Liberal Democrats: same ‘old’ story

The British press is harassing Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell about his age, but it is British politics in general that is in a decrepit state.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics UK

Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell must be sick of people asking about his age. The 66-year-old leader of Britain’s third largest parliamentary party, the Liberal Democrats, has been getting it in the neck about the failure of the party to make any progress in the opinion polls. There are ‘rumblings of discontent’ among the party faithful, according to one Lib Dem peer, while another former party big-wig has suggested that there is ‘a lack of energy and an absence of direction’. Is it time for Campbell to shuffle off into the sunset?

The question of age is ridiculous. After all, Churchill became Britain’s wartime prime minister at much the same age as Campbell is today; William Gladstone, probably the greatest figure in Liberal Party history, was 83 when he became prime minister for the third and final time in 1892. It’s not as if Campbell is on his death bed – he’s a former athlete who is still in good shape for a man who could collect his bus pass. Campbell is not the most charismatic of performers, nor does his demeanour suggest he’s a particularly dynamic person. But the obsession with the character of individual politicians obscures the general lack of dynamism in British politics today.

Politics is a turn-off because the major parties seem to have so little to say about how society could move forward. All of them have the same vision of the future: ‘pretty much the same as today’. One reflection of this is the concern to be ‘revenue neutral’. Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have put forward proposals on taxation and spending in recent weeks. But the emphasis seems to be to stick to the overall budget laid down by the Labour government.

The only differences are over how tax is raised and spent. So Vince Cable, the Lib Dem treasury spokesman, told the party’s conference in Brighton this week: ‘We are not arguing for higher levels of tax but for a system that is fairer and greener.’ That means replacing the current system of local property taxes – council tax – with a system based on income. It means more green taxes, and the ending of tax breaks on pension income for the well-off, but the party is shying away from previous commitments to increase income tax for very high earners.

The parties once reflected conflicting interests in society: the Conservatives were for business, both large and small; Labour was the party of the trade unions; the Liberals were once the free-trade wing of the British establishment, and introduced some important social reforms in the early twentieth century, but have long since ceased to represent any major force in society.

Devoid of any constituency to hold them to account, principled differences between the parties have largely disappeared and politics is reduced to tinkering managerialism. Even where there are policy differences, these take the form of smart-arse policy wonking rather than new visions for society. It is no accident that prime minister Gordon Brown can declare a ‘government of all the talents’ by bringing in opposition politicians to advise him – politics is more a cosy consensus than a clash of ideas today.

In such circumstances, what is the point of the Lib Dems? The party doesn’t represent an outlet for a new opposition. Instead, it is a vehicle for anti-political sentiment, especially the idea that the two main parties are stuffed full of self-serving crooks who are only interested in themselves. That’s why the party tends to have a very good record at winning by-elections, those high-profile but low-consequence opportunities to give the governing party a ‘bloody nose’ without actually doing any serious damage.

The fallout from the Iraq war provided the perfect terrain for this anti-political response. With both Labour and the Conservatives supporting the war, the mealy-mouthed criticisms of then-Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy at least enabled the party to pretend it was ‘anti-war’ – and more to the point, pretend that it was more in-touch with the British people. As a result, the party did (relatively) well in the last election, boosting its percentage of the vote to 23 per cent from 18 per cent, and the number of seats in parliament from 51 to 62.

Since that election, Kennedy has resigned over his alcohol problems, the Conservatives have a shiny new leader and Tony Blair finally quit Downing Street. All the PR has thus been going against the Lib Dems in the last year or two. But Gordon Brown and David Cameron are no more inspired about the future than their predecessors and the anti-political mood that underpins debate in Britain is alive and well. In spite of the relatively insipid performance of Ming Campbell, there are grounds for the Lib Dems to believe they will soon see light at the end of the tunnel.

Depressingly, the vacuous nature of political coverage today only reinforces this situation. ‘Politics’ is almost exclusively defined in the media today as ‘the Westminster Village’. As has been noted on spiked before, the absence of political principle can reduce the jockeying for position in government and opposition to an endless round of backbiting. But that doesn’t mean that political coverage should be reduced to charting the fortunes of politicians according to whether they’ve given a popular speech, pulled off some eye-catching policy proposal or had some senior colleague briefing against them. Add to this the tendency of political interviewers to focus on the superficial (like the state of the party leadership) or to be resolutely cynical (by assuming all politicians are liars) and you have an unappealing basis for political debate.

So, for example, the blog writers were kept amused this week after Campbell visited an environmental project in Brighton. While he might have been trying to highlight his party’s green credentials, he had the misfortune to be photographed pointing at an organic toilet. While the wags suggested he was illustrating the likely direction of Lib Dem electoral fortunes, his party handlers were blaming each other for the gaffe. Between such ‘amusing’ observations and the tedious questions about Campbell’s age, no one has had nearly enough time to stick the boot into the Lib Dems for their rather ridiculous greener-than-thou proposals to tax any activity that might generate carbon emissions, and to ban petrol cars altogether.

If anything, the Lib Dems have gone further than the other two parties. Instead of seeing the future as the same as today, they’re ahead of the curve in seeing the future as worse than today. And if their parasitical politics catches on, they might very well be right.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons argued that the Liberal Democrats only succeed where the big parties fail. Mick Hume argued that Charles Kennedy and George Galloway could tell us a lot about the state of British politics. Josie Appleton showed the limitations of ‘independent’ politics. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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