Campbell the persuader must play to his strengths

Far from voting for a safe pair of hands, the Liberal Democrats have made a much braver decision. By electing Ming Campbell as their leader they have voted for intellectual rigour and for liberal depth. By turning their back on image and spin the Liberal Democrats have signalled their intention to develop and promote a coherent and consistent liberalism. At the party's two previous elections the members voted for image over intellect: Paddy Ashdown rather than Alan Beith, Charles Kennedy rather than Simon Hughes, and it brought them more MPs, though not so many more votes. Looking at Thursday's voting figures it certainly lost the party many members.

Even more important is the opportunity it gives the Liberal Democrats to challenge the disaffection of a huge tract of the British electorate with mainstream politics. The alarmingly low election turnout - hovering around 60% - the lack of political debate and the haemorrhaging of party membership are not going to be reversed by more of the politics of the focus group. It is far too dangerous, not to say cynical, to be content to form a government with the support of only a quarter of the electorate.

The question for Ming Campbell personally, and for his party officers, is whether he and they will have the courage to set a path and to stick to it. For far too long the third party in British politics has been the quiescent victim of the big boys' collusion to keep the agenda on their terms. That agenda, bereft of ideological anchors, effortlessly pragmatic, and casually dismissive of anything that hints at conscience or principle, does not have answers for the deep concerns of the British public today.

The left-right divide never actually was a divide, but only a line on which red and blue pegs could be tacked to denote how much of the economy was public and how much was private. In itself it is a futile argument when so much of modern political economic policy is only susceptible to minor changes around its frayed edges. Ming Campbell would do well to keep uttering that Liberal mantra, "the market where possible and the state where necessary", and to shift the argument on to the centralisation of power versus the distribution of power.

Even if it were possible for the Lib Dems to continue their exponential growth in MP numbers by their erstwhile tactics of targeting and tactical voting, it would not produce a coherent and cohesive political force capable of tackling the clear needs of individuals for a sense of community and co-operation. Human society has always the potential to choose human values rather than exploitation, and it needs support and encouragement to do so. That will not come by increasing repression, by handing out thousands of ASBOs or by throwing public money around, but rather by the careful fostering of all those ingredients, physical and psychological, that contribute to a confident community.

Ming Campbell starts with an immense advantage. He has political depth and an intelligence that can make the answers to difficult questions sound effortlessly logical. To play to these strengths means being the persuader rather than the gladiator. The public has an instinctive ability to spot artificiality and it would be a waste of his skills to attempt to make Campbell a liberal Blair, or a progressive Cameron, let alone an extrovert Brown.

In many respects the model is Jo Grimond. Jo believed in the importance of politics and always insisted that it was too serious a matter for gimmicks. There is no photograph I can recall of Jo Grimond in a contrived photo opportunity. His strengths as a leader were, first, his ability to see the strengths and weaknesses in an argument before they became commonplace or entrenched, and, second, his willingness to speak and write about new ideas, even if at first they seemed heretical.

Ming Campbell has a similar opportunity to challenge orthodoxy and to apply liberal principles to otherwise intractable problems. Social democracy has a very honourable past but the problem is that it has no future. Any alternative to the current political malaise, and any programme to tackle the immense challenges of modern living, are going to require a liberal analysis. To take just one example: for sixty years the two larger parties have vied with each other to kill off local government. A democratic society is impossible without a vibrant local democracy and yet powers have been stripped from our municipalities without any major outcry or campaign. The reinvigoration of local government is an open goal - and a thoroughly liberal one at that.

The cry of the voter is all too often that politicians are "too much talk and too little action." Alas, the public has got it totally wrong. The history of post war politics is of far too little talk and far too much action. It is so much easier for the politician to leave behind the physical evidence of his reign than to have the amorphous but infinitely more important legacy of a "better" community. One result has been the dehumanising housing policies of the post war era. Tower blocks, system building, walk up maisonettes, comprehensive redevelopment, were all the result of a desire to act without rigorous analysis and careful thought.

With Ming Campbell as leader there is the opportunity for the Lib Dems deliberately to promote debate and discussion. I have left international affairs to the end, mainly because they have been Ming Campbell's strong suit throughout his time in parliament. As party leader he now has fewer constraints and he has the opportunity to pick up the argument over Iraq and to demonstrate that if ever there was an issue where the politicians acted without enough thought, it is Iraq.

At every step of the way since the invasion US and UK governments have promised that the next stage would produce peace and harmony. The interim government, the first election, the new constitution, the second election, and currently the formation of a full government have all been and gone and the situation for Iraqis gets worse not better. Ming Campbell has the supreme benefit of consistency from before the invasion. He has the chance to lead not only his party but also the wider campaign for an early end to the occupation. Nothing less has a chance of success.

The Liberal Democrats' new leader bears a heavy responsibility. Fortunately for him spin and image have had their day. Substance and consistency, allied to a liberal alternative, can be successful and electorally attractive. We could be in for some interesting politics!

2 March 2006