Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Whither the Lib Dems?

Back in February 2006, having unceremoniously knifed their most successful leader in 80 years amid lurid and unsubstantiated tales of heavy drinking sessions and soiled underpants, the Lib Dems had a chance to make a fresh start under a new leader from the younger generation of MPs.

Chris Huhne stood in that election as the change candidate, putting forward a clear and compelling message which combined economic credibility with strong social justice and environmental credentials. Instead, the party opted for the "safe" option of Sir Menzies Campbell.

It was a mistake, and some of us said so at the time. That said, having put its trust in Ming to lead them up to the next election - then, as now, expected in 2009 - the party ought to have had the decency to stand by him.

A party which chops and changes its leaders cannot expect to be taken seriously by the electorate, and increasingly, this seems to be the Lib Dems' fate.

Having backed Huhne last time, it would seem logical for me to do so again, but given that this is unlikely to be a generational contest in the way that one was, I think the arguments are slightly less clear-cut this time round.

Over the ensuing 18 months, Huhne seems to have become unfairly categorised as a "left" candidate who reaches out more to Labour voters than to Tory ones. I am not at all sure that this is true, but he needs to overcome that perception if he is to put himself forward as a plausible leader at this particular juncture.

It would not in my view send out the right strategic message were the party to appear more interested in outflanking Labour at this stage. In terms of defending their key marginals in the south, and maybe even building on that base next time round, the Lib Dems need to choose the person who is going to cause maximum difficulties for the Tories.

There seems to be a common consensus that this would be Nick Clegg, although I personally am far from convinced by him. As someone said on this blog last week: "He was impressive as an MEP but since arriving at Westminster has given off an air of dessicated self-satisfaction" - another way of saying he just assumes the job is his by right.

For my part, I'd like to see a slightly wider choice of candidates. Julia Goldsworthy is bright, telegenic, and female, and 28 years after Margaret Thatcher became Premier it's high time we had another woman at the top of British politics. And David Laws, not Clegg, is the real intellectual engine of the "Orange Bookers" and deserves a crack at the top job.

But it is a sad fact about the Lib Dems that most of their most able figures have their best days behind them. By far the most impressive and substantial figures in their ranks are Paddy Ashdown and Shirley Williams, while Vince Cable is head and shoulders above the rest of the MPs, even though yesterday he looked like a mafia boss telling us that Ming was sleeping with the fishes.

Either way, I hope for the Lib Dems' sake that whoever wins is granted the automatic loyalty that the party's leaders used to merit and allowed to fight at least two elections as both Ashdown and Charles Kennedy were. That is how they used to do things in the Lib Dems in the days when they were successful, instead of giving a poor impersonation of the nasty party.

British politics needs a successful Liberal Democrat party. It is high time it got its act together.

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The Daily Pundit said...

Sadly, according to Michael White talking to Sky earlier today, Julia Goldsworthy has ruled herself out. But at least we tried.

Paul Linford said...

She would certainly have got what, back in my student politics days, was known as the engineering block vote.

Anonymous said...

Yes, not least if the engineering block vote had seen her prancing round in a leotard on Channel 4's The Games a while ago.

Anonymous said...

To paraphrase Mrs Thatcher on her own knifing, 'It was treachery with a sandal on its foot'.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what a young leader/potential Prime Minster would have to offer anyway! It's not like they're running, or performing sports, or athletes in any way, is it? Experience and wisdom seems to me, to be far better attributes to want.

Anonymous said...

Paul, I acknowledge your argument about the 'need' for a strong Lib Dem party, but so far as I can judge, the greater priority is for reform of our unrepresentative and intellectually bankrupt electoral system.

So long as that remains the case, there is a democratic accountability deficit, meaning that third parties and (more importantly from my perspective)the progressives within the main parties will always struggle to make headway.

I don't mean to nit pick with what you said and I'm sure you will agree.... but I just wanted to spout off on that :)