Lib Dems stuck in the comfort zone

There is a persistent and nagging question that continues to meander around political circles: why are the Liberal Democrats not soaring ahead in the opinion polls? Tony Blair is increasingly mired in the Iraq shambles and, with more U-turns than a Damascus commuter, needs to replace a gearbox perversely locked in reverse. The polls suggest that new Labour increasingly lacks a basis of trust or integrity, and the Conservatives under Michael Howard have done little except to stabilise their own loyalists - in a party in which the average age of members is over that of statutory male retirement. In theory, any third party that is "neither of the above" should be romping ahead, rather than being stuck at around the 20% mark. Even in local elections, for long the mainstay of the Liberal Democrats, there are warning signs - last week there were five Conservative gains from them around the country.

This is not going to turn into another rant about the folly of the merger of the SDP and the Liberal party, tempting though that is, but rather an attempt to look at the current state of play of the Liberal Democrats after fifteen years of existence.

Fundamentally the party's problem is that it has become part of the Westminster club, that rather comfortable home of the traditional political class. It conforms to the rules, it shares in the perks, whether in rewarding party service with peerages or taking a share of the Westminster Foundation cash for its own projects. It participates in that cosy closed circle in which the media feed off the politicians and the politicians feed the media. It is content to win seats on low turnouts, particularly in local elections and it has lost its radical touch precisely at a time when public respect and confidence in the present political parties is at its lowest ebb.

It is highly significant that in the early 1960s almost half the electorate had "strong loyalties" to a political party but by 2001 this had declined to just 15%. A third party has huge problems of making an impact within our "first past the post" electoral system. It relies on a big protest vote and, when in second place in a constituency, it has to push tactical voting, arguing that a vote for the bottom party is wasted.

These tactics have worked well so far for the Liberal Democrats, giving them 53 MPs even though the party still has a lower vote than the Liberal Party polled in both elections of 1974, but something more is needed. Much more than the two larger parties, with their class bases and the cyclical nature of government and opposition, a third party needs a large base of members committed to a distinctive political philosophy. Before the dilution brought in by the SDP, the Liberal party always had this - indeed it was the only thing that kept it going in the dark days - and the general decline in attachment to a political party hits the Liberal Democrats much harder than it does the two big boys. I recall asking George Allen, a Liberal activist and candidate in the '40s and '50s,what had kept the party going in those bleak times. He replied "we couldn't stand the Tories and we didn't trust the State"! A little on the short side, perhaps, but certainly succinct.

The Liberal Democrats have not been short of recent issues on which they have been right. Their failure has been the lack of a campaigning cutting edge. They were right on Iraq but failed to maintain an antiwar campaign when the conflict started - as if anti Hitler Germans should have meekly supported the war once the Wehrmacht started invading its neighbours. The Lib Dems were right on the disastrous death of the secret ballot as a consequence of the all-postal ballots imposed on Yorkshire and three other regions next month. But the party of the Great Reform Act and of the Ballot Act has failed to take to the streets to protect its heritage. The Liberal Democrats have also been right, albeit somewhat timorously, to oppose identity cards, but there has been no clarion call to reject them root and branch.

If this analysis of the party's failings is accurate, it follows that the Liberal Democrats need above all a leader able to articulate a distinctive political position and to build up a strong core of activists. Taking at face value the party's assertion that it has such a position, I believe that it has twice gone for the wrong leader. Choosing Paddy Ashdown instead of Alan Beith was the triumph of hope over experience. Whatever attributes Paddy has - and a man who has Puccini on the cassettes in his car cannot be all bad - consistency in political stances is not one of them, save for Bosnia for which he deserves every commendation. Also, as his diaries show, his secret determination to take the Liberal Democrats into a "project" with new Labour was at best naive and at worst disloyal. Alan Beith might just have held the whole Liberal constituency together and would certainly have forged a consistent and intellectually coherent political position for the party.

By the time the party came to choose its next leader it again lost its way. The obvious successor to Ashdown was Menzies Campbell but, having got the hard word from some key activists that he was regarded as too much on the Right of the party, he withdrew from the contest, thus leaving the way open for Charles Kennedy. Kennedy may well be a convivial guy but he lacks that mystical quality of "stature", and the public senses it. On the other hand Campbell's consistent and coherent appearances on foreign affairs issues invariably have depth and weight. The Lib Dems have an impossible dilemma, which its strategists certainly discuss. Would the electoral implications of making a change outweigh the gains of having Menzies Campbell oozing authority on television and radio? One thing is certain: the time for making a change is rapidly running out.

14 May 2004