LibLink: Vince Cable: Charles Kennedy: he was left of Labour maybe, but always a true liberal

Vince Cable has been writing about Charles Kennedy for the Guardian. He mentioned Iraq and was honest about his own role in confronting Charles towards the end of his time as leader. It was this passage on Charles’ ideas and philosophy that caught our eye, though.

In the early Blair-Brown years, when Labour successfully colonised the centre ground, Charles took the Liberal Democrats into territory described as “left of Labour”. This reputation was underlined when we were joined in the run-up to the 2005 general election by a defecting leftwing Labour MP, Brian Sedgemore, and others with similar views.

But this was also the period when the Orange Book, edited by David Laws, to which I contributed, was produced as a counter view, with more economically liberal arguments.

As our party’s shadow chancellor at the time I had doubts about the wisdom of promising a range of free things – university tuition and personal social care, for instance. But it is wrong to portray Charles as a socialist. He had come into parliament as a social democrat and remained one. Like me, he joined the SDP in the early 1980s when Labour was anti-Europe, anti-Nato and was looking back nostalgically to the era of state control and trades union power. For those of us who were attracted to the ideals of social justice, and wanted an alternative both to Thatcher’s Conservatism and to what Labour then offered, the SDP then the Lib Dems offered a way forward.

The other strand in his political philosophy was liberalism. Again this was often unfashionable. I recall that during the 2005 election when the Tories were whispering, very loudly, “are you thinking what we are thinking?”, Charles was quite unequivocal: “Yes, the immigration of black and brown people has been good for Britain, economically and culturally; and no, hanging and flogging doesn’t solve the crime problem.”

You can read the whole article here.

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51 Comments

  • Perceptions of left and right went into an era of confusion with the 1994 election of Blair as leader of the Labour Party.

    Blair who recently stepped down after eight years as the least successful “peace envoy” in the history managed whilst PM to turn the traditional party of “the Left” into a rightwing, war-mongering, personal fiefdom.

    Under normal objective measures of left and right in politics very few people were to the right of Tony Blair, not even George W Bush. I clearly remember a TV interview with Ted Heath the former Conservative Prime Minister laughing heavily and saying even I am leftwing compared to Tony Blair!

    Charles Kennedy remained fairly consistent and honest about his political position, it was Blair’s so-called ‘New Labour’ rush to the right which has confused some people ever since.

  • John Tilley. You are right of course about Tony Blair. Of course by the time he became PM, the Tories had won four elections in a row and it felt as though nothing could defeat them. In desperation, many in the Labour Party thought they had to be more right wing in order to win an election and to take on the Tories clothes – courting Rupert Murdoch is just one example. Sadly some in the Labour Party are once again making that mistake but this is not confined to the Labour Party. There are some people in other threads on LDV right now advocating that the Lib Dems need to be more right wing to appeal to a wilder electorate rather than to peruse policies which appeal to “only intellectuals and students” – such as “electoral reform, Human Rights Act and foreign aid” !!!

  • @John Tilley – Blair may have done and been all those things you say, but he managed to win three elections; two with massive majorities. So he must have been doing something right.

  • @Phyllis Blair’s hat-trick of election victories just reinforce the message that elections are won from the centre ground.

    Michael Foot had a solid left wing platform. By your reasoning he should have won a landslide.

  • TCO well people always say that about Blair – that no matter what his faults he did win three GE victories. Of course there is a bit more to it than that. Peter Kellner tells us that political parties need two things to win – a credible leader and to be trusted on the economy. In 1997 the Tories had lost all economic credibility because of the ERM and Black Wednesday. All through the Blair years the Tories had no credible leader whilst Brown looked very competent on the economy. And Cameron, despite his hugging hoodies etc, failed to win an outright majority against Brown. So whilst undoubtedly true that Blair won all those victories, you could argue that the lack of a credible alternative had a lot to do with those victories, not to mention having friends at News International and from big business and people who were “filthy rich” .

    Of course winning three elections did Blair no good in the end because he has left behind a toxic legacy, dominated by the war on Iraq and the subsequent chaos it caused. He looks like someone haunted now, much older than his age. I have some sympathy for him, and wonder how things might have ended up had his premiership coincided with that of Clinton, or more interestingly, Obama.

  • TCO 3rd Jun ’15 – 10:35pm
    “@Phyllis Blair’s hat-trick of election victories just reinforce the message that elections are won from the centre ground.”

    Mrs Thatcher also achieved a hat-trick of victories but she was hardly on the centre ground. Nor, in my view was Tony Blair.

