Thursday, February 02, 2006

Those damn Lib Dems

Almost the first thing that engaged me in politics was an extreme and possibly overblown rage directed against Jammy Fishpaste's Referendum Party. I remember arguing for ages with a teacher (this dates me somewhat) who, despite being a Tory, propsed to vote for them as the Tories were insufficiently anti-Europe. In 97, despite getting stuck up his hacienda, the RP's vote was decisive in a fairly large number of marginal constituencies. The lesson taken by Hague was that he'd better look to his right flank or be marginalised by parties like UKIP or the RP.

This, coupled with a residual bad taste left by the 'Back to Basics' fiasco, enabled the Lib Dems to cement their position in the South as the 'nice' alterative to a Tory Party that increasingly seemed to appeal only to die-hards and bitter-enders. They were also able to maintain their anti-Labour pressure in the inner-cities by never quite spelling out what it was that they were for exactly. The great Boris tells the story of trying unsuccessfully to relieve a Henley voter of the misapprehension that the Lib Dems were the most Euro-sceptic mainstream party on offer in 2001, and the dichotomy of policy between Cornish and inner London constituencies is reasonably well known.

So, the election of a new leader could be seen as a turning point. If (as now seems very unlikely) Simon Hughes is elected, it will be increasingly untenable for the Lib Dems to continue to be all things to all men, since Hughes has a unifying political theory, and one that is significantly to the left of the current political spectrum. If, as seems probable Ming Campbell gets the nod, then the future direction looks less certain (although as Dr Crippen notes his chances of still being in charge in 2009 are less than good) but Campbell has less of the reassuring vagueness that characterised old Charlie, and might actually have to lay out a position. If Chris Huhne gets it, well, who the hell knows?

One thing does seem clear. The increased attention given to the Lib Dems, for good reasons and bad, can only be a bad thing for the party. As someone once said "sunlight is the best antiseptic" and a bit of scrutiny of the Lib Dems might reveal their instability and bring them down, destroyed by their internal inconsistencies.

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