Web Analytics Trust People (once an Englishman in Philly): CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP: LIBERAL DEMOCRAT

Thursday, May 05, 2005


So it's election day at last. After little blogging from me in the dullest week of the campaign by far (they seem to have got progressively dulller) I thought I would run an overview of the three main parties campaigns; because now there is a genuine three party system in the UK, for worse or even worse.

So, starting off with the Liberals. On the whole they had three main weapons in the arsenal at the start. The war in Iraq, local income tax and opposition to tuition fees, as well as their stock defence of civil liberties stuff. Despite the "real alternative" slogan I didn't feel there was any real theme to the campaign. I saw no vision of a Liberal Britain, but, to be fair, they have been pretty successful in harnessing the "fairness" idea and presenting themselves, when it is beneficial as a party which will take more of your money to spend it in a way they deem better and fairer.

Of their three "trump cards", university tuition spectacularly failed to become even a minor issue, with almost no real debate over the competing plans at all. The greatest prominence which I saw the question given was in relation to the trustworthiness of the PM after he contradicted his last manifesto. I will be surprised if we see a significant shift to Liberal Democrats in predominantly student areas off the back of this issue. Perhaps the small problem of the hypocrisy of Liberal assertions in relation to the continued existence of fees in Scotland, where they are in power, is partly to explain for this.

Local income tax leads in to one of the two greatest problems I see facing the Liberals. Charles Kennedy. Yes, the man's wife had given birth two days before the press conference, but he may well live to rue his spluttering performance when asked about local income tax. This, like top-up fees, was a winning card which never was, capped in the bidding stakes by Tory then Labour concessions to pensioners. Likewise I have vivid memories of Mr Kennedy looking distinctly uncertain when faced with the explanation that a household with two working parents in the public sector, doing "vital" services such as a fireman and teacher, would end up paying more. This, and his lack of clarity over his assertion that the average family would save either £450 or £540 just go to cement the image that Mr Kennedy is affable but not quite up to it, and that the party is not actually a real or serious alternative platform, but makes comfortable noises for much of the electorate with eye-catching individual policies which will be popular. This needn't stop them becoming an established third party, however.

The one area in which they did make progress and land real punches was on Iraq, despite their own slightly incoherent position. Such is many peoples' dissatisfaction over this on the left, however, that they are keen for any mainstream party they feel can accommodate their resentment over what took place. There was a risk that it could feel overdone - and I do think many were put off by too much talk of assigning blame from the past - but the strategy of leaving it alone until the final ten days seemed very wise and has allowed an added jump in the polls towards the tail of the campaign. Indeed this is the one area in which Mr Kennedy, by now very well versed in populist appeal on the issue, really did seem confident of his position and capable of inspiring confidence in others.

There was also a healthy dose of cringeworthy "we're the only honest and positive ones unlike those horrible, evil Tories and Labour. The bastards only call each other names which we would never do." My own opinion is that this running down of the main parties in order to present yourself as slightly removed from the kerfuffle plays a key part in the public's poor perceptions of politicians and politics in general. I really do find it annoying. Nevertheless, it works. People perceive the Liberals to be making the same aggrieved noises as they do about the process and feel they can connect with them more.

So, all in all, if the polls are right, it's been a pretty successful Liberal campaign, if a little nauseatingly "holier than thou" for a voter in my demographic. They played the nice cuddly populism card very well and it has continued to pay dividends for them. They did benefit from surprisingly little in terms of early hard attacks from Labour and the Conservatives over their questionable arithmetic and shaky parts of their platform, but that may well be explained by a fear on behalf of the big two that a higher profile for policies which sound nice and only fall apart under scrutiny could lead to an unengaged electorate being pulled to the party. I think this was a fortunate break, as it allowed them to define their own campaign much more as polling day approached. A campaign I would call "fake cuddly" - cynically dressed up to seem cuddly and harmless in order to mop up people disaffected with those going for it more rigorously.

The great challenge ahead for the Liberals is whether they become a left-wing protest party for a centrist Labour, with the likes of Brian Sedgemore - from whom the SDP, most ironically, once fleed - at its heart or whether they become a classically liberal party to govern. This will require the development of an actual ideology and a confrontation of the inherent internal tensions between social democrats and liberals.


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