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Friday, December 29, 2006

The year ahead

Stephen Tall does a very good job of analysing yesterday's Guardian editorial entitled 'Liberal Democrats: In search of adventure’, however there are two points in his dissertation where I would take issue with him and where I believe he has allowed an element of complacency to creep in.

Stephen identifies the essential criticisms in the Guardian piece, namely that the party's poll ratings are stagnating, that Sir Menzies has failed to find the authority and gravitas he had as foreign affairs spokesperson, that the Liberal Democrats have not yet found a defining issue in this Parliament to make their own, and that having put the party's internal campaigning and policy processes in order, the Leader's main challenge in 2007 is to stamp his own authority and electability onto the consciousness of potential Liberal Democrat voters.

All of these criticisms are valid, however I do not think it helps the party face up to the reality of the situation ahead of us when we continue to dismiss polling trends, as Stephen does, as being taken out of context. We can introduce all the analysis we like in an attempt to bring 'perspective' to this polling data, but we must not be complacent nor should we ignore clear trends over a number of polls (not just one or two) that need to be arrested and turned around. That is the job of the Party leader and the team he has gathered around him, and all of us must expect him to redouble his efforts in 2007 to achieve that aim.

Secondly, I have to take issue with Stephen in his trashing of the Guardian's suggestion that we missed an opportunity over Afghanistan and Trident so as to stake out some distinctive ground. Guardian leader writers do, of course, operate from a comfort zone where they do not have to account for their views in the same way as political parties and their leaders, but that does not undermine the basic truths contained in their analysis. Personally, I thought that their summing up of Ming's character was spot-on:

Part of the problem is Sir Menzies' caution - a characteristic which in past roles has served him as a strength. A statesmanlike man, Sir Menzies is one of the wisest and most respected politicians at Westminster: but leading a political party takes luck and nerve as well as wisdom, and it is these qualities he needs to display. He cannot magic political advantage for his party out of thin air. But he could and should be able to carve out an identity by responding forcefully to issues that come his way unexpectedly

In my view Sir Menzies Campbell has started to grow into his role as Liberal Democrat leader over the past year. His Common's performances, although in no way startling in their brilliance, have improved; he has taken the party's internal organisation by the scruff of the neck and shaken it up until it started to show some shape; and he has started to make use of a very talented team of MPs to stake out clear policy positions that will serve us well in future election campaigns.

In all of this he has very astutely kept the party on the centre left of British politics whilst showing an open-mindedness about policy that refuses to allow such labels to dictate the direction we are taking. The party's green but fair taxation policy and our strategy to empower royal mail workers whilst investing in the Post Office network are two good examples of that approach.

Despite all of this however, we continue to stagnate in the polls and we do so, in my opinion, because we have failed to sufficiently re-define ourselves within a rapidly changing political climate. It is not enough to say that we have done a lot to change and that it is just a matter of keeping our nerve. That will maybe get us 15% at the next General Election and a smaller Parliamentary Party. What is needed is the X factor that can only come from bold and distinctive leadership.

There is no doubt in my mind that Trident was an issue that could have allowed us to start to find that X factor. Bold opposition, questioning the cost and purpose of a new generation of nuclear weapons, could have found us support from those who agreed with us and who respected our principled stance. Such a position would also have found a lot of support within the Party and would have fitted in well with our liberalism. Instead, we fudged the issue, sat on the fence and found ourselves outflanked by the Prime Minister.

There is still time to turn that around of course, just as there is time to find other issues that will help to define us as a party. However, if we are to do that then Ming needs to overcome his natural caution and start to seize the day a bit more.
Your assessment of Ming looks about right. 3 more Lib-Dems who stood as candidates at the last election joined Cameron's Conservative Party today (check Iain Dale's Diary for their names). That makes 6 so far. It could be time for another change of Lib-Dem leader.
Anyone would think it is all one way traffic Glyn. Need I remind you that Tory councillors defecting to the Lib Dems in Crawley and Dover lost your party control of those Councils. In fact the Tories lost control of four Councils in December, the other two being Vale of Glamorgan and Gosport.
Spot on, Peter! Couldn't agree more with your analysis.
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