The Liberal Democrats


Column for Sunday June 26th 2005

by David Alton

The Liberal Democrats had mixed fortunes on May 5th.   Measured against the performance of the old Liberal Party, their total number of seats was the best result since before World War Two. But that is only part of the story. Their share of the vote, around 23%, was only a small improvement on last time and well short of the peak performance of 25% of the old Liberal –SDP Alliance in 1983.

They notched up some important gains in cities like Manchester and Leeds but lost seats gained from the Conservatives in constituencies such as Newbury and Weston-Super-Mare. What was dubbed “the decapitation strategy”  – of targeting leading Conservative politicians such as Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin – failed in every case bar one.

Their genial leader, Charles Kennedy, was blessed with one welcome new recruit – a baby son – during the campaign and he had a good tide running in his favour. The anti-war mood and the general disillusionment of many Labour voters gave him the ideal circumstances for a break-through.

Yet, like every third party leader before him, he would have happily traded a few of his gains for a “hung” result between Labour and the Conservatives. That stale-mate would deliver a fundamental debate about reforming the voting system and usher in coalition politics (in which the Lib Dems would expect to be continuous participants). The failure to make that break-through, and the inevitable entry of two new faces to lead the Government and Opposition at the next General Election must leave the Liberal Democrats very vulnerable.

But their key problem is not that they aren’t nice people – most of them palpably are. Nice people but some pretty nasty policies.

It’s all very well saying endlessly, as they do, that we’re to take no notice of policies passed by their Conference (on issues like abortion, euthanasia, and drugs) – or statements by their spokesmen on issues like church schools (“in an ideal world there would be none”). But, politics doesn’t work like that. When you pass policies, whether or not they are included in a manifesto, they indicate the way a party is thinking. Their bright Truro MP, Matthew Taylor, has understood that and he has called for all the barmy policies to be put back on the table. Some activists are predictably up in arms.

Just as you judge a book by it’s cover, you judge a party by it’s policies. It is difficult to see how Catholics will easily be convinced to vote for a Party if it threatens the future of their schools or when it annunciates policy on conscience questions that are deep matters of faith.

Bad policies, with one eye fearfully looking at the activists who promote them, also make good men support or say stupid things. Charles Kennedy, for instance, said “I don’t know what I would do” when asked whether he would support a reduction in the upper time limit for abortion. I do not believe that in his heart that is really his position: and like anyone else standing for Parliament, he should know what he would do. Similarly, although Simon Hughes voted for the use of human embryos for the purpose of therapeutic cloning, I can’t really believe that he has abandoned his belief in the sanctity of human life.

The Lib Dems are fortunate to still have Shirley Williams in their ranks. They should all read her political and personal testimony – “God and Caesar – Personal Reflections on Politics and Religion” .  The day they wholeheartedly embrace all that  she stands for, they might  then create a platform that could reach beyond the 23%.