    Both were helped by the lack of an effective opposition and by their friends in the media.

  • George Potter 4th Jun '15 - 12:04am

    The point is that by 1997 Labour would have won anyway if, say, more left wing John Smith had still been leader. The ideological aspects of New Labour won them their massive landslide but without it they still would have won a majority.

    The problem is that in doing so Blair and Brown helped solidify the centre ground in British politics far to the right of where it had been previously.

    That means that policies which many people would think are reasonable (such as public ownership of utilities and the post office, council house building, government infrastructure investment) are now considered by most politicians to be dangerously left wing.

    The other problem is that there is no real party challenging the accepted economic orthodoxy in any meaningful way – even though the current economic orthodoxy is what led us into the Great Recession.

    British politics should be a spectrum of options – not a binary choice of Michael Foot semi-socialism on the one hand and small state, neoliberal market fetishism on the other.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 4th Jun '15 - 12:22am

    I concur with John Tilley and Phyllis’s comments above.

    @TCO – The Labour party was ripe for winning in 1997 because duringJohn Major’s government, many voters previously sceptical of Labour thought they couldn’t do a worse job.

    John Smith would have won convincingly in 1997, with a confident, campaign and how to defend and extend interests for all in the UK. The mood changed overnight in late 1992 the sense that Conservatives were economically competent and neoliberal economic policies were best for Britain collapsed. A few Conservative-inclined voters peeled off to Labour, and many other such voters didn’t vote- hence the large drop in voters between 1992 and 1997.

    So people didn’t vote Labour in 1997 and 2001 because Tony Blair wasn’t left wing. But by 2001 the idea that the Labour govt was left wing or even centre-left was already starting to decay. The events and rhetoric after 9/11 and the run up to the iraq invasion, and Labour’s welcoming of the super-rich that seemed to favour a globalised elite rather than most of British society speeded up that decay. And so Charles Kennedy’s distinct alternative of a Social Democrat and Liberal agenda gave Liberal Democrats their highest number of MPs in 2005. This even appealed to Centre-right voters!
    But some in the party saw the many southern Conservative seats where LibDems came strong seconds as winnable if only the party tacked a bit to the ‘right’ rather than picking up ‘disgruntled left-wing voters, and possibly overtake Labour. Results in 2005 in places like Orpington (which receded in 2005) on the surface seemed to justify this argument- the centre-left positioning of the party wasn’t appealing to centre-right voters. (This wasn’t true- I saw the 2005 Orpington campaign- despite a great candidate, it was a lousy, misdirected one, imho.) This drive to appeal more to Centre-right voters by softening from Kennedy’s stance also ignored how a strong Liberal and Social Democrat agenda was increasingly appealing in Labour seats, where many more seats started to gain strong LibDem 2nd places.

    I voted for Kennedy and Ming Campbell’s leadership, but couldn’t get enthused with either candidate in the last contest. This time, despite some reservations, there seems to be one that can!

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 4th Jun '15 - 12:33am

    * I meant to say that around 2003-2006 there was an optimism that the Liberal Democrats could overtake the Conservatives (not Labour)- the Yellow peril! And that flirting with neoliberal economics. with the encouragement of centre-right political commentators like Matthew Parris, would unlock dozens of Southern English Conservative seats to fall our way.

    Anyway, that strategy has comprehensively failed: It instead stripped away support from Social Democrat inclined voters and clearly makes Centre-right voters feel vindicated by voting Conservative!

  • Richard Underhill 4th Jun '15 - 8:51am

    Phyllis’ mention of “Clinton” of course means Bill Clinton, whereas in many headlines today it would mean Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bill Clinton advised Tony Blair to copy the New Democrats tactics, asking leftish, trade unionist, traditional supporters to work hard in the campaign, while appealing to newer, less political people for their votes.

    The problem with this strategy is that it only works once. After the election victory the loyalists ask “What are you delivering for us?” while the newer supporters drift away.

    Bill Clinton’s legacy might have been delivered if the hanging chads in Florida had fallen for his successor. When the Republicans took the case to the Supreme Court one of the Justices asked “What is the issue? Why are you here?”

    The legacy might also benefir from the US President being elected directly, as in many democracies such as France, Ireland, .. ,instead of throughan electoral college which turns some states into safe seats for one party, or the other, and makes the vote of an elector in a marginal state much more valauable than the vote of his neighbour.

  • @Thomas Howard-Jones “Anyway, that strategy has comprehensively failed: It instead stripped away support from Social Democrat inclined voters and clearly makes Centre-right voters feel vindicated by voting Conservative!”

