Lib Dems: riding the waves of anti-political cynicism

Devoid of any real constituency or purpose, the 'third force' in British politics only succeeds when the big parties fail.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

They are, apparently, the third force in British politics. But for the past year or so, the Liberal Democrats have disappeared without trace, like Lord Lucan or Shergar. Then, suddenly, their spring conference has allowed them to make a small dent in the public’s consciousness once more. Why are they suddenly being talked about as potential members of a coalition government?

The Lib Dems have suffered somewhat in the shadow of David Cameron, the shiny new leader of the Conservatives. The media, seduced by all things new, have been much more interested in what baggage ‘Dave’ can ditch in his desperate bid to rebrand and re-position his party. And just when the Conservatives have got themselves a photogenic young leader, the Liberal Democrats have lost their own media-tart-in-chief, ‘Chatshow Charlie’ Kennedy, when they could no longer disguise the fact that he had a drink problem.

Into the breach stepped a safe pair of hands in the shape of Sir Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell. Unfortunately for the Lib Dems, Campbell made no impact on political life as leader until last weekend. The Lib Dem spring conference in Harrogate was an opportunity to relaunch his party and himself.

Having been outshone by Cameron, and with a new Labour prime minister likely to be in office before the year is out, nobody has been terribly interested in the Lib Dems. But the party has now convinced itself, and one or two commentators, that it could wield some influence in the future – by holding the balance of power in a hung parliament.

As Andrew Rawnsley notes in the Observer: ‘If the next parliament is hung, Sir Menzies could have either Gordon Brown or David Cameron or both of them at his door. The closer we get to the election, and the more the possibility of a hung parliament begins to intrigue the media, the more interest there will be in the Lib Dems. They may suddenly find themselves centre stage.’ (1)

On that basis, Campbell used his conference speech to lay down the law to Labour, by far the most likely party for the Lib Dems to back, on what terms he would seek in return for his support: scrap ID cards, ‘grasp the challenge posed by climate change’, ‘break open the poverty trap’, devolve power to local people, and agree that ‘Britain’s foreign policy should not be set in Washington’.

This may have been designed to make Campbell look statesman-like, but it smacked of the tail trying to wag the dog. But that’s the point about the Lib Dems – their success is largely a consequence of the weakness of other parties. In fact, that sums up the recent history of ‘third party politics’. In the Eighties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) split from a Labour Party descending into internecine conflict, and won a series of remarkable by-election results. Forming an alliance with the Liberals in 1981, their poll ratings were so good that Liberal leader David Steel could tell his conference to ‘go back to your constituencies and prepare for government’. While the SDP/Liberal Alliance put a big dent in Labour’s vote, it collected just 23 seats. After that high point, Labour’s rehabilitation and rebranding moved it firmly into Alliance territory and thus support for the liberals began to wane.

In recent years, they’ve done well at the expense of the Conservatives who have been having a crisis as grand as that of 1980s Labour. They’ve also been the beneficiaries of a growing resentment towards Blair. But any success the Lib Dems do achieve will not be a reflection of their having won any arguments.

In fact, the Lib Dems don’t appear to be particularly unified themselves. One notable absentee from Campbell’s list of demands on a Labour government was proportional representation (PR). The reason that the Lib Dems have 63 seats at present, rather than the 130 that would represent their roughly 20 per cent share of the vote, is that the UK has a first-past-the-post electoral system which squeezes out smaller parties. So, PR has been something of a totem for the Lib Dems for years.

What followed his speech was a kind of political hokey-cokey. A senior Lib Dem official told journalists that PR was ‘not a deal maker or a deal breaker’ and that Campbell would take a ‘flexible approach’. Ed Davey, Campbell’s chief-of-staff, quickly refuted this suggestion, saying the briefing was ‘unauthorised’.

As it happens, the Lib Dems have much bigger problems than organisational confusion and a bit of misdirected spin. An important part of their recent success has been as the main beneficiaries of anti-political sentiment. As spiked noted after the 2001 General Election, ‘their success cannot be explained by their policies, many of which were hardly distinguishable from Labour’s (they even played down their two big issues, proportional representation and closer ties with Europe). Rather, the Lib Dems won a share of the anti-political vote, by presenting themselves as honest blokes not interested in stunts or spin.’ (See A vote against politics, by Rob Lyons.)

The trouble is that even the Conservatives – until recently the ‘natural party of government’ – have begun to play that game. One of Cameron’s first acts as leader was to support a government bill on education reform, allowing Labour to get the bill passed in the face of opposition from within their own ranks. Cameron used this move to suggest that he was more concerned with getting things done than petty rivalries. He’s also distanced himself from the Tory past – he is very definitely not Margaret Thatcher. Instead, the one policy you could pin Cameron down on is summed up by the Conservative local election slogan last year – ‘Vote blue, go green’ – just the kind of thing which is likely to tread on the Liberal Democrats’ sandled toes.

There are limits to how much an establishment party like the Conservatives can play the anti-politics card. But there’s another problem for the Lib Dems in that there is now no obvious issue around which anti-politics can focus. In 2005, the general sentiment of mistrust with Blair was made concrete in opposition to the Iraq War. The Lib Dems played an utterly cynical hand at the time, giving the pretence of being anti-war while actually not being opposed to it in principle. This certainly boosted them in the eyes of certain voters and the media. The New Statesman in particular went ga-ga for them prior to the last General Election in 2005.

Campbell tried to repeat the trick at the spring conference over the issue of Trident. He won a ‘knife-edge’ vote that the party would have a policy of not replacing Britain’s nuclear weapon system…just yet. Instead, the principled position of the Lib Dems would be to not have a position for another few years. (2) Sounds a bit more anti-militarist than the other two parties, but actually it isn’t.

There’s plenty of room in British politics for a ‘third force’. When the two major parties have so little to offer in terms of a vision of the future, there’s an opportunity for someone to present a positive case for how society could move forward. The Lib Dems are utterly incapable of doing this. Instead, they have been more concerned to position themselves to appeal to anyone and everyone. To the extent that they have got anything distinctive to say, it is to suggest small-minded localism and petty environmentalist regulation.

Any electoral success they have had has been parasitic on the weakness of Labour and the Conservatives. So it is entirely possible that further convulsions within the two big parties could lead to the Lib Dems suddenly winning a high-profile by-election, or picking up a surprising number of seats in council elections. The wider consequences of these occasional successes will be minimal, however.

If all the Lib Dems can provide are slightly modified versions of other people’s policies, while pandering to anti-political sentiment, they’re not much use to anyone. To twist the words of former Liberal leader David Steel, they should go back to their constituencies…and stay there.

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Topics Politics UK

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