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Commentary 303 – July 2005
11 July 2005 (21:35:08)


It is not normally Liberator’s place to urge people to be reasonable and restrained – two courses usually urged by those who want nothing done about any given issue.

However, the public conduct of too many senior Liberal Democrats has, since the general election, bordered on the irrational.

Some of them expected more than the 65-70 seats that appeared realistic on any reading of runes.

It is not a crime to have been optimistic and mistaken. However, to speak as though the general election were some major reversal for the party is simply not grounded in reality.

Charles Kennedy’s gratuitous attack on the party conference was immensely damaging and risks setting all manner of damaging hares running in the media.

Opponents found plenty of things within the depths of Liberal Democrat policy papers with which they could mount embarrassing attacks – but none of these were anything to do with the conference, which had as usual merely rubber-stamped the policy papers put before it.

Meanwhile, there has been a concerted rubbishing of local income tax without anyone troubling themselves to investigate what effect it actually had on voters.

Then there have been calls for the party to increase its appeal to either Tory or Labour voters, without any evident recognition that doing one would involve a completely different set of policies to the other, neither of which might be very liberal.

Out in the real word, there are more than enough weighty issues for the Liberal Democrats to get their heads round. Assumptions about Europe are being turned upside down by the French and Dutch referendums; the pensions crisis looms large and gets no better; and house prices spiral ever upwards beyond the reach of most people.

Fortunately, there are signs that sanity is starting to prevail, in that the Meeting the Challenge policy review is seeking to proceed from the basis of what the party wishes to do, based on its values.

This ought, if followed through, to mean a process evolves that looks at what a Liberal Democrat government would want to accomplish, what policies it would need to do that, and how those would be used in political campaigning.

Taking this approach would mean that the party could finally get its policy and campaigning working together and in the right order around a coherent programme that is of Liberal Democrat inspiration, not concocted on the off chance it will appeal to supporters of other parties.

The Liberal Democrats cannot progress by forever chasing after temporarily disaffected supporters of other parties.

It’s time for the “we’ll have six policies that appeal to Tories, and half-a-dozen that appeal to Labour supporters” approach to end.

It is easy to be cynical about Meeting the Challenge but, for the present, it seems worth taking those involved at their word.

They are looking for ideas on what the party wants to achieve and where it wants to go – and fortunately do not appear greatly interested in riders of pet hobbyhorses or the inventors of instant paths to power who normally appear at these times.

Since it is quite likely that the both the party’s economic liberal right wing, and its pale conservative right wing (and the two are different), will be taking part in this exercise, it is worth radicals doing the same.


The Holy Grail of politics is to be right and popular. Identity cards are shaping up to be just such an issue; they might even become Labour’s poll tax.

Although initial opinion polls suggested they would be popular, each revelation about their cost drives down public support.

It does not take much imagination to see where this might lead – elderly people marched off to prison because they cannot afford, or refuse to pay, more than £100 for a card; enormous inconvenience to the public as people have to make appointments for iris scans; resentment of the police as innocent people are prosecuted for forgetting to carry their card or face unreasonable demands to produce it.

On top of that are the civil liberty arguments. Identity cards are supposed to help ‘defend’ Britain against terrorism.

But one of the things that makes Britain worth defending is that, at least until the advent of the Blair government, it has not been a police state in which people need to account to the authorities for going about their lawful business – and pay for the privilege.

Concern about privacy will grow as the use of electronic data on individuals increases. Concern about the government imposing a large cost and inconvenience on the public for something they do not want will arise whether the Liberal Democrats (or for that matter, the Tories) stoke it or not.

Keep a note of how each Labour MP votes on ID cards. Then, as public fury at this costly intrusion mounts, hang it round the neck of every one of them at the next election. No Labour MP who supports ID cards should benefit from Liberal Democrat tactical votes.

New Labour’s trademark arrogance and authoritarianism have driven it promote ID cards. With luck, this policy could hasten its downfall.

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