Monday, 1 June 2009

A dilemma for Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats are having a good crisis - within the political classes at least.

For those following the details of the expenses crisis, no LibDem MP has been among the worst offenders. To date, LibDem misdemeanours have been relatively trivial.

The party has a strong record on political reform, which is now the theme of the moment, leading influential Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley to suggest that they have the most credibility on electoral reform.

So Sunday's Observer also endorsed the LibDems for the European elections - which I think it the first national newspaper endorsement of the party in a national election (though The Independent came close to doing so in the 2005 General Election, while The Guardian habitually offers a hybrid Lab-Lib endorsement).

But making as much progress with voters as with liberal commentators may be more difficult. Where the public mood is "a plague on all of your houses", then the LibDems can expect to be its victims as much as its beneficiaries. One poll sees them edge Labour, but another has the party fourth in the European elections.

This presents Nick Clegg and the LibDem leadership with an important dilemma.

One obvious response is to burnish the party's "outsider" credentials. There is a long Liberal and LibDem tradition of portraying the reds and blues as a two-party establishment - tweedledum and tweedledee - and the yellows as the radicals who can break the mould. Senior LibDems spend a lot of time pushing this idea.

But that is not enough. The LibDems will never win an anti-politics auction to be the party which is furthest outside the political establishment.

In different ways, the Greens, UKIP and a whole host of fringe parties of every variety (from the Jury Team to the BNP) can trump them on that. What has pejoratively called the "dustbin vote can switch between parties with diametrically opposed views. Whatever their opponents can say about the highly variable nature of local LibDemmery, the national party has been serious on the economy, climate change and political reform and has mostly tended to eschew cheap populism leading it into positions that it can not credibly defend. Tuition fees have been the most glaring exception to this).

If the LibDems need to show that they have an edge over smaller parties, it is the constructive, pro-politics case that they are better placed to make change happen. Nick Clegg's 100 day plan for political reform is an imaginative way to project the party's case that radical change is both necessary and possible. This depends on opposing "politics as usual" yet also on the party's credibility, knowledge and political strength inside the system.

It depends on not being an 'establishment party' - yet also on building alliances for change on the inside.

Firstly, Nick Clegg wants to set the agenda for change in a Parliament where he has less than 10 per cent of the seats. He has made a good start - offering a much deeper and more coherent agenda than David Cameron - and so setting the bar as to what the government needs to do to revive its own interest in a 'new constitutional settlement'.

Secondly, the purpose of the LibDem agenda and its broader political strategy is to bring about a different politics - one in which cooperation between parties is part of a more pluralist political culture.

Many LibDems will be rationally sceptical of renewed Labour interest in progressive alliances. They need to be confident not just that they will not be stitched up - but that this is not a moment for a stitch up between political parties. (This may make renewed Labour interest in a constitutional convention important - Progress have launched a campaign for this, which I support).

Yet, while there should be many questions about the timing and nature of cooperation across party boundaries, it is also the only plausible way in which the LibDems' own agenda for reform could be realised at what could be its most promising - if potentially treacherous - moment for decades.


Lee Griffin said...

Interesting analysis, I'm finding this time in politics fascinating, only a few months ago I was despairing.

jonthanfryer said...

The canvassing I have been doing -- in some very 'non elite' areas -- suggests ordinar7y voters ARE switching from Labour to LibDem, at least in London.

And by the way, Polly Toynbee has now joined to media bandwagon -- and very welcome she is too!

Jonathan Fryer