Monday, January 23, 2006

The Demise of Mark Oaten (bumped)

Wow. The resignation of Mark Oaten over rent-boy allegations has stunned me, and a quick look at Lib Dem Blogs suggests it has surprised most, too. I'm not sure there's an awful lot to add on what's already been said about the story. Why on earth did he run if this was in the background? Alan Beddow has the best analysis of why this came out now. I must say, though, that it is always a pity when it is private, not political reasons which force the end of someone's career.

One thing for certain is that this is really bad news for the LibDems as a party. At a time when they should be gaining probably a larger share of the headlines than they are already getting, the attention is now going to be on the muddled personal life of a failed leadership contender. But that's not just bad for the Lib Dems, that's bad for the political process overall.

A strong third party is of great value to political debate; it often stops any particular issue being cleaved into two sides, as much as the media might like to simplify matters. It allows new ideas to be floated that the major parties originally may not touch with a bargepole, but are in fact taken up later. It means where the two main parties decide to hold a consensual love-in, policies can still be held to account.

Now, at a time when the third party should be having a serious debate about the future course it wants to choose, its stock, and its headline-gaining ability, will be damaged by the allegations it faces. The glee that some in both Labour and Tory parties will undoubtedly feel will ultimately show off their overly partisan nature. I wouldn't have made Oaten's personal choices myself, but to a certain extent I don't particularly care about them either. What I do care about is having a serious, reasoned debate about where we want our country to go. Stories like Oaten's make that much harder.