TCS Daily


The L Word

By Jason Miks - March 7, 2006 12:00 AM

While fortune has so far favored the brave for Britain's Conservative Party, which chose the youthful David Cameron as its leader last year, Liberal Democrats have instead opted for someone to steady the ship. After being forced to name a new party head following revelations about former leader Charles Kennedy's drinking problem, party members went for caretaker leader and former foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell.

Though the temptation to play it safe was understandable, especially after another contender bowed out following revelations about his dalliance with a male prostitute, the party has missed a chance to seize the initiative by choosing the admittedly less experienced Chris Huhne.

As the weeks have gone by, Campbell's steady hand has started to look a little lifeless. Though he is highly respected on both sides of the House of Commons, he has struggled to stamp his authority in the gladiatorial Prime Minister's Questions. And at 64 he is also hardly the future face of the party. The only other contender's campaign, that of Simon Hughes, never really got going after he clumsily tried to avoid questions about his sexuality, before finally admitting to being gay. Hughes' sexuality would hardly have been a concern for most British voters but his perceived slipperiness over the issue may well have proved to be a liability.

But if the Liberal Democrats wanted meaningful and lasting progress they should have made a clean break to help provide some of the focus which they seemed to have lacked under Kennedy's leadership.

This may seem a strange thing to say less than a month after its resounding by-election victory in Scotland. There the party managed to overturn a large majority and take a seat Labour had just won in last year's general election. This victory cannot be lightly dismissed, especially as it gave a bloody nose to presumed leader-in-waiting, Chancellor Gordon Brown, whose constituency is next door. Yet this disguises the fact that the Lib Dems, despite a small recent recovery in their numbers, have looked stagnant in national polls for sometime. And although they gained seats in last year's election, the results were still considered a disappointment, especially after the failure of the much vaunted "decapitation strategy" aimed at high profile Tory MPs.

The opportunism on local issues (and fully exploited opposition to the war in Iraq) that has been a feature of Lib Dem politics in recent years can only take them far. The party has a well-deserved reputation in local races of trying to be all things to all people — shifting shamelessly and often inconsistently left or right depending on the opposition. But without any overarching ideology the party will be left stranded in political no man's land, and that space is starting to look increasingly small.

David Cameron has already moved to the centre, in style at least, having dropped the frequently nasty guerrilla tactics of former leader Michael Howard. He has managed to sound reasonable and has avoided opposing for opposition's sake — a temptation his predecessor often succumbed to. Campbell will thus have to be similarly surefooted if he is to cash in on the media spotlight immediately following the leadership race.

The best place to start looking for ideas would be the now largely forgotten Orange Book, put together by some members of the party 18 months go. In it are several policy proposals which go to the heart of what a Liberal Party — a classical Liberal Party — should be. There are sensible ideas for more competition and choice in public services such as health and also for a lighter regulatory touch on business. This would set well with one of the party's few clear commitments: protecting civil liberties. Labour has a reputation, likely only to be exacerbated by Gordon Brown, of meddling and "nannying" — a charge which extends from its counter-terrorism measures through to its treatment of business. If the Liberal Democrats can find a coherent way of linking the two together then they might have an attractive platform for the next election.

So far the Labour Party has pursued the tactic of treating the Lib Dems as if they are irrelevant and Tony Blair has frequently resorted to patronizing them in the House of Commons. This was often too easy under Kennedy, whose attempts to project a likeable image also meant he forfeited the gravitas necessary to make the party into a force that looked capable of governing.

But with the spread betting markets, which have an uncanny accuracy in these things, hinting at a hung parliament, Lib Dem support for any future government could be crucial. If they are to bring anything to the table, therefore, Campbell needs to adopt more than just a steady hand and start repositioning them now, because the next general election is sure to feel like it has come along rather quickly.

The author, based in Tokyo, is Assistant Editor at the Center for International Relations, and was previously a Senior Parliamentary Researcher in the British House of Commons.

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