at the Liberals’ local election slaughterings of the late 1970s). The other is the support gained in the Muslim community.

Both are most desirable, but is the party putting down roots in these areas of new support or simply collecting up temporary votes, as has happened in the past? Iraq will at some point fade from prominence, and cannot be relied upon to deliver this particular harvest twice, so is any thought going into how this new base can be consolidated?

In the south, there will be some MPs looking nervously over their shoulders, as the Tory vote rose across the regions where the bulk of Liberal Democrat parliamentary seats lie.

A panicky programme of trying to appeal to Tories is the last thing needed; it will damage support among newly acquired Labour-inclined voters, while giving credibility to the real Tory programme.

It would also look as if the party had slipped back into its bad old ways of the 1980s, of trying to be everything to everyone and ending up being nothing to anyone.

The contrasting regional results gave a good propaganda point by allowing the Liberal Democrats to claim wide appeal to different parts of the country.

But they contain a potential problem for a general election, if the party continues to try to define itself in terms of others and approaches the task by saying “right, we’ll have six policies to appeal to Tory voters and half a dozen to appeal to Labour ones”.

This is bound up with the initial point about the European campaign. Trust in politicians is low, and nuanced or abruptly changing positions are quite likely to be assumed by voters to be duplicitous.

Better for the party to be clear how it will set out its stall, and accept that some people, such as pronounced europhobes, will dislike it and go elsewhere.

Finally, a mischievous thought. In local elections by first past the post, the Liberal Democrats polled 30 per cent. In the European and London elections, conducted by forms of proportional representation, the party got about half that. Is it still so keen on electoral reform?

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