Monday, October 09, 2006

Keeping Up With The Joneses

You ignore the trends of political life at your peril.

I mention this in view of the delight shown by Conservative activists at another poll showing their vote up at the expense of the Lib Dems (supposedly). The national swing will smite us down and put us back into our place as the nowhere men of British politics, so goes the theory.

But again, you ignore the trends of political life at your peril. And I say this as someone sitting in a Lib Dem constituency, the gaining of which had nark all to do with the national swing. Indeed, Manchester Withington was so far outside the bounds of the national swing equation that at least one guide to the election held it up as the exemplar of a former northern urban Tory stronghold that was now impregnably Labour.

Nevertheless, an 11,000 majority was overturned in a result so sensational the BBC’s analysts pronounced it a mistake and stopped talking about it so as not to dent their psephological pride. Labour’s shock was such that the cries of dark practices continue to this day (though it’s rather difficult to claim that your opponent lied about the existence of something when its existence was reported on BBC Television!) Then again, as the party in power, they can be forgiven for not facing up to reality; it’s not as if any previous government has had any real idea of what reality was…

Beyond the self-congratulation, however, there is a serious issue for the part as a whole. In Brighton there was a discussion about the siting of future party conferences that noted that the membership of the party has a 60-40 bias towards the south of England. It is a statistic that one should always have in mind when having these discussions that are supposedly about the soul of the party; as a southerner living in the north, I have discovered if nothing else that the ideological split in the party is not left vs. right, it is north vs. south.

The reason is, of course, the historical electoral imperative. With so many MP’s defending against an allegedly rejuvenated Conservative party, we have a policy process with a raging undercurrent of not pissing off middle England. Indeed, two things about the tax amendment debate stunned me; that it was a southern MP leading the charge, and that the media didn’t pick up that the north-south issue was the main driver for it.

Strangely, the solution is staring us in the face. Ming’s favourite line for some time has been that the other parties are managerialists, solely concerned with the administrivia of the country as it stands. Indeed, Labour and the Conservatives have basically established a status quo, where the only differences are in degree, be it on the NHS (where Labour want to mortgage it and the Tories want to sell it outright), on law and order (where Labour want to lock people up for a really long time and the Tories want to lock them up for a really really long time), and so forth.

The liberal firebrand response to the status quo, meanwhile, simply isn’t up the job; it basically boils down to “the status quo would work if only there was more of it”; that the status quo is the right way to go but we must fill in the gaps in personal and corporate liberty to make it work at maximum efficiency. To the trained economist it may be a valid viewpoint, but to the politician, to the person living in the real world, it is patently ridiculous. At a time when Her Majesty’s Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition are offering the same tired old gruel, we cannot be the voice of radicalism if our only response is, “Please Sir, may I have some more?”

My point, finally, is this; people do not vote Lib Dem just because they want a better way, they vote Lib Dem because they believe a better way must be a different way. It is not merely enough to show, as an economic or moralistic exercise, that your way is better; you must demonstrate that it is different. Moreover, while there are plenty of socialists (or at the very least people who behave so loutishly that the difference is difficult to tell) in this party, a desire for a different way is not evidence of communist tendencies, stupidity or thoughtcrime.

Making this party a potential party of government does not require us to abandon our principles, on either wing or from either end of the country, but it does require that we use our principles in the way our electorate (not the electorate, not that subset of the electorate tarred with the “middle England” brush, but our electorate) want us to.

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