On being taken seriously: part II

by Stephen Tall on February 26, 2006

There is a consensus emerging among serious political commentators: the Liberal Democrats matter more now than at any time since our predecessor parties in the mid-1980s.

Take the ever-brilliant Alan Watkins in today’s Indy on Sunday:

The Lib Dems are once again “relevant”, even interesting, to those who possess a strange and unusual taste for politics. This will remain so, irrespective of whether it is Sir Menzies Campbell, Mr Chris Huhne, or, most implausibly, Mr Simon Hughes who comes out top (perhaps after a second count) on Thuirsday.

Or the shrewd Bagehot in this week’s Economist:

… the biggest reason for taking the Lib Dems seriously is that they are very likely to hold the balance of power after the next election, as current spread-betting prices show. According to calculations in the 2005 British Election Study, an academic survey, a Tory lead of between one point and 11.8 points would leave no party with an overall majority. …

The leadership of a party that on many issues represents the main opposition, and which is highly likely to be in a strong position to decide who will form the next government, is not a trivial matter.

But with great power, comes great responsibility. And Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer column today, from which I quoted extensively below, should be read every day by every single Liberal Democrat member from now until the next election:

The new Lib Dem leader will need to show that his party has a distinctive voice which is compelling. The opportunity is there providing the Lib Dems are prepared to think bravely and imaginatively, to live a little dangerously without acting stupidly.

… There is still a great deal of demand for a party that is the guardian of civil liberties against the authoritarian instincts of the other two parties. There is ample space for the Lib Dems to fashion an approach that is distinctive from the statism of Gordon Brown while being more committed to social justice than the Conservatives are ever likely to be. There is a large constituency of opinion that is disillusioned with Labour and sceptical of the sincerity of David Cameron’s makeover of the Tories.

If the Lib Dems can be a crucial voice between now and the next election, they could be the pivotal player at Westminster after it. …

The prospect of a hung parliament is a hugely tantalising one for their next leader. He could achieve what eluded Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe, David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. He could get Liberals back into the cabinet for the first time in more than half a century.

This means they will have to get very serious about their policy-making. It is one thing to make promises when you know, the media know and the public knows that you will never be in a position to deliver your pledges or called to account for why you haven’t. A much more disciplined approach is demanded when it is highly conceivable that your commitments may follow you into government.

Lib Dem policy has often escaped searching scrutiny in the past because no one expected them to be in a position to implement anything. They cannot afford the sort of shambles they made of presenting policy at the last election if they want to look like credible contenders for positions of power.

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