Saturday, 23 June 2007

A no win situation

You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.

That certainly seems to be the verdict of political pundits and illiberal elements as they pour opprobrium on the recent discussions between Gordon Brown, our next Prime Minister (acts of god permitting), and Sir Menzies Campbell about a role for Lib Dem peers in a Brown government.

My view is that Diane Abbot (one of the more pleasant socialists) got to the heart of the issue when she said that such a deal would be “electoral suicide” for the Liberal Democrats. For our party, the greatest challenge is ridding itself of the popular misconception that Labour and Liberal are different shades of the same colour (red, or red with a hint of yellow), different wings of the same centre-left family that stands in contrast to the centre-right blue(-rinse) alternative.

Such misconceptions are not helped by Sir Menzies’ persistence on referring (and proudly at that!) to the Liberal Democrats as a party of the centre-left. We are not a party of the centre-left, of the centre-right, or of the centre-anything. We are a liberal party: as opposed to socialism as we are to conservatism, both committed to fairness and distrustful of the state. As my more avid reader will recall, I have discussed this before.

Part of disabusing the public of their view of us as a Labour ginger-group (it would explain the orange!), “the social conscience of the Labour Party”, is to quash the assumption that in any coalition we would automatically side with Labour. This is not to say that we should show any eagerness to side with the Conservatives either (especially not this current shower!), but we must dispel the myth that if Labour fails to make it to the necessary 324 seats they can trust us to prop them up.

After a general election, in the event of a hung parliament (and I’m still not prepared to put my money on it happening), we should be prepared to negotiate with either and both parties – showing no favour – to identify which is prepared to put forward the more liberal policy platform. We must also be prepared to reject both parties and allow one (no matter which one) to form a minority administration, if neither are liberal enough.

That seems pretty clear to me. So why is it that some Lib Dems seem to think we have a natural ally in one of the other parties? And why is it that the pundits seem not only to agree, but to be genuinely shocked that we should reject the chance of power? After all, nobody joined the Lib Dems in the hope of enjoying the faux-leather seats in the ministerial limo.

This baleful piece in The Times is typical. According to the Editor, the Liberal Democrats ought to be more willing to collaborate than other parties (he is not clear why) and should therefore jump at any opportunity that presents itself. Strangely, the article notes that we have “declined to negotiate a coalition with either the SNP or Labour in Scotland… leaned in Labour’s direction in Wales [and] then flirted with a bizarre bargain with Plaid Cymru and the Tories before lapsing back into opposition” and also, inaccurately this time, claimed that “they also toyed with reaching an understanding with David Cameron over a common contender for mayor of London… before backing out of that accord too” (which is a crude distortion of the truth). What conclusion does the Editor draw from our apparent three bouts of discussion followed by refusal? That “This behaviour is neither consistent nor coherent.” I beg to differ. It is clearly consistent, and its coherence comes from our willingness to enter into coalition only within a broadly liberal framework.

My point is not that this is all grossly unfair, however. One would expect little else from the Murdoch press, wed as it still is to New Labour. Indeed, none of the press are impartial – that’s not really their job, despite another common misconception. My point is that had the discussions turned out differently, and were Lord Ashdown and his fellow Lib Dem peers preparing to spend less time with their families, you may rest assured that the press would have howled with derision all the same. Instead of being incoherent and not ready for power, we would be unprincipled and interested only in office; instead of Campbell being weak and indecisive, he would be weak and easily seduced; instead of talking of a missed opportunity, they would speak of our losing our identity.

I have said it before and I will say it again: the more popular our party and our ideology, the more the reactionary elements (on both sides) will attack us; the more powerful we become, the more our enemies will concentrate their fire upon us. That is the price of success. So be it.

It was daft of Brown to think that he could co-opt the Liberal Democrats at a time when they have more MPs, higher poll ratings and more persuasive policies than ever before. Sir Menzies is right: our priorities should be maximum votes; maximum seats.

Thanks, Gordon, but we’ll go it alone!


George C said...

That's a good analysis Tom. What virtually none of the press commentators point out is that at no point was there any suggestion that the government's policy might change in any area. This was simply about who implements - and defends - Gordon's agenda.

Julian H said...

Absolutely spot on.