Preston's dead end?

by Stephen Tall on July 30, 2007

I think it’s safe to say that former Guardian editor Peter Preston ain’t too enamoured of the Lib Dems, or of our leader, Ming Campbell:

The only certainty confirmed through the political ides of July is that Sir Menzies Campbell will lead the Liberal Democrats into the next election. Gordon Brown has to choose when to hold it; the Conservative party, chuntering over David Cameron, has to decide whether to commit suicide now or later. But, whenever it comes, featuring whoever’s still left at whichever helm, Ming will be there. The latest ICM polls may say that 41% of his own supporters aren’t keen on him, but those unexciting second places in Ealing and Sedgefield have made him unshiftable. No new faces, no new ideas. He’s staying.

At a national level, it puts the Lib Dems on the back foot, struggling to hold on rather than advance. Maybe the old dislocation of an equation – Labour losing ground in the cities of the north, the Tories still failing to make ground in the suburbs of the south – will come to their rescue: but don’t bank on it. Brown sets a formidable pace. Cameron is young enough to find a second wind. Only the old sprinter can’t raise a canter.

Mr Preston’s piece is worth reading in full.

There is a recitation of some tired old clichés which only a state-centrist Guardianista would make space for – “how difficult it is for Lib Dems to define consistent national policies. What plays well in Sheffield is a bum note in Tiverton, and vice versa.”

Well, I’m not sure how true that is… I suspect folk in both areas might welcome a 4p cut in income tax; or Lib Dem opposition to ID cards; or action to combat global warming. Perhaps Mr Preston thinks only metropolitan London types care about such issues? But, in any case, as Lib Dems are committed to local power in the hands of local people it is often a virtue not a vice if policies differ between areas according to popular choice.

However, there are some points in the article we shouldn’t be blind to.

If there’s one song all Lib Dems sing, it’s the anthem of electoral reform. Give us PR and we’re here to help. … It involves no overall majority for anything and an imperative for the compromises that coalition requires. … I think we are more than entitled to know where the hallowed theory of caring, sharing Liberalism leads? To Paddy Ashdown in Gordon’s cabinet? To a role in England, Scotland and Wales where electoral reform makes Ming a natural partner in governments large and small? It would appear not, if Cardiff and Edinburgh show the way. To a PR system for Westminster that gives Ming a spot of power – say foreign secretary in the second Brown government – but still leaves him out of the Celtic power loop? To a coalition with Cameron in parliament and with Labour in Edinburgh if Alex Salmond falls?

The list of possible permutations is long, but information on possibilities is perilously short. Ming says he will only make a pact with Labour (except in Wales, where he hasn’t). He won’t hit the hustings laying out terms, because he still recites the mantra of a vote for a Lib Dem administration first and backstairs dealing later. …

A fresh way demands a fresh approach. If PR is the flag at the top of your pole, then you have to personify the winds of change by the positions you take and the courses you set. And you have to have that clear long before a conventional election when voters need such clarity.

The potential for a Hung Parliament after the next election may have receded thanks to the ‘Brown bounce’ and David Cameron’s sea of troubles. But tides ebb and flow. It will be an issue again before long. And questions such as those Mr Preston raises will be to the fore once again – not just among journalists, but in the public’s mind, too.

Do we think our answers are good enough?