Monday, January 16, 2006

Distinctive yet moderate – a tricky balance for the Lib Dems

A few Lib Dem bloggers have referred to Andrew Rawnsley’s article in yesterday’s Observer He warns that ‘When so much is in flux, the third party should be very wary of suddenly lunging to the left or lurching to the right.’

This is particularly apposite with regard to the programme of Chris Huhne who is in many ways the brightest and the most powerful intellect of the leadership contenders. Huhne has been calling for a switch towards more environmental forms of taxation, including an increase in fuel duty.

I don’t disagree, transport being one of the areas where I still find myself in sympathy with the environmental movement. However, this does produce an electoral problem for the party. Under STV, there is room for parties that take brave stances and carve out a niche for themselves in the political marketplace. The Progressive Democrats have done this in the Irish Republic – they are small but credible and influential.

Under FPTP, to get any parliamentary representation at all a party needs to be able to claim 35 per cent or more of the popular vote in individual constituencies. This means the Lib Dems can’t just aim at those people for whom civil liberties and the environment are priorities. Since we have a relatively low core vote, we have to win over converts who will by definition be swing voters who may revert to their previous choice. If we put forward rather bracing policies that alienates these people, our parliamentary representation will diminish and we move back to the margins. That gives an incentive to blunt our message in the hope of not causing offence.

Rawnsley argues that ‘The third party could be led by a Teletubby and it will still prosper if Labour and the Conservatives are simultaneously unpopular.’ Equally true is that if the main parties are unpopular it doesn’t really matter what the Liberal Democrats’ policies are, provided they are sufficiently moderate and responsible to allow the party to be most people’s favourite protest vote. Also, our policies get less scrutiny the more people think the prospect of Lib Dems holding power is remote. With 62 MPs, the Lib Dems could end up being the decisive player in a balanced parliament, so we cannot hope that our policies will go unnoticed. The other parties will make sure they are scrutinised even if the media don’t.

So the challenge for the party is to be sufficiently distinctive under FPTP to make it worth voting for us, but sufficiently moderate and responsible to be able to put together the requisite coalitions of support to win parliamentary constituencies. It is quite a delicate balancing act. I fear that Huhne’s programme is intellectually correct, but a bit too courageous for present circumstances.

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