Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Lib Dems' Hidden Problem

Unless Cameron’s Tories manage to complete their rather creepy retreading of Blair’s ascent to power with a massive swing against an entirely decrepit government, it is quite possible that the next Parliament will be hung. To wipe out Labour’s majority requires a mere nudge at the door, whereas to gain an overall majority would need a decisive swing across the whole of the country, the sort of swing only used for kicking out desperately knackered or bad governments, or for bringing in great new hopes. For all his pizzazz and self-parody modernity, Cameron does not offer the same optimism that Blair did in 1997. We now know perfectly well that a bright, posh, youngish bloke who seems nice will not turn the country into a New Jerusalem. All Cameron can offer is that he is a different, youngish posh bloke who seems nice, and one whom we haven’t learnt how to hate yet.

It is difficult to see how this could inspire the nation into the revolutionary fervour of 1997. Cameron is already having semi-hostile questions asked of him, which Blair didn’t encounter until about 2002. Their best chance is that Labour elects Gordon Brown as their next leader; the prospect of whose grim, Presbyterian sermons for another five years could inspire the nation to turn to Cameron in their droves, if not to hara-kiri. But even this is no guarantee.

There is at least a chance that for the first time since the 1920s, the Liberals will be a serious player in British politics. If Cameron enjoys anything less than a seismic shift in the nation’s political affections, and anything more than a tiny improvement on Howard’s score last time, we will see once more a government reliant on a coalition majority. The intense tribal loathing between the two main parties rules out any grand coalition, and come the next Parliament, the Liberals may well be in a position to dictate who the government will be. If this happens, of the party’s hidden contradictions will fast become apparent.

The Liberal Democrats in Westminster are not a political party in the conventional sense. To call them motley would be gratuitously nasty, but even put kindly, they are a disparate group of characters, who, for one reason or another, find no other place in politics. They stretch from those who want to soak the rich while disliking class warfare, to those who believe in property and markets but can’t abide Tory moralising. The Liberals are themselves a coalition - a coalition of outsiders in the political process.

They have managed to square their contradictions by the clever trick of remaining irrelevant for eighty years. No one particularly cares if the Lib Dems’ Treasury spokesman is out of step with the party’s local activists, for the dispute has all the gravity, meaning and consequence of a primary school’s pretend election. But soon it may matter, and ironically, the same political currents that swept away the old Liberals’ power will be the ones that haunt any future return to government.

The early twentieth century was the era when modern political divisions were born, between proletarian self-interest and intellectual self-pleasuring on one hand, and bourgeois and aristocratic self-protection on the other. One side was represented by the growing Labour Party, and the Conservatives adapted themselves to represent the other. Having failed to become a true voice of class war following the extension of the franchise, the old Liberal Party was squeezed out as a major player, and the modern, home-for-the-homeless Liberals were born.

The Liberals' last gasp of peacetime power, in the early 1920s, was as a divided party, split between those who went into government under Lloyd George with Tory backing, and those who went into opposition with Asquith. Then, as now, the party was divided between those who felt an affinity with conservatism - or at least free trade - and those who inclined towards liberal socialism. Having led the country in the wartime coalition, the Liberals in 1918 split between the followers of Lloyd George, who formed a government with Tory parliamentary support and electoral collusion, and the Asquith Liberals, who went in opposition once the guns fell silent. On the other extreme from those who signed up to Lloyd George’s Tory-backed government, some of the Asquith Liberals were leftist enough to later join Labour - which, in the 1920s, was no moderate social-democratic organisation.

This split is still the natural dividing line in Liberal politics. The party is torn down the middle, between those who sympathise with moderate Conservatism and those who see themselves as the liberal wing of Labour. While a party is irrelevant, this causes no problems. It means that it can fight in different parts of the country almost as different parties, posing as nice Tories in the South West and as nice socialists in the North. But it is impossible to go into government with these splits unresolved, as Lloyd George and Asquith knew only too well.

Of course, the other two parties also have their divisions, whether over Europe, tax, or foreign policy. But in parties that genuinely struggle for power, a potential leader must fight to tame the wings of the party that oppose him. It is critical to understand this. People as different as Clare Short and Alan Milburn could sit together in Cabinet because their leader controlled his party, and would not allow subordinates’ views to override his own position. A split party needs a strong leader. The Liberals’ greatest problem is that they have never needed one, and they never will - until they get a chance of power. At that point, it becomes vital that they have one.

As a nice, kind, party of gentle dissent, all the Liberals have ever needed is a personable leader who can make the faithful feel good about themselves. Kennedy was brilliant at this, but it is not nearly enough if one has ambitions of government. No tough choices or aggressive internal politicking has ever been necessary to lead the Liberals, and the vast differences across their ranks are more usually ignored than faced. Government involves tough decisions and constant struggling to get into and stay in power. Without strong leadership, the pressures of power rip apart divided parties. The Liberals remain a big-tent party without a ringmaster; not nearly disciplined enough to have any role in government.

Can you imagine Simon Hughes or Phil Willis, both of whom are wet Attleeites, propping up a potential right-wing programme of freeing schools from council and union domination? Both think that the only problem with education is that central government has too much influence, and that their own favourite busybodies have too little. But if the leadership signs up to Cameron, they'd have to vote for it. Or the whole system collapses.

Equally, it is quite implausible to think that the liberal Liberals like Nick Clegg or David Laws would comfortably fit into a Brown-led Labour administration, intent on a Presbyterian jihad against fun, freedom, and independence. Whereas the Norman Baker Liberals - who probably fantasise about prowling around London at night, slashing the tyres of extravagant, wasteful cars - would fit in just fine. Defections are possible, trouble-stirring inevitable, if large parts of the party are dissatisfied and weakly led.

Regardless of which way it goes, if the Lib Dems are to go into coalition as a whole, one wing or other must be corralled with ruthlessness not seen in the party for a century. Or the next Parliament will be an unholy, if amusing, mess. Given their utter inexperience in ruthless, power-hungry politics - as the Kennedy debacle showed - the amusing mess seems the more likely. Their Liberals’ activists are overwhelmingly leftist, their talented frontbenchers overwhelmingly of the right. One or other is going to be disappointed, and no one’s really thought about how.

If the next Parliament is hung, the Liberal leadership will be caught between two irreconcilable forces, one in Westminster, the other in the country. Campbell’s advances so far have been towards his constituency neighbour Gordon, but it remains to be seen whether the young Turks who surround him will be willing to prop up an exhausted, failing Prime Minister. Neither is it clear how anyone from the party's right could possibly get elected as leader, if the grassroots thought a Tory tie-up was likely. A Brown-Campbell pact, followed by the desertion of the party's frontbench talent and a divisive squabble, is the likely prospect. The Liberals seem to enjoy righteous, ineffective opposition. They'd better pray they stay there, for power won't be pleasant.

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