    Yet we are told by the Great and the Good that the party’s leftish stance in 2005 delivered it out best result ever. Can’t have it both ways.

  • @Phyllis “Mrs Thatcher also achieved a hat-trick of victories but she was hardly on the centre ground. Nor, in my view was Tony Blair. ”

    There are a lot of myths about Thatcher. Her more radical terms were the later ones. Her initial programme was very cautious.

  • I agree with Phyllis and others – virtually any Labour leader would have won in 1997.

    I am pretty sure that if Miliband had had the charisma, appearance of sincerity and certainly self-confidence that Tony Blair had in 1997, he would have won, or at least forced a draw in 2015 (without the SNP surge which perhaps no Labour leader could have stopped, then an outright majority).

    I cant believe how quickly the Labour leadership candidates are ditching policies like the Mansion Tax. There is an argument that it is a bit pointless in revenue terms but for sure it is popular with the 90+% of voters who can never imagine owning a mansion! And if it dampens the oligarch-fueled property boom in London, that can only be a good thing (although I doubt if it will!).

    In my view we should stick to our guns on modest redistributive taxation, and definitely not try to squeeze into a tiny gap between Labour and the Tories – Charles Kennedy showed us the way, and voters respect consistency more than bending with every opinion poll. We should be clear that we do not fit on the left-right line and are far from both Labour AND the Tories on many issues. We belong in a corner of the triangle called Liberalism, not near the other apices of Socialism and Conservatism. Which means we can pick out a policy from anywhere on the old-fashioned left-right line provided it is consistent with Liberalism

  • This has been linked elsewhere
    http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/matthew-dancona-kennedys-legacy-will-be-to-remind-his-party-of-the-real-liberal-way-10294128.html

    But it is very relevant here… Especially this paragraph: Unlike Ashdown and Clegg, Kennedy saw his party not primarily as a prospective force in government but as the parliamentary wing of a campaigning movement.

    There is absolutely no point trying to pretend we are a potential party of government with 8 MP’s!

  • TCO “Yet we are told by the Great and the Good that the party’s leftish stance in 2005 delivered it out best result ever. Can’t have it both ways.”

    I doubt that ‘left’ and ‘ right’ are in any way helpful as a way to define the Lib Dems.

  • @Phyllis “I doubt that ‘left’ and ‘ right’ are in any way helpful as a way to define the Lib Dems.”

    I agree. But up-thread you’ve described Blair as too right wing and argued we should not follow that path, so you’ve framed the debate in left/right terms. Which goes back to my original point about consistency.

    The party needs to adopt Liberal policies. But the most vociferous commenters on here believe that economically Liberal policies are right-wing. They aren’t.

  • matt (Bristol) 4th Jun '15 - 10:47am

    Look, I think the elephant in the room in the discussion TCO and Phyllis are having, is the rightward and antiEuropean shift in the Conservative Party under Hague and IDS, ie, during what were the Kennedy years for us.

    Before 1997 and for a little while afterwards, it was not obvious that a Tory leadership would campaign against ‘losing the pound’, would engage in a competition with Labour for who would suck up to George Bush the most, and so on on several other policy positions.

    So a growing LibDem party in this period had several audiences it could decide to play to:
    – Labour voters who effectively liked some bits of Blair but didn’t like the war, didn’t like his centrallising and the target-led performance statistics culture being foisted onto public services, didn’t like his ‘strong leader’ rhetoric.
    – Labour voters who believed Blair had gone ‘far right’, ‘too much like Thatcher’ and were looking for someone else to keep things ‘left’ (wherever that was).
    – Tory voters who liked Clarke and Major for their apparent moderation and ‘common-sense’ approach (although clearly trust in their powers of economic management had gone a bit by ’97), sought a business-friendly, moderate future for the country but despaired of their party seemingly becoming occupied with niche interests like leaving the EU etc.

    Until Cameron started to paper over the cracks (externally at least), the Tories looked like a train wreck, and it was not lcear that they would lead the country again in their current form.

    Whether any or all of the disparate audiences above were a) compatible with liberal democracy b) compatible with one another c) necessary for the LibDems to represent, rather than some other party … is why, I think, we have developed an ongoing war about who and what the party is for.

    I say again, if Clarke had won the Tory leadership at any point, Clegg would either have not been leader, or he would have been leading the party in a different direction, as a key voter group he sought to attract to the party would not exist or would have been split.

    Add to this that neither Kennedy or Campbell left the leadership due to a discussion about policy, but due to one about personal issues, and you have an almighty fifteen-year crisis of identity.

