Thursday, April 01, 2010

All the people, so many people - the Lib Dems' Parklife

Do the Liberal Democrats have a distinctive identity, or as their opponents suggest do they sit in the middle trying to be all things to all people?

One of the things I find encouraging about the main political parties is that they have all grown out of particular philosophical and political traditions. This provides them with an important underlying cohesion and narrative. The Labour value the Christian socialism of RH Tawney and the works of Tony Crosland. The  Tories look back to the 'Grandfather of Conservatism' Edmund Burke and more recent thinkers like Michael Oakeshott.

The Liberal Democrats can lay claim to the even clearer heritage of Locke, Hume and JS Mill - founding thinkers of liberalism.

Of course this is to simplify political thinking. There are many overlaps and Tories especially might draw inspiration from these philosophical giants. However, it does point to the fact that the Liberal Democrats aren't just a party in the middle bobbing up and down, thrown this way and that by the latest political storms. Their consistent stand against ID cards and other infringements of civil liberties such as 28 day detention without trial demonstrate this well.

Perhaps unfortunately for the Lib Dems the political debate has moved away from these issues at the moment. So what else have they to offer?

The two senses that come from the party are policy openness and a welcome break from the cult of the leader.

Environmental and transport emerge as a key strand for their policies, along with the economy and their key policies are laid out in this nifty little booklet (pdf).

Their website if full of pictures of 'prominent' lib dems, most of whom aren't Nick Clegg and their news archive actually has initiatives from the relevant portfolio holder without the leader holding their hand. There is a lot of talk about 'All the people' in the party (the Lib Dems would like to convince you that there are 'so many people') all working together 'hand in hand' ready to support you through your 'parklife'.

It's that last part that still provides the problem for the Liberal Democrats. There's still a sense that, with the exception of Vincent Cable, they're not heavyweight enough for the big stage. OK to run your councils and clean up your park, but you wouldn't quite trust them with the nuclear button (which they wouldn't renew).

In the past their picking of unrelated key campaign issues (think Iraq war & Tuition Fees to appeal to disgruntled Labour voters in 2005) has made them sound more like students with gripes than with a strong, coherent narrative to govern.

The leaders' debates will be a massive opportunity for Nick Clegg to show that he can stand toe to toe with the other would-be PMs. These three set pieces of the election may well determine whether the Liberal Democrats join the big boys in government or continue jogging round and round and round the election cycle never quite breaking through to new ground.

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