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The Lib Dems - What's Wrong With Them!

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
17 September 2009

I'm not being rude or cynical. But diplomatic concern seems pointless. The UK needs some kind of Obama force that offers a significant and positive change of direction and draws on new energy but can deliver inside the system. This is hardly a revolutionary desire! The Lib Dems, with over 50 MPs, millions of votes, a party machine, young leaders, are in the perfect position to be this force.

Much more important, they call it right on issues that are popular. They got the economic crisis right and are believed, immensely important in terms of credibility and popular respect. They led on liberty where the latest poll shows overwhelming, eight-to-one support for the view that the state is taking too much power, a classic liberal view and a constitutional one. Nick Clegg denounced our "rotten" system in the most robust and systematic terms since he became leader. He made a great speech saying that the acuteness of the economic collapse in the UK was caused by the political collapse of Westminster, well before the expenses crisis struck. On the issue of the Iraq war, that gave Obama his original moral authority, the Lib Dems stood out from the crowd. And this is an issue that those who vote still care about.

Why then, when their answers are so often right, principled, consistent and popular are the Lib Dems so useless? Why aren't they at 30 per cent support plus? Why should they have to ask for a place in any television debate, rather than being the main contenders?

The answer seems to be: It ain't what you say, it is the way that you say it.

I recall watching what I think was their spring party conference. For a few flickering seconds, Clegg was in the top half of BBC News. We need an act of faith. It sounded good. It disappeared. I saw no other report. But who was to make the leap? He was calling on voters to bet their faith on him. But what he and his party need to do is to take a bet on the people. It is they who need to make the change, not the voters.

The party's body language is way too Westminster. When push comes to shove, the Lib Dems are reasonable. Their leather radicals in the Lords look forward to an increase in MPs that will make them the arbiters of a hung parliament and their advice stifles the party - they are the UK's last true Establishment.

Now Clegg has written a Demos pamphlet saying it is The Liberal Moment. It's "jolly good". You can hear the plaudits from the noble Lib Dem Lords being dripped into his ears. Their murmurings are poison! Labour displaced the Liberals a century ago because of organised forces outside Westminster, in the Trade Unions and the Co-operative movement. The reshaping of British society now, that Clegg writes about, does indeed undermine traditional Labour. But its institutional forms are in the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and the London Mayor and movements against the EU. There are potential networks across civil society that could and should support the Lib Dems. But the party has to make the first move, demonstrate a hunger for power on its own terms, appeal to these supposedly dangerous elements. Clegg celebrates citizens as unruly and not wanting to be controlled by the state. I agree. No, I strongly agree. But the way it is said seems patronising. The Lib Dems need to be the unruly party if they are to appeal to the unruly majority.  

The Lib Dems have got to start being different and stop playing the game in the same old way.

PS - James Graham from inside the party makes a parallel, thoughtful argument that ends with a call for a Liberal Democrat "movement" as he gasps for oxygen of life.

PSS - The is a response from David Marquand that takes the argument further into a full OK post here.

PPSS - Sunny is in on the act too HERE

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