Friday, June 29, 2007

Renewing the Liberal Democrats

The advent of the Brown Administration places new challenges for the opposition to face. David Cameron, for example, will need to adjust his front bench, to reflect the different portfolios that Brown has created. He will also need to find a considered response to the devastating charges from Quentin Davies, amongst others, that he is not much more than a vacuous light weight.

For the Liberal Democrats, the challenges are, if anything, greater.

Gordon Brown is clearly intending to address some of the major constitutional problems that the UK now faces. I now expect some radical measures, possibly an English Parliament for example, together with some of the measures that the Liberal Democrats have proposed to increase accountability at various levels of government. It will seem- and may even actually be- a concerted move onto territory hiterto considered to be that of the Liberal Democrats. His overtures to the leaders of the party have been deliberate and determined, and for our party they are very dangerous- as Brown must have known from the start.

There is simply no way that Liberal Democrat ministers could serve in a government with any other party without a joint programme- the spectacle of Paddy Ashdown appearing on the Today programme to talk about Northern Ireland and then being forced to defend ID cards- another policy of the government he would have served- was never truly likely. This alone shows why the Lib Dems will continue to stay away from these partial and symbolic gestures towards them.

The point of the debate that our party has been having is now shown in sharp relief. The Liberal Democrats have not been crafting a simple manifesto, we have been refining a Liberal ideology, where our policy positions are based on Mill's principles of political freedom. I welcome the debates that Liberals are having with Libertarians- the fundamental question of Libertarianism versus Authoritarianism is, to my mind becoming more critical than the old Left-Right split, which the defeat of Marxism has rendered dramatically less relevant anyway. Liberals are anti-Authoritarian, by definition.

Brown believes that the state is an enabler, Libertarians that it is an enslaver. By and large, Liberals increasingly side with the Libertarian view- it is critical to set hard and fast limits to state power. By contrast, in that sense Cameron no longer believes that the size of the state should be reduced: as many Libertarians in the Conservative Party have noticed to their discomfort. It is this territory of greater personal liberty, reduced powers for the state, including a sharp reduction in the economic powers of government, that the Liberal Democrats can now make our own.

However, in facing that challenge of renewal, I believe that we will now need to renew ourselves.

I have known Ming Campbell for decades. I supported his leadership bid. He is a generous, intelligent and decent man. However, the way that he has been upset by these devious manoeuvres-for that is all they are- from Gordon Brown have brought me to a sombre conclusion: the Liberal Democrats can not make the break through that we need under his leadership. He belongs to an older generation that still thinks of Liberalism in left-right terms as "of the centre-left". This vocabulary alone reveals a lack of strategic vision. He can not convince the British electorate that the Liberal Democrats offer a modern, distinctive, vision of a better future. Having been through one leadership election in the past -working closely with one of the losing candidates- I hesitate to suggest that we go down this road. However, if we do not see a positive reaction from the electorate of Sedgefield and Ealing to the campaigning and the principles of the Liberal Democrats, then I truly believe that our party must consider the future very carefully.

The last local elections, despite the vagaries of the electoral system, did bring the Liberal Democrats to within 1% of their highest ever national share of the vote, however the party has lost ground in several critical key areas, as the Conservatives have recovered and the Labour vote held up surprisingly well in Labour-Lib Dem battlegrounds. The polls have been getting progressively worse.

I realise the gravity of the position that I now put forward, and I truly do not do this lightly, but unless we can see progress in these by-elections, I am coming to the opinion that the leadership has to convey a totally different style: we need a new leadership style much sooner than after the next election- we need it now. Though the timing can not be immediate, it is clear that we need to move quite soon.

As a great Liberal, I believe that Ming truly wants to serve his party and his country in the best way he can. He has done this in the inclusive and collegiate way he has nurtured the talent we have in our party- talent that even Gordon Brown now recognises. Ming's greatest gift to the Liberalism he has worked for all his life may now be to allow that talent, tempered and matured in his shadow cabinet, to put forward a new strategic vision of leadership for our party and our country.


James Graham said...

Your analysis is flawed on two counts. Firstly, if we do well in those by-elections is won't have very much to do with Ming however the party retrospectively tries to dress it up, just as Romsey and Brent East didn't have that much to do with Charles Kennedy.

Secondly, we are certainly in a sticky patch at the moment, but is that the ideal time to be bringing in a new leader? From a narrative point of view, it looks bad: panicky party ditches second leader in 18 months. Perhaps because I'm sceptical about the 'great leader of men' model of party politics anyway, I do think that any new leader ought to be choosing his/her moment carefully and that, whatever the relative merits of Ming, now ain't it.

Anonymous said...

In my more depressed moments, I think we're stuffed whoever's the leader(You Gov, the most accurate pollsters, have us falling to 12%!); however, in my more reflective moments I think it's time for the party to hold its nerve and ride out the storm of publicity the new Brown regime will generate. The "constitutional reform" smacks of Paul Keating's drive to make Australia a republic-a cynical ploy to distract the electorate from the real problems facing society , i.e. child poverty, massive indebtness,etc.

Cicero said...

The point is not the timing but the decision- everything else is just dressing. Either we need a change or we don't.

The fact is-we do, and the sooner we can manage this the better