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  Now it's time for Lib Dems to start acting seriously  
 
The party's new chief will have to confront the choices that have been avoided during the leadership contest

Andrew Rawnsley
Sunday February 26, 2006
The Observer


It is a full 100 years since the Liberals won a majority of seats in the House of Commons. It is more than 50 years since Liberal bottoms warmed cabinet seats during Churchill's wartime coalition. The many moments of black comedy over the past few weeks have left ambitious Liberal Democrats despairing that their party will not look like plausible members of a government for another 150 years.

This week, they will learn who they have elected as their new leader after a contest triggered by the messy decapitation of Charles Kennedy. What began in a cloud of whisky fumes developed into a lurid melange of headlines about gay chat lines and sex acts with male prostitutes which even the News of the World regarded as 'too revolting to describe'. The contest now sighs to its finishing line with much of the media regarding it as too dull to describe.

There is one creditable reason for this. The contest has revealed that the Lib Dems agree with each other about rather a lot. To be sure, there have been some differences of emphasis between the candidates. Sir Menzies Campbell and Chris Huhne have squabbled quite fiercely about precisely when British troops should be withdrawn from Iraq, a good example of how politicians can row most energetically about those things they are least likely to be able to influence.

They have their splits between the 'social liberals' and the 'economic liberals', but the ideological divisions between their senior figures are less stark than those between Tony Blair and John Prescott or between David Cameron and Norman Tebbit. On many issues, the candidates have struggled to articulate strikingly alternative views. They are all for their party continuing to be the champions of the environment, the advocates of localism and the defenders of civil liberties.

Where they have differences, the candidates have been deliberately blurring them. Not wanting to be cast as a leftie loon who would repel voters in the shires, Simon Hughes has muffled his more radical instincts. Not wanting to be painted as a patrician who looks down on the hairier activists, Sir Menzies Campbell has been cautious about giving a modernising message to his party. Not wanting to be seen as a risky right winger, Chris Huhne has made populist noises designed to arouse the applause of Lib Dem members rather than to provoke them to think. They have all played it safe.

Where the party has big dilemmas to face and crunchy choices to make, the wannabe leaders have failed to confront them. None of them has had the courage to boldly tell their party what needs to change if it is not to be another half-century before they are a part of a government.

They have failed to challenge their party's comfort zones. They have not told the Lib Dems how they need to modernise with the urgency of Tony Blair running for the leadership of the Labour party or David Cameron campaigning to take over the Tories.

Without vigorously expressed differences of policy, the contest was bound to become dominated by backbiting about personality. Mr Huhne has boasted about the size of his brains. His rivals have hoped he will be damaged by the size of his property portfolio. Sir Menzies has traded on his years of experience. His opponents have talked about his age. Simon Hughes has claimed to be the candidate of passion. His rivals have suggested he is the candidate without judgment.

It is usual in elections held by postal ballots for the votes to flow in early. Not in this case. I'm told that many of the Lib Dems' 73,000 members have been leaving it very late to make their choice. The most unpredictable thing about this leadership race is the outcome.

It is not a contest that has fired the imagination of the nation. That should be disturbing for the Lib Dems. Holding the attention of the country will be precisely what is needed from whoever is proclaimed their new leader on Thursday.

It is always a struggle for the third party to get a fair hearing when the electoral system and the media arena are biased towards binary conflict rather than multidimensional arguments. The challenge for the third party is the more acute when Labour and the Tories are trying to cluster on to the centre ground. The ghost of Charles Kennedy will haunt a successor who does worse than the leader who was deposed.

The new Lib Dem leader will need to show that his party has a distinctive voice which is compelling. The opportunity is there providing the Lib Dems are prepared to think bravely and imaginatively, to live a little dangerously without acting stupidly.

A useful definition of a Liberal is someone who doesn't like the Tories, but who doesn't trust the state. There is still a great deal of demand for a party that is the guardian of civil liberties against the authoritarian instincts of the other two parties. There is ample space for the Lib Dems to fashion an approach that is distinctive from the statism of Gordon Brown while being more committed to social justice than the Conservatives are ever likely to be. There is a large constituency of opinion that is disillusioned with Labour and sceptical of the sincerity of David Cameron's makeover of the Tories.

Even leaderless, the Lib Dems achieved a stunning success in the Dunfermline byelection. More consoling for them, there have been a couple of opinion polls in the past week which suggest they are already recovering from their post-Kennedy hangover.

If the Lib Dems can be a crucial voice between now and the next election, they could be the pivotal player at Westminster after it.

That election is likely to be the most closely fought since 1992, perhaps the tightest since 1974. It is a highly plausible scenario that the next parliament will be hung. The next Lib Dem leader will not be king, but he could be kingmaker.

Gordon Brown will want to believe that he can perpetuate a Labour majority. But being the student of history that he is, the Chancellor is acutely aware how rare it is in Britain for a three-term government to go on to win a fourth. That accounts for so much of his anger with Tony Blair for not stepping aside earlier.

The Chancellor has recently been operating as a sort of shadow Prime Minister. We have heard Gordon Brown pronouncing on terrorism and seen him flying on to a warship. Some say he is enjoying playing at being Prime Minister. I very much doubt that. I suspect he hates having to enact these charades. The real job is what he yearns for. He does not want to get his hands on Number 10 only to have it snatched away from him without at least one full term of his own to his name. So the Chancellor has been taking the precaution of nurturing friendships with some key Lib Dems such as Vince Cable whom he's known for many years.

It would take very little movement in the micro-marginals for the Conservatives to deprive Labour of its majority at the next election. But for the Tories to win a majority of their own would require a swing so mammoth that I suspect even David Cameron thinks it is beyond him in one go. The Conservatives are also engaged in some discreet foreplay with Lib Dem MPs in case they need the third party as coalition partners after the next election.

The prospect of a hung parliament is a hugely tantalising one for their next leader. He could achieve what eluded Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe, David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. He could get Liberals back into the cabinet for the first time in more than half a century.

This means they will have to get very serious about their policy-making. It is one thing to make promises when you know, the media know and the public knows that you will never be in a position to deliver your pledges or called to account for why you haven't. A much more disciplined approach is demanded when it is highly conceivable that your commitments may follow you into government.

Lib Dem policy has often escaped searching scrutiny in the past because no one expected them to be in a position to implement anything. They cannot afford the sort of shambles they made of presenting policy at the last election if they want to look like credible contenders for positions of power.

The new leader will also have to come up with a plausible answer to the inevitable and relentless questions about how they would behave in a hung parliament. If they had the power to do so, would they sustain a Labour government which had lost its majority into a fourth term? Would they put in the Conservatives against the natural instincts of many of their members and voters? Would they refuse to deal with either and threaten the country with a period of unstable minority government?

The next leader of the Lib Dems will not govern Britain, but it is conceivable that he will decide who does. That is the mouth-watering opportunity for the party. And the eye-watering challenge for its new leader.

 
 
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