Monday, September 28, 2009

Lib Dems - decision time?

Lib Dems - decision time?

Summoning up the will to write about the Liberal Democrats is always something of a struggle.  However, as they come off the back of their last conference before the election, and a pretty little boost in the polls, it’s probably worth taking a quick look at their prospects for the coming year.

In Nick Clegg’s ideal world, next year will see a partial Labour recovery that denies the Tories an overall majority, and leads to a hung Parliament.  For the first time since the 1970s, the Liberals will be relevant!  Yet the question of what the Lib Dems would do in a hung Parliament is toxic.  Clegg is desperate not to be put in the position of deciding, now, whether a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Labour, or whether it is a vote for the Conservatives – he wants it to be seen as a vote for the Liberal Democrats after all.

And yet the question, however toxic, points to a central problem for the Lib Dems – just what the hell are they?  Are they the acceptable opposition to the Conservatives for those who just can’t consider voting Labour, as they are in the South West?  Are they the sort of Labour Party your father might have voted for, before this new Thatcherite lot, as they seem to be in the North of England?  So far they have tried to pass this off at the national level by refusing to define themselves at all, other than as having been opposed to the Iraq war, and as having Vince Cable as their Treasury Spokesman.

But Iraq is fading in the collective memory, and St Vince’s halo seems to be getting a little tarnished.  What’s left?

For all the existential angst, this is potentially an extremely promising scenario for the Lib Dems.  Labour has almost governed itself out of existence – if there is room for only one party of the left in the UK, and experience suggests that is the case, why should it not be the Lib Dems?  There is a sense in which the Liberal Democrats are marking time until the next election, trying to hold on to what they have, before surveying the new political landscape after the election.  It may be that the decision, long deferred, of what they are actually for might then have an answer.  Or not.

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