Top 10 tasks for my (sic) new party leader

Only now can the Liberal Democrats' parliamentarians stop holding their breath. We now know that for a long period - years not months - it has been necessary to cover up for the diplomatic illnesses of a party leader who, by his own admission, has had a serious alcohol problem. His final days, with the party in the country angry with the apparent disloyalty of Lib Dem MPs towards the party leader, have been anguished to say the least. As Sarah Teather, the MP for Brent East sadly remarked, "the problem has been not only that Charles has had to dissemble, but that we have all had to dissemble."

All this is painfully redolent of the scene at a meeting of the Liberal Party Assembly in Southport almost exactly thirty years ago when the party's long cover up of the problems of Jeremy Thorpe's leadership could continue no longer, following the criminal charges laid against him. A number of party members wanted to censure the officers for what they saw as unfair treatment of a leader in difficulty.

The three key officers concerned, Lord Gruffydd Evans, Geoff (now Lord) Tordoff and myself agreed that we would resign if the censure motion were carried. Behind closed doors Lord Evans laced into delegates with the horrors of party life that had hitherto been covered up. Delegates were astounded, just as now Lib Dem party members are discovering the painful realities of the recent years with Charles Kennedy.

It took time for the Liberal party to claw its way back into the reckonings under David Steel, but come back it did. Within six months the party had enough self-belief to risk the Lib-Lab pact which sustained the Callaghan government until May 1978 and then to survive the difficult election of 1979 before becoming entwined with the SDP in the Alliance election 1983.

The lessons of 1976 need to be learnt by the new leader of the Liberal Democrats. The opportunities for the party are considerable but the terrain is if anything more difficult. With public apathy towards party politics at its highest level ever, the new leader will have to earn a hearing if he or she is to make the most of the potentially powerful cards that are in the party's hand.

So dear leader, for what it's worth my ten key tasks for you are:

First, go for the long haul and don't be tempted to produce a gimmick a week. Much of the current political agenda is complex and incapable of simplistic solutions. It does the art and practice of politics no favours to pretend otherwise. The liberal case requires developing and explaining.

Second, realise that you are going to get a reasonable hearing in the media and avoid the obsession with the contrived photo opportunity. Jo Grimond, who was an immensely personable leader, with a wonderfully whimsical sense of humour, nevertheless treated politics as a serious profession and would never allow himself to be photographed in a situation that demeaned the political process.

Third, do not be looking over your shoulder at David Cameron. He has his own problems and will have to pay great attention to rebuilding his ageing party. He may indeed try to capture some Liberal ground but it will inevitably be the shadow not the substance. No Conservative can sustain the argument for genuine liberalism without appearing shifty or losing bedrock Tory support.

Fourth, examine the issue based politics that manages to interest younger voters. Many current political campaigns outside the party arena attract considerable support. You have the chance to make the connection between the issue and its political solution. The environmental crisis and the scandal of the developing world's poverty are campaigns crying out for imaginative political involvement.

Fifth, the other great issue of our time that captured the public mood and motivated its conscience is Iraq. The invasion of Iraq and the subsequent disaster of its occupation is the greatest political moral issue of the past fifty years. Under your predecessor the Liberal Democrats captured the moral ground but have let it slip. Your party opposed the invasion when the evidence tempted the other parties into supporting it. then, when the evidence backed the Lib Dems stand, the party retreated. There is no simple answer that will transform the plight of the Iraqi people overnight, but one thing is clear: no solution is possible whilst the occupation continues. You have the chance to state this as loudly and as frequently as possible and to work with the UN to find constructive plans that will build peace and security.

Sixth, lead the campaign for the reconstruction of local government. The virtual abolition of local democracy and the undermining of municipal pride has crept up on the country by stealth. Almost every power that was once firmly in elected Councillors' hands has been stolen away.

Seventh, grasp the issue of civil liberty that fits firmly into the Liberal frame. It was a Leeds Liberal, Harry Willcock, who got rid of identity cards in 1950 and it is in your power to prevent them being reintroduced, with all the connotations of Big Brother controlling a national database.

Eighth, support the NHS and in particular those thousands of dedicated clinicians who are weary of slick government directives designed only to grab a headline and which divert attention away from the fundamental problem of the NHS - that as long as the power to tax and the power to spend are in different hands there is no means of determining healthy priorities.

Ninth, switch the priorities in law and order to prevention not detection. Almost every initiative today is designed to detect. CCTV, ASBOs, harsh penalties, building prisons are, frankly, the wrong emphasis. We need strong communities capable of inhibiting antisocial behaviour.

Lastly, don't let yourself get dragged into the "who will you support in a coalition" argument. It's a false issue and you can't win it. Answer the question by posing another: will you support electoral reform to ensure that coalitions are solidly based instead of occurring by mathematical accident. The traditional Liberal policy of preferential voting - STV - puts electoral influence firmly back into the elector's hands and is a crucial means of rebuilding our democratic health.

These will do for starters. Over to you for your second hundred days!

6 January 2006