The Eastleigh by-election is a must-win for the Liberal Democrats- that is a given.
The party has a lock on the council, and a loss here would be devastating for internal morale and for the public perception that the party can ride out its current unpopularity in the opinion polls and survive, and even thrive at the next general election.
Yet, from overseas, while I see the energy and commitment that the party is putting into the by-election, I am filled with foreboding, for this energy masks an a profound, even existential, crisis. The fact is that the burden of the by-election is falling on fewer and fewer members- I have received at least ten contacts over the past week urging me to donate, go and campaign, work on phone banks and all the other sundry by-election work. Even to a committed political, social and economic Liberal like myself it is intrusive. To the voters in the constituency it must be unbearable.
To be honest, for the first time, I am genuinely irritated with the party leadership- both the executive and the Parliamentary leaders seem to be competing with Labour and the Conservatives to be the most reductionist. The gall of Labour, having trashed our ideas and philosophy for years now seeking to adopt a policy platform comprising several key Lib Dem policies is political transvestism at its most cynical. Yet the Liberal Democrats, still, apparently the ideas power-house of British politics, seem ever less involved with philosophical debates and ever more with the mechanics of power and the tactics of politics. OK, I'll admit I expected that entering government would increase the significance of tactical position taking. What I was not prepared for was the wholesale abandonment of our Liberal culture of political debate. We are being reduced to foot soldiers in a party, whose leadership equates debate with dissent. In short, the party is in danger of losing its very ethos, indeed, its very soul.
I have watched over the past two years as first the Socialist-lite faction abandoned the party, and I was not so concerned about that- the keepers of the Liberal flame were always nervous of collective solutions, even as we embraced- indeed embodied- radicalism and anti-establishment ideas. Then I watched the self-declared Green Democrats gradually peel away. Then, and most grievously, I watched self-declared "Social Liberals", like James Graham, back away from the coalition. In the end much of the core membership has remained, but close to the Parliamentary party I see too many fresh-faced cynics in cheap suits. The synthetic cheap thrills of proximity to power seem to have trumped the intellectual tension that led so-called social Liberals and so-called economic Liberals to work together to craft intelligent and intellectually honest policy. Now, the membership is being used simply to support the mechanics of political tacticians- it is altogether cut out from policy.
Some would say that this is a result of the inevitable new disciplines of being in a coalition government. I say it is selling out the proud radical dissenting Liberal tradition for a mess of pottage.
I am not interested in whether the personality of Nick Clegg- or any other politician, however Liberal- achieves his personal political ambitions. I'm interested in the promotion of a radical Liberal political agenda, built around an open appraisal of our country's needs and and honest presentation - including admitting drawbacks- to our country's voters.
Ed Miliband is a pusillanimous pustule of a professional politician. His whole career has been marked by the ceaseless striving for position on the greasy pole of left-wing cant. It would be a tragedy if the voters can not determine the difference between the cynical reductionism of the failed Socialist agenda- which even Labour has all but abandoned- and the intellectually robust radical agenda of modern Liberalism. Yet, to be honest, even I find it difficult to tell one set of populist sloganeering from another, and not just because Labour are seeking to steal the Liberal Democrats' political clothes.
The executive and the leadership of the Liberal Democrats - even if Eastleigh is held- need to be called to account. The fact is that the tactics for this by-election have brought out my deepest fears for the future. In seeking victory, the leadership has continued to choke-off the very core what our party stands for- the right to publicly dissent. Rightly, the British electorate can smell a rat- and that is- in my view- a significant contributor to our current dire position in the polls. If Eastleigh is lost, then the party leadership- indeed the party itself- will be in the last chance saloon. Even if it is held, there is no doubt that the ties of friendship and loyalty that have kept so many of us on the Liberal road have been tested to the limit. If the next conference is another stage-managed love-fest of the Parliamentary party, as it is in the other two parties, then do not be surprised if the Radical Liberals are the next, and final, group to grow disenchanted, even with the Liberal Democrats- the party that was supposed to challenge and renew the moribund, broken British political system.
After 35 years of campaigning.
After thousands of Pounds donated.
After hopes raised by great victories and defeats mourned.
After decades of friendship
I can not watch the great Liberal ideology, which I have been proud to support all my adult life, reduced to a hobby-horse for the politically ambitious but personally inadequate. I will be going to conference in the Autumn with fire in my heart. The political bromides offered up by Labour and Conservative must be challenged and defeated and the political life of our country remade- and if Liberal Democrats lose sight of this great task- what hope is there for the economic, social or political future of our country?
Eastleigh- win our lose- must be where the party rediscovers its political soul.