Sunday, January 08, 2006

Responding to Rebuttal

Richard's comments in response to me all seem to be of the "you don't get it" variety. That may be true; I am not a member of the Lib Dems, I do not plan to be in the immediate future, and as such cannot know the true machinations.

However, if I "don't get it", then it is up to the Lib Dems to prove otherwise. The Lib Dems are continually chastised in many quarters (ie from both sides) for being woolly, inspecific, and often on two sides of the same issue at the same time. (I don't have the link, but there was an article in the Times recently which showed frontbench spokespeople saying different things on the same area on the same day). Now, if that isn't down to there being two distinct wings of the party, I would be highly surprised. It would also fly totally in the face of the judgement of the wisest political commentators who have, in my opinion rightly, emphasised that there is a dichotomy between universalist ex-SDPers and the side of the party that leans towards the Orange Book.

You may argue that the entire spectrum in between is represented in the party, but for me that doesn't wash - the policy-pushers are from one side or the other.

Now, if it's just me, political commentators and large portions of the wider public who "don't get it", then the Lib Dems need to get out there and make the argument. But this isn't a new perception - this is a perception that's been rumbling on for a long time. It may have been worsened since the election, but I would say that the very disappointing election results were down to the fact that people listened to Charles Kennedy when he claimed to be the real opposition and a major force.

And then they looked at the ideas and rejected them. Lib Dem results right across the southeast corridor were down right across the board, and the results were patchy even in the stronghold of the South West (some were up sharply, others down sharply). Where gains were made, except for Solihull, were in Labour strongholds. I doubt that disaffection with the Labour Party will last until 2009.

Can they change the perception? Yes, but only if they can make a much clearer economic case. I'm not sure where the consensus within the party is on that matter, however - the 50% tax rate seemed to me to be somewhat opportunistic, a catch-all solution to supposed Labour underfunding, and a response to the universalists in the party. Maybe Richard can enlighten me on this, but in discussions we have had, he has argued that you can be either for or against a 50% tax rate and still in favour of individual freedom. Whilst the party is bickering over the meaning of individual freedom, David Davis's comments will ring true. People at elections want to know what you mean, not what you stand for.

There are areas where the Lib Dems do seem to stand united. However, they are at risk of having Cameron steal their clothes - especially with his seeming turn towards environmentalism. If Cameron makes a properly articulated opposition to ID cards, too, the carpet will be pulled from under the Lib Dems. This goes even more as top-up fees and the Iraq war begin to fade from the political radar.

Other areas where the Lib Dems appear to say the same thing do not add up to much; talking about how "everyone wants a good school in their neighbourhood" sounds nice, but I haven't heard anything about how they hope to achieve it. Being nice is no longer a long-term strategy for continued success. If they were willing to run with some of the Orange Book ideas, I think they could seize the agenda - but at the same time, Richard seems to indicate a large amount of antipathy towards that wing of the party, and it would surely be highly controversial among the social democrats.

In any case, after the real and huge problems that the Kennedy fiasco has highlighted (has any other party leader had half the parliamentary party refuse to countenance serving on a frontbench team?) and the seeming warfare, the party needs to find some way of coalescing; not giving the leadership to one wing of the party which may cause even more strife and recrimination.

I may "not get" everything about the Liberal Democrats. But I would wager I am more interested and follow politics more closely than the average voter. And I haven't a clue what voting for the Liberal Democrats actually means. They seem to blow with the wind or take two positions at once. If the Liberal Democrats are to remain a strong force in politics, then they shouldn't be having high-faluting arguments over what sort of individual freedom they stand for. They need to tell the British public what they mean.