Reading the cringeworthy extracts from Brian Paddick’s mayoral race diary I was left wondering just where the Liberal party went so wrong, why in this permissive, integrated, socially accepting age are the party that should stand for what most of us aspire to wallowing in third place; and why are people who by all rights should think the Liberals are the place to be, instead following the Conservatives into the centre ground, and, as someone asked me only a few weeks ago: “Just why don’t you vote Liberal Democrat?”.
From my perspective it’s a lack of real policy, don’t get me wrong the Liberal’s have some appealing ideas, a 4% cut in income tax would be nice, opposition to the war in Iraq from the start was commendable and their views on minimising state interference in your personal affairs hits my small government happy buttons every time, but what else do they offer? Where are the real killer policies, where are they clearly defined as the party that will make your life better or easier and your business more profitable?
Leader after leader of the Lib Dems have squandered the opportunities placed in front of them to reform the party, to bring in a party line where the most common adjective used in front of it isn’t ‘loony’, for a party formed in 1988 they’re dreadfully old fashioned bordering on plain stupid, they saw the fall of Thatcher’s & Major’s Governments, both riven with infighting and sleaze, they’ve watched the meteoric rise of the New Labour project as it blossomed into Blair’s untouchable first term and then crumbled into dodgy dossiers, missing billions and finally dour Scotsmen, but it would appear they’ve learnt nothing.
After 1999 and Ashdown leaving they’ve has a series of leaders who have all been nice chaps, Kennedy, Campbell and Cable, but who didn’t seem to bring direction to the party, Kennedy of course had Iraq and won protest votes because of his stance, but that wasn’t going to be a lasting seat-winner and after the debacle of the alcoholism cover-up the party made the strangest decision in recent years by breaking with all convention and choosing an ageing leader at the very time that all the other parties were grooming young faces who seemed in touch with the wage-earning masses (in Cameron, Blair and to a lesser extent the next generation of the New Labour project in Milliband & Co.).
Campbell from the outset was unfairly mocked because of his apparent age, more often compared to Father Time than an effective leader, polling at less than 20% support from the party faithful his position was clearly untenable, despite admirable performances in the House he evidently didn’t have what it took to lead the party forward.
And this is where the story goes from odd to just stupid, after an interesting tenure as stand-in leader with Vince Cable (who I still maintain is the man that put the first real nail in Brown’s coffin) the Lib Dems decided that they’re try a Blair & Cameron approach, but without the drive, speaking abilities or real charisma that both the aforementioned possess.
Nick Clegg, possibly the most nondescript party leader of any party in recent memory, a shadow of Cameron, out-manoeuvred at every move by a resurgent Conservative party firmly and fairly taking the centre-right’s imagination with a new brand of socially just, liberal thinking conservatism. What’s worse is until the near-election event the Conservatives were gaining this attention at the detriment of the Lib Dems while having little more than brand Cameron in their arsenal, there were no real policies just positioning of a party that would promote a greener, fairer, more competitive society led by a smaller government that didn’t feel the need to interfere and legislate at every opportunity.
So while all this re-branding and re-positioning was going on, what were the Liberal’s doing? Were they churning out solid policy documents and a manifesto for a better Britain? Were they looking at how they could seize the initiative and make it into official opposition? No – they were fannying about. Making a lot of noise, but nothing that could be considered even close to coherent. No grand plan, no vision for the future, just the same bunch of MPs who frankly wouldn’t say boo to a goose, much like their ever dwindling bunch of remaining supporters…
I have a hearty belly laugh every time I hear a call from the stage at a Lib Dem conference to go back and prepare for Government, or even for official opposition, because there seems to be an almost autistic attitude toward the facts, they’re third, and not just third, but some way behind in third, and as politics at their end of the chamber becomes increasingly fractious with smaller parties and one-issue independents stealing seats it’s going to be them that take the real brunt of the seat losses long term, and that’s a real shame, because not that long ago the Lib Dems looked like a party that was ahead of it’s time, a party whose day would eventually come; the brutal truth is though, that the time has already passed: first Labour under Blair and since the Conservatives under Cameron realised that the power in this country sits firmly in the centre they both moved while the Lib Dems were still fighting like ferrets in a sack, and I fear that unless something spectacular is pulled out of the bag at the next election they’ll lose seats as a resurgent Conservative party pull a landslide and the Labour heartland’s react to pull the Labour party from the pit of oblivion into a demoralised official opposition.
But you know the really tragic thing about all this is, having said all of this I know in my heart of hearts that despite agreeing with the majority of their policies I’d never waste a vote on them, I don’t think their leader is worth the skin he’s inhabiting and I couldn’t say that there’s a shred of credibility to the latest set of party re-positioning policies that Clegg and his team have fired out. I very firmly believe that Cameron (with the help of Brown and his incompetent cronies) may have started put the final nails in the coffin of not just New Labour, but also the Lib Dems, as such robbing the political bystander of the fascinating spectacle of a liberally centered parliament, and of two parties that really do represent where England in the socially aware Conservative centre right having a libertarian Liberal Democrat party as an opposition – with the Labour party tearing itself apart looking for a foothold in third place.
We can but dream.