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