The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Friday, December 16, 2005
Avoiding the Fate of Poland
Over on, Stodge has written the following excellent analysis of our current situation which deserves reprinting here in full:

Once again, plenty for serious LDs to reflect on in the past 24 hours or so. We can safely ignore the mischievous comments from the Tory activists on this Forum who hope and pray that the LDs will collapse since that is their only route back to power.

On to more serious matters…I’ve been pondering the criticism of Kennedy, which has existed in the background ever since he became Party leader in 1999. Then he was seen as a welcome contrast to Paddy Ashdown - a comment I’ve made on here before is that parties often choose as leaders individuals who are in direct contradiction in terms of personality and approach to their predecessor. Thus, the Tories went from Thatcher to Major to Hague/IDS to Howard to Cameron alternating between youth and experience. Labour go from Smith to Blair to (presumably) Brown while we went from Steel to Ashdown to Kennedy. Clearly, there is a mood within the Parliamentary Party for a more dynamic, if confrontational leader. Kennedy is a genuinely likeable man and has been an excellent leader but with the election of Cameron, we have moved into a different era and the “hail fellow, well met, nice chap” approach won’t work anymore. It worked well against the messianic Blair and the cantankerous Howard but now a more dynamic, confident and less friendly (if you like) approach may be required if for no reason than to challenge Cameron and his cohorts.

What I am less clear about is where Kennedy went wrong after 2001. I think there was a short period in the summer and autumn of 2003 when the Tories reached the edge of the abyss. We will never know what would have happened had they kept IDS as leader - I’d love to know what Tory activists honestly think would have happened. However, sensible Conservatives (of whom there are a number) looked into the abyss and the serious prospect (which looked a reality after Brent East) that they might finish third in terms of seats and votes and decided IDS had to go. To his eternal credit, Howard achieved a considerable feat - ok, the election was lost but the Conservative Party as the primary party of Opposition was saved. The vote share was, in historical terms, poor as was the seat total (compare 198 in 2005 with 213 after the 1945 Labour landslide) but the Tories were still in the game and if they hadn’t completely seen off the LDs, they had prevented a far worse disaster.

I still believe Howard made a huge tactical blunder in announcing his decision to resign on May 6th but it has, in one way or another, turned out pretty much as he wanted with Cameron as leader and Davis eclipsed.

For the LDs, the failure to achieve in May 2005 that which seemed tantalisingly plausible in the autumn of 2003 was a blow not entirely offset by the gains from Labour. A principled and difficult policy on the Iraq War (in marked contrast to the awful policy gyrations of the Tories) was undone by what I consider a shrewd Tory ploy on immigration and some excellent campaigning in key marginal seats. The “decapitation strategy” failed, in my view, not because of LIT or a lack of hard work on the ground by LD activists but by the superior centralised camapigning efforts of the Tories which brought out the key 3-4,000 voters in places like Orpington and Dorset West who had abstained in both 1997 and 2001. While Tory doorstep activity was, in my view, moderate, the quality of mailshot literature was a quantum step ahead of the 1997 and 2001 elections - doubtless inspired by Lynton Crosby.

Still, for the LDs, 62 MPs and 23% of the vote was a strong result yet somehow we all felt disappointed. In the year after an election, a Party has the opportunity to reflect and change direction. That can either be done via leadership change or policy renewal. The Tories went for the former, Kennedy started down the road with the latter. It was always going to be hard to generate coverage during the summer after an election if you are the third party - nobody is interested in politics after an election. I don’t think being out of the spotlight for six months after an election is that bad - it gives a Party the time I mentioned for reflection and change.

What has changed this year has been the coming of Cameron and the fact that the Tories enjoyed a sustained period of largely uncritical coverage and a leadership election where some quite trenchant comments were generally masked or ignored. In the same way as the autumn of 2003 was the crossing of one rubicon, so the election of Cameron has proved to be another. There are a tiny minority of Right-wing columnists such as Kaletsky and Hitchens who have their doubts about Cameron but the mainstream Conservative press is happy to give him a free ride (and will continue to do so until and unless he stops looking like he can defeat Labour). I detect from reading a number of Conservative-inclined posters on this Forum a genuine, deep-seated loathing and contempt for the Government and a collective determination that they have to try to win next time and that Cameron, for all their misgivings about the true nature of his Conservatism, is the man they have to follow. If he wins them power, he will have their loyalty for years. If he fails and Labour win with a similar or increased majority next time, well, the Tory Party will be a most unpleasant place.

As you see, every time I talk about the LDs, I finish up talking about the other parties and that is the conundrum the LDs face. Rather like Poland before 1945, they have to co-exist between two powerful neighbours. When both are weak, they prosper - when one is weak, they can survive but if both are strong, they have a fight on.

Kennedy was the perfect leader for the scenario in which the LDs existed with a weak Tory or Labour party. His bonhomie was an asset and could draw away the disaffected but now both Labour and the Conservatives are stronger and we need a fighter. I’m not saying Kennedy isn’t a fighter - he is clearly - but he may no longer be what we need. That is, I think, the rationale behind the point we have reached as a Party.

I don’t share the pessimism (or joy) of other posters at our longer-term prospects. In many ways, it’s better to do this now and give the new leader and team three years to get the policies in position. I’m under no illusions that it will be a tough fight next time but then again it always is.

My hope is that Kenendy will withdraw over Christmas - that very action will help the Party - and we can swiftly choose a new leader. I think people on this Forum (especially those who aren’t LDs) overestimate the popularity of Hughes and possibly Oaten. I know what I’m looking for in a prospective new LD leader and there are, despite the usual barbs, a number of quality candidates.

It’s been a rough couple of days but transition often is difficult. Since all political careers (even those of Rik and Marcus)* are destined to end in failure, the art of politics is knowing when to cash in your chips and stop playing. Thatcher outstayed her welcome, Blair has as well. It may be that Paddy went about the right time and now clearly Charles is on the cusp of overstaying. Part of me, with hindsight, wishes Charles had stepped down before the Conference but then I think the most difficuly thing in politics is to know when to leave.

* - NB Richard Willis (Rik) and Marcus Wood were 2005 Conservative candidates in Sutton & Cheam and Torbay respectively
posted by Apollo Project @ 10:54 am  
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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.


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