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Commentary 308 – February 2006
19 February 2006 (13:27:11)

MAKE UP YOUR MIND TIME

Liberator is not endorsing any candidate in the Liberal Democrat leadership race.

This is because there are supporters of all three among the collective and, more importantly, we think it is up to readers to form their own judgement.

The result of our questionnaires to candidates on pages 15-18 will, we hope, help in this.

As of late January, no candidate offered either a way forward of such promise that the party should grab it, or proposed some initiative so obviously disastrous that they should be opposed.

The strange circumstances of this election probably mean that there is no good outcome, and that whoever wins will have to devote a lot of effort to steadying the ship and trying to re-establish the party’s credibility.

In an ideal world, such a figure might combine Menzies Campbell’s air of authority, Simon Hughes’s ability to inspire people and Chris Huhne’s mastery of policy detail.

An un-ideal combination would be Campbell’s blank record on domestic policy, Hughes’s famed disorganisation and Huhne’s wafer-thin majority.

Since the campaign began, Campbell has suffered ridicule at prime minister’s questions, Huhne has struggled against anonymity, and Hughes has suffered accusations that he lied over his sexuality – though he dissembled in answer to questions he could quite well have refused to answer, since they concerned a single person’s private life.

It is disappointing that the early campaign has concentrated almost wholly on personalities, because the party had important policy issues to resolve even before the leadership crisis began.

The election will be a wasted opportunity unless it allows these debates, in particular on the role of the state and economic liberalism, to be aired.

What matters is not a contender’s position on every dot and comma of policy, but how safe members judge the party would be in their hands.

That is not just about how they appear on television. It means deciding whether their record is good enough and their principles held sufficiently strongly that they would be unlikely to damage the party in some ill-conceived adventure.

Voters should also look at the record of candidate’s engagement with the party. Are they likely to insist that all power and wisdom rests in the few hundred yards between Westminster and Cowley Street (a highly dubious proposition in view of recent events)? Or, are they at ease with the Liberal Democrats as a living political party rather than a fan club?

They should also ask how in tune each contender is with the changing political landscape.

Those who persisted in voting Tory in the last three elections are unlikely to change now, and the greatest room for Liberal Democrat expansion is among Labour voters. Whoever wins will have to be able to communicate with them.

Labour’s trajectory under Blair brought it close to the Tories under Howard, never mind Cameron, and that means that a huge political space has been vacated.

Labour and the Tories will sound very similar at the next election as they scrap over the ‘centre’.

If the Liberal Democrats are also pitched in this illusory ‘centre’, they will be crushed as an irrelevance and will have failed to provide a political outlet for anyone who falls outside the Labour/Tory consensus.

The history of the last 30 years suggests the ‘centre’ is a trap defined by the other two parties.

Avoiding that trap means choosing a leader who can see it, and has the political nous and convictions to avoid it. It is up to you to choose.

THE KENNEDY YEARS

Everyone will wish Charles Kennedy well in fighting the illness that led to his downfall as Liberal Democrat leader.

It will be a while before history judges the Kennedy era, but there is unlikely to be a clear-cut verdict.

On the plus side, the party turned in its best performances for 80 years at general elections, held its ground against the Tories and made hitherto unimagined inroads into Labour urban areas.

Kennedy’s achievement in quietly burying his predecessor’s ruinous dalliance with Labour should not be underestimated.

The minus side with Kennedy comprises mainly things he did not do and which did not happen.

It was widely thought the results of both his general elections should have been better. Policy development drifted aimlessly, and his presence in the public eye was infuriatingly hit-or-miss.

His fundamental problem was that, in 1999, it was unclear why he wanted to be leader and, in 2006, that still remains a mystery. He drifted into the job without any obvious identification with causes, ideas or policies. Once there, none really developed.

Kennedy, though, had one crucial thing going for him, which whoever comes next would do well to remember.

The Liberal Democrats’ purposes appeared secure under Kennedy. He might have pursued them patchily and inadequately but, unlike Paddy Ashdown and David Steel, he never seemed about to destroy his party.

Kennedy did not lead the Liberal Democrats to power, but at least he was not under the delusion that one of the other parties would offer him a short cut.

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