Left Out Liberal

A left-wing/liberal look at the UK's General Election of 2005.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Trouble with Charlie

I pity the Lib Dems. I really do. Even though they get more coverage during an election campaign thanks to the Representation of the People Act, they still don't have the ability to set the agenda.

This morning, at 7:30am, the Lib Dems unveiled their strategy for tackling crime. I was checking the news at the time and noticed that it was the top story. At last, given the fuss with Sir Ian Blair's intervention yesterday, it seemed the Lib Dems had actually chosen to stay topical by responding in kind with their own crime-fighting strategy.

Little more than an hour later, the story has now been severely relegated down the BBC News website, trumped by Michael Howard and Tony Blair's new scuffle on health. We'd hardly heard anything about health plans yet this election, apart from Howard's lying leaflets about MRSA.

I'm glad the debate is moving on from tax and the economy, but it just goes to demonstrate how much difficulty the Lib Dems have in setting the agenda. Thinking they'd be topical, they decided to go on crime this morning. Yet, Labour and the Conservatives don't even feel the need to respond... they just go off in their own direction. So even though Charles Kennedy was probably leading on the right thing this morning, now it looks like he's all on his own again trying to campaign on issues that just aren't making the headlines.

This is very difficult for the Lib Dems. Not to mention the struggles with the electoral system, which Tim Hicks has further reflected on based on my post here about the mountain they have to climb, the Lib Dems also give the impression of being unable to control the news agenda - a vital task for any party.

So what's the solution? And more to the point, can this be blamed on any particular problem?

Matthew Parris wrote an article in the Times on Saturday, explaining what he thinks the problem is. He begins with an analysis of the current situation:
"In 19 days the Liberal Democrat leader and his party will have within their grasp an opportunity that may not return for another generation — which may never return. This is their time. This is their moment. This is the election upon which historians may pronounce that in the year 2005 a desperate Conservative Party threw all it had into one last-ditch attempt to renew its grip on British politics — and failed.

Now, Charlie — when a governing party and its leader have run out of ideas and lost our affection and when a principal Opposition has only fear to trade on — is the hour of your enemies’ greatest weakness. Now is the hour when a rising third party must strike. Now or maybe never."
He's right. This is a glorious opportunity for the Lib Dems. He goes on to explain why:
"We Tories are scared of you. We’re scared of the yawning gap between what the voters think of our ideas — they’re interested — and what they think of us — they’re not.

We’re scared of your belief in personal and economic freedom. We have some claim to have fought these corners... But now we’re all in a tangle with our other strong suit: authority. We have a leader whose affection for identity cards is strong, whose one-time support for what gained notoriety as “Section 28” is well documented; whose commitment to civil liberties is compromised; and whose opposition to the state is crippled by his party’s evident terror of shouting from the rooftops that the state does too much and costs too much.

We’re scared of your clean record of standing up for Britain against George W. Bush... We half-think the Iraq war was a blunder — and we’re half-afraid of sounding soft on terrorists. We know our own supporters, present and potential, are angrier about Iraq, angrier about Mr Blair’s deceit, than we have been. Your stand has worried us."
When you look at it this way, it is hard to see why the Lib Dems aren't taking away more votes from the Conservatives. They simply must. They are holding a lot of ground that traditional, dare I say it, One Nation Conservatives used to hold with great pride and defend with zeal.

Matthew Parris goes on to suggest that this could be Charles Kennedy's fault. I'm not sure I totally agree, but I do think he needs to be a little more aggressive. He holds all of the aces. Many of his policies are superb vote-winners. People are aware of a lot of what they propose. They have almost been sold to the electorate.

But he hasn't gone the final step. He hasn't gone far enough to convince people that he is able to lead. We may like him. He may be the only politician to have favourable ratings right now. But lots of us still think of him as little more than a sound guardian of our protest vote. We don't see him as a serious contender. We don't see a charismatic leader rising to lead his party to victory.

Some of this is down to money. Matthew Parris harshly criticises the strategy of the Lib Dems of extreme targetting of certain constituencies. Unfortunately, it is the only way they can advance. They don't have the money to go for a national campaign of demonstrating their credibility and coherency. They lack the discipline to carry this through.

But we aren't seeing enough passion from Charles. We aren't seeing a genuine anger at the way this country has been led. I fear it may be too late for him to change tack; it couldn't possibly look more opportunistic and out-of-character if he decided now to viciously pursue Blair on his record. We have all got used to the Chat Show Charlie persona that he seems to have been happy to cultivate.

The Lib Dems should be making a serious breakthrough this election. We know the system is loaded against them, but if they could equal the share of the vote that the Conservatives get, regardless of MPs won, I will see this as the minimum threshold for the success the Lib Dems should achieve.

Anything less and I fear that Charles Kennedy's time may be up.


At 1:28 pm, April 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Eddie,

Who would you propose as leader if we have to get rid of Charles Kennedy?


At 4:21 pm, April 18, 2005, Blogger Eddie said...

Hello, Bernie.

It's a damn good question you ask and it's one I've not given much thought. Let me clarify: I don't agree with Matthew Parris' view that Charles Kennedy must go based on the current evidence. I want to see the result of the election first. I also appreciate the electoral arithmetic of this - how the Lib Dems won't gain much even if they raise their share of the vote a lot. Hence why I think we should decide based on what vote percentage the Lib Dems end up with.

But if we come far behind the Tories, it has to be considered as an option. I quite like Matthew Taylor and Phil Willis, but I'm not sure how the electorate will react to them. Simon Hughes is good, but may come across as too aloof with the public.

Do you have any thoughts on this?

At 11:52 am, April 24, 2005, Blogger Ken said...

I think the major problem for the LibDems is the left-wing, universalist ideas of much of their party membership. This leads to headlines measures such as a local income tax and a higher rate of income tax nationally, which I think dents the ability to make an impact on the Tories.

At 2:50 pm, April 25, 2005, Blogger aEuropean said...

Hi Eddie,

Not sure that the Lib Dems are so bad at setting the media agenda.

You assume that political parties can actively set the media agenda. Everyone stopped campaigning for the Pope, primarily because the media-cycle could not be controlled. All that a media-savvy political party can do (at the top of their game) is respond timely to stories to help build momentum in order to keep certain stories out-there, or, change the tone of an existing debate.

If this is true, then the Lib Dems were on top of their game today. They were quick this morning with the Anti-War poster following the Sunday Paper's rehash of legal advice.

Most media are leading their election reports with the resurgence of the Iraq/Trust issue. I'm not sure what the score is now, but mark 1 down to the Lib Dems.


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