Matthew d’Ancona makes sense…

by Stephen Tall on September 21, 2005

… Not a headline I thought I’d be likely to write. However, Mr d’Ancona has written a terrifically perceptive and judicious article in today’s Torygraph analysing the Lib Dems’ current prospects.

Leaving aside his silly swipe that the German election deadlock proves PR would be a calamity (shock! horror! PR produces election results reflecting the way people voted), this is a first-class SWOT analysis. I don’t agree with every word – his dismissal of Simon Hughes is, I think, unfair – but this is the kind of ‘oppo research’ for which political parties pay good money.

The Lib Dems are fluffing their chance to be in government

… usually the conference is an amiable canter around the paddock of irrelevance. This year, the mood is different, and with good reason. The spectacular non-result of the German elections looms like an ailing Zeppelin over the conference in Blackpool.… for Charles Kennedy and his colleagues, the other, more potentially cheering signal from Berlin is that when coalitions are formed, smaller parties enjoy formidable power.

This year, the Lib Dems performed respectably enough: they accrued an extra million votes, increased their share of the vote from 18 to 22 per cent, and won 62 seats, up from 54. But a vote for the Lib Dems was still what I would call an intransitive vote: that is, one without an object.

By polling day this year, Mr Kennedy had turned his non-strategy strategy into a fine art, hoovering up support from those disgruntled with New Labour but unwilling, or unready, to vote Tory. Inasmuch as they positioned themselves at all, the Lib Dems postured as the “decency party” or the “slightly cross party”, a means of protesting against the Iraq war or calling for higher taxes (without any danger of having to pay them). Mr Kennedy bobbed along with the floating voter, offering genial company rather than a political harbour.

As they survey the last election and the political terrain ahead, the smarter Lib Dems have drawn two conclusions. The first is that the Kennedy formula – incremental gains achieved by a brew of high-mindedness, protest politics, and chatshow charm – has inherent limitations: the more seats the party gains, the more searchingly it will be scrutinised and judged as a policy-making organisation rather than a middle-class protest movement.

The second development is that the notion of the Lib Dems as participants in government has moved from the realm of fantasy to the realm of the possible. Let me emphasise: I do not myself see much prospect of this after the next election. But the idea is no longer psephologically ridiculous. The Lib Dems are now second to Labour in more than 160 seats. The redrawing of the electoral map alone will probably eat into Labour’s majority. The Tories and Labour will be under new management by the next election, with political consequences which are as yet unknowable. Gordon Brown, naturally, is confident that he can renew his party in office. …

The real split in Blackpool has not been between Left and Right. It has been between those Lib Dems such as Vince Cable, Mark Oaten and Nick Clegg who want their party to have policies that add up, sound practical and look contemporary, and those, like Simon Hughes, the party’s president, who are content to warm the voters’ hearts with meaningless promises and dewy-eyed nostalgia. It is between those who see a future for the Lib Dems as potential governing partners, and those who do not.

When Mr Clegg talks about “breaking up” the NHS and making it more responsive to patients, he is not lurching to the Right, but acknowledging that the fate of the core public services and the value for money which they represent will be at the heart of political debate in the next decade. For Mr Cable to declare that “we also need to consider the upper middle-income professionals” when reviewing his party’s tax policy is a sign of political maturity, not political sell-out.

This, it must be said, is not a view shared by most Lib Dems, who are screaming betrayal. On Monday, the party voted to ignore calls for a spending cap on the EU’s unreformed budget – a gesture aptly described by Sarah Teather, the party’s spokesman on communities, as “a prime example of where we demonstrate a lack of responsibility”. Yesterday the activists threw out a plan to part-privatise the Royal Mail that had become emblematic of the new spirit of practical policymaking.

Who cares? Nobody. As the party’s modernisers have grasped, voting Lib Dem will remain the equivalent of signing a petition until their policies reflect the realities of the political landscape. That landscape will undergo astonishing changes before the next election. Extraordinary opportunities may arise, for which a hungry third party would be readying itself aggressively. But here’s the funny thing: at the very moment when, at last, after all these years, after all the cruel jokes, the Lib Dems should be going back to their constituencies and preparing for government, most of them have no interest in doing so.