Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Brown and Out

Nick Clegg takes his place as leader of the Liberal Democrats facing the usual chorus of contempt from his political enemies. It is not a question of making the best of any honeymoon, because there is not going to be one. He will be hectored, booed and ambushed at every turn. His first PMQs on January 9th will be a baptism of fire- with Conservatives especially keen to show him in a weak or ineffectual light. The usual script against the Liberal Democrats is to try to paint them as "pointless" or "irrelevant", since research proves again and again that the biggest problem the party has is establishing its credibility- this is why so much effort in Lib Dem's campaigning: bar charts, "winning here" and the rest of it, is to simply persuade the electorate to take the prospect of a Lib Dem victory seriously.

All of this is just part of the knock about fun that is British political debate.

The reality- as the intelligent strategists of our political opponents know all too well- is that when credibility is a given for the Liberal Democrats, when they win in a constituency for example, then they become very formidable opponents indeed, and devilishly difficult to shift. When credibility is established, then the electorate takes the party seriously. This is why both Conservatives and Labour try to mock the Liberal Democrats and rubbish their credibility as often as they do.

However, the Brown funk that caused Labour to abandon their plans for an election in the Autumn of 2007 now opens up some interesting and potentially exciting times for Liberalism in the United Kingdom. The Blair-Brown government, authoritarian but afraid, is looking increasingly shop-soiled. Carelessness is leading to allegations of sleaze and- far more damaging- the impression of incompetence. Although Labour may yet turn it around, the brooding and vengeful personality of the new Prime Minister is not one that inspires the benefit of the doubt.

The Conservatives are meanwhile cautiously rediscovering their appetite for power. Slowly, despite continuing problems of cohesion, based on the lack of trust that a significant minority amongst the Conservatives still feel about the Cameroons, the party is establishing a brittle kind of credibility. Interestingly, David Cameron has taken up some long-standing Liberal themes: breaking the centralisation of decision making and reestablishing a more local state. Of course David Cameron is no Liberal, simply because he cherry picks a few Liberal Democrat ideas, but it is a backhanded compliment to Liberalism nonetheless. However, without a real commitment to the core change- to the voting system for Westminster- it is pretty much impossible for Liberal Democrats to take the Cameroons offer of a "progressive alliance" against Labour too seriously.

The challenge for Nick Clegg will be initially simply to survive the firestorm that will be launched against him over his first two or three months. He will need iron focus, considerable discipline but, above all- as Vince Cable has shown- a quickfire sense of humour in order to avoid the fierce criticism that he will undoubtedly get from both our formal opponents in other parties and our more dangerous opponents in the media.

However Clegg also has an opportunity. The front bench that he inherits is arguably the most talented in the House of Commons. He can rely on a flow of distinctive and well thought out policy ideas. In particular he is facing a government that is being increasingly challenged by events and by its own limitations of personnel and ideology. The balance of the 2005 election brought many Labour seats within range, in Newcastle and Liverpool, for example, where despite controlling the City councils, the Lib Dems have yet to break through at Parliamentary level.

Yet there is a potential trap: the party must not seek to appeal to ex-Labour voters at the expense of its' commitments to the Liberal ideas of individual freedom. This is where the new leader will need to be exceptionally thoughtful about presenting Liberal ideas in a way that can appeal, rather than by being driven by a PR agenda which ultimately blunts the ideology of the party- why, for example I have often been quite sharp in my responses to the Conservative poster "Lepidus". After all this time, I for one am not prepared to reduce my commitment to Liberalism- even were that to be seen as more appealing in the short term.

Labour may be becoming demoralised, but the opportunity for the Liberal Democrats is not just to be the recipient of ex-Labour votes. We should go toe-to-toe with the Cameroons and demonstrate why our commitment to Liberalism is deeper and better than the skin-deep "Liberal-Conservatism" of David Cameron's party. That will be what makes us a party that is genuinely national, genuinely radical and able to appeal to the whole of the United Kingdom.

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