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Commentary 309 – April 2006
16 April 2006 (12:37:48)


Few would have believed it possible in January, but it looks as if the Liberal Democrats have survived the past few months’ multiple scandals relatively unscathed.

The by-election gain in Dunfermline and West Fife took most people (at least outside Scotland) by surprise and must have prompted some to wonder what the party could achieve were it to be leaderless more often.

Opinion polls and local by-elections have shown a steady return to the support levels of last autumn. Count no chickens, but it could all still be OK for May’s local elections.

One reason is that the various scandals that affected Charles Kennedy, Mark Oaten and, to a lesser extent, Simon Hughes obviously arose from personal conduct and not from something endemic to the party.

They did not signal that Liberal Democrats in general could be found amid male prostitutes and empty whisky bottles in the way that, for example, bribes and bungs appeared part and parcel of being a Tory a decade ago.

But the main reason for the party’s rapid recovery is that the support it secured at last year’s general election is still there.

This was won for a combination of more progressive taxation, defence of civil liberty, opposition to illegal wars, ending tuition fees, and better environmental protection, which the party has since tried to gather under the banner of ‘fairness’. Only the first of these is internally contentious, because it is tied up with economic policy, where fault lines have emerged.

Menzies Campbell’s speech at Harrogate included a plain attempt to lay the ground for scrapping the policy of a 50p tax rate for those who earn more than £100,000 a year.

It will be hard for the party to promote ‘fairness’ as a mantra if it were at the same time to surrender to ludicrous arguments that expecting the rich to pay more tax constitutes ‘stifling aspiration’.

Ditching this policy would make the party sound as though it were more concerned about the very rich than about those on average incomes, never mind the poor.

Was this a sign of that the Orange Book crowd have been offered some recompense for having supported Campbell’s leadership campaign?

His campaign, like those of his rivals, failed to address questions about the party’s ideology, direction or strategy.

The contest degenerated into one wholly focussed on personalities, a situation exemplified by the presence of people from every corner of the party in all three campaigns and by the bland uniformity of what each contender offered.

The result is that, while Campbell won, he did not seek, never mind secure, any mandate for dramatic departures. If he wants to carry any through, he will need to win arguments at conference.

He will be better placed if support at conference is genuinely won, and does not result from his spin doctors declaring motions to be issues of confidence in the leader, as happened with the Post Office motion at Harrogate.

To be fair, Campbell’s shadow cabinet appointments have reflected the breadth of views in the parliamentary party and show no discernable favouritism to any wing. But things may be out of Campbell’s hands, even with the authority of a new leader.

Anonymous briefings of newspapers by those with personal agendas have plagued the party for at least two years. The culprits have largely been extreme economic liberals who, rather than seek common ground, sought to paint the entire mainstream of party opinion as comprising backward-looking ‘traditionalists’.

As Vincent Cable argues in this issue, the differences may not be that great, but the ‘modernisers’ did great damage by fanning speculation about splits when in fact they comprised only a small and loudmouthed clique. Campbell must get a grip on them.


A Labour prime minister having to rely on Conservative votes to drive through his ill-conceived education bill, and the unearthing of the ‘cash for ermine’ affair, were clear signs that the game is up for ‘new’ Labour.

This was always going to happen sooner or later, since the entire Blair ‘project’ depended on persuading Labour to disown everything it had ever believed and devote itself to opportunism.

This won elections, but was never any basis for a coherent party, as its internal warfare, plummeting membership and lack of any guiding principles now show.

Before Blair, Labour, however misguided, at least had clear principles and objectives. Under Blair, Labour has lost any moral compass. It is now the party that supports an illegal war and an assault on civil liberty – in particular through ID cards – on a scale undreamed of by any previous government, Thatcher not excepted.

Something new began this decade and gained momentum in the general election – firm Lib Dem inroads into Labour areas.

At least as long as Blair remains, this will continue. Has the party planned for how to secure the long-term support of former Labour supporters, campaign effectively in places that tend to consume more resources than do suburbs, and make sure this is a permanent change and not a transitory protest vote?

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