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Commentary 311 – July 2006
18 July 2006 (17:56:16)

ONE FRONT OR TWO?

If perception is reality, then the Conservative party has changed.

This does not mean that the Tories have actually changed, merely that enough of the public believe it to have given them a consistent opinion poll lead.

That amounts to much the same thing, whatever the Tories truly believe or would actually do in power. A large part of the public thinks the Tories have repositioned themselves somewhere in the soggy centre of politics, just as Labour did a decade ago, and that is enough to make this perception a political reality.

This poses a long-absent problem for the Liberal Democrats – how to both fight a government and compete with another opposition party.

Apart from the run-up to 1992, the Lib Dems and their predecessors have had the luxury of some 30 years during which one or other of the Tory or Labour parties has been effectively out of action due to public disgust.

The tide that took out the Tories has turned and the one that bore Labour in has not yet wholly turned back, which means a fight on two fronts.

Past experience suggests this is an unpromising set of circumstances, but is it really a fight on two fronts, or one?

Labour and the Tories have both been through defeat and reinvention as the voices of Middle England, to the extent that hardly anything of importance now divides them.

Whether it is the Iraq war, ‘tough’ posturing on law and order, demolition of civil liberty, sucking up to George Bush, privatising public services, sullen obstruction in Europe, nuclear energy or centralisation of power, the Labour and Tory positions are so close that a grand coalition between them looks the most logical outcome of any hung parliament.

Labour moved steadily into traditional Tory territory as soon as Blair became leader, and Cameron now seems to have decided that his party can best return to power by looking and sounding like Labour but without having its widely-hated leader.

Far from worrying about how to fight a new challenge from the Tories, the Lib Dems need only keep up the critique they have of Labour and they can attack two enemies for the price of one.

The list of subjects above on which Labour and the Tories substantially agree are all ones where the Lib Dems occupy different, defensible and distinctive positions that resonate with a large slice of public opinion.

How to express them, when and to whom are all areas of legitimate debate, but the party ought to have little to fear from fighting a Labour/Tory consensus that is locked in the politics of the 1980s.

What the Lib Dems have to fear are voices in their own ranks who believe that the way to fight in the face of such a consensus is to become part of it.

There are those who believe the future lies in sounding more like the other two parties on crime, taxation, defence, public services and Europe, and that stepping outside the Labour/Tory consensus would be suicide.

What would be suicidal for the Lib Dems is to become a part of that consensus, and thus indistinguishable to the public from the other two occupants of that narrow territory.

Those who advocate that course are a worse menace to the Lib Dems than is anyone in any other party.

MINDLESS ACTIVISM

Why does the prime minister not simply appoint the editor of the News of the World to the post of home secretary and have done with it?

The spectacle of the government allowing a newspaper to dictate its policy on crime would be funny were it not so serious, because of what it says about Labour’s debased condition.

This government has been in power for nine years. It has passed more than forty new laws to tinker with the criminal justice system, usually as piecemeal responses to some media campaign or passing moral panic rather than as a coherent attempt to improve anything.

When its unprincipled populism has failed, or simply created other problems, it resorts to more laws and more tinkering.

The only coherence behind it, if it can be dignified as such, is an attempt to subordinate the entire police, legal and justice systems to the whims of politicians.

There is no aspect to the legal process in which Labour ministers do not see fit to interfere in the interests of getting a favourable headline in the right-wing press, regardless of what long-term damage may be done.

Lawyers, judges, even senior police officers, have protested that Labour’s endless and mindless interference is both wrong in principle and counter-productive in practice.

But no-one should be surprised. New Labour’s hallmark from the beginning was that it believed in nothing except gaining and holding power – all short term tactics and no long-term vision or even intentions.

The chickens are coming home to roost, but along the way civil liberty is under the most sustained peacetime attack it has ever endured in modern Britain.

Defence of civil liberty is the distinctive position the Liberal Democrats should take, rather than engage in a futile attempt to outbid the other two parties in the ‘toughness’ stakes.

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