    That isn’t to say the past fifteen years have been without achievements, or that I think Clegg is a villain – I don’t – I just think trying to intelligbly, popularly, common-sensically explain the shifts in the party’s values, actions and programme from Ashdown to now – which is, sadly, more necessary for a minor party than for the major ones, whose ‘brand’ and right to exist are not usually questioned as much for as long – is a major, major task for the next leader, and it may not be possible to keep everyone in the tent.

    I might respect Ken Clarke-and-Dominic-Grive-type-Tories, and occasionally I feel empathy and some glimmer of understanding for David-Davis-and-Douglas-Carswell-type Tories, and think parties that espouse their views need to exist, and I think their perspectives are all necessary in current debate. But even if their positions might be (arguably) philosophically describable as ‘liberal’ or ‘democractic’ I don’t want this party to be their party.

    Do we want a genuinely plural politics, in which multiple parties espouse multiple points of view, or 2-4 ‘big tent’ parties which overlap and are trying to corral together different interest groups and perspectives? Choose.

  • I cant get too excited over left/right…..as many have said in the past …’Liberal/s (Party) are not to the left or to the right they are FORWARD!’ I think the liberal tradition about caring for those less fortunate and fairness put us on the ‘left’, but cutting back rules and regulations (esp in business) could be seen as on the ‘right’, as judged on the simplistic left/right spectrum. Anyway upwards on onwards……….. and of course FORWARD!!

  • jedibeeftrix 4th Jun '15 - 11:41am

    “Unlike Ashdown and Clegg, Kennedy saw his party not primarily as a prospective force in government but as the parliamentary wing of a campaigning movement.”

    Long been a question I have posed here on ldv. The answer to which has important implications for the future of the party.

    But, remember, when Charles thought this the utter decay and lack of purpose of the labour party was not evident. Labour is dieing, are the lib-dems willing to really fight to take their spot?

  • @matt(Bristol) I think that is the most cogent analysis of 1997 – 2010 that I’ve read from our perspective, and encapsulates the reason why the party was doomed to fail at some point when all those disparate interests (plus the “s0d ’em all” anti=establishment voters and the “Local Party for Local People” voters) finally realised their mutual incompatability.

    In an ideal world we’d form 5-6 clear and distinct parties across the spectrum. However we need to decide how we will react with FPTP in place.

    What worries me is that there is a large tendency that believes we can go back to being all things for all people through hard work at the local level. That won’t work for two reasons – “trust” and the proliferation of protest and left wing parties.

    So we need to define a philosophical direction and stick with it, but also encourage everyone who can agree with at least part of this to stay on board. I hope this will happen but I suspect it won’t.

  • TCO “But up-thread you’ve described Blair as too right wing and argued we should not follow that path, so you’ve framed the debate in left/right terms. Which goes back to my original point about consistency.”

    Ok maybe I wasn’t clear in what I was actually saying so let me try to do so now.

    I think both the Labour Party and the Lib Dems are in danger of misinterpreting the outcome of the last election. The Tories won seats and the other two lost seats but that in no way means that the public support a lurch to right-wing policies. All it means is that Labour did not have a credible leader and they were not trusted on the economy – the two things absolutely essential to win over voters. Does the Tory victory mean that the public want more austerity, more cuts on the disabled and the vulnerable, more privatisation, more snooping, fewer civil liberties, more secret courts, more fawning over media barons?

    No.

    But the losing parties are in danger of thinking that they have to behave that way. I order to win votes.

    Get a leader who is credible and inspirational, and a would-be Chancellor who is trusted with the economy and the rest will follow. There is no need to ditch the Party’s core principles.

    Let’s face it, the Lib Dems are not vying to be a party in power, but with enough people supporting you, you can bring about significant change without being in power. But you need a narrative that inspires people to vote for you again, it’s about more than individual policies. I do believe the Lib Dems have that vision but it’s all for nothing without a leader who can turn that vision into a narrative that many many people can buy into.

  • Was it genuine popularity that got Tony Blair in in 1997, or perhaps there was something about the previous 18 years that some people were just so sick of that they would have elected a teddy bear with a red rosette, rather than have to put up with any more of it?

    As for being a party of government with 8 MP’s, there is no coalition without a hung parliament (or a deal between parties for election purposes), and 8 can still be the difference. FPTP does mess with probability that way. Not that I am counting on it or anything. Personally I think the low Lib Dem share of the vote poses a bigger issue, because 8% would be a feeble justification for going into government, whereas 20% of the vote and only 8 MP’s (can happen, because FPTP is just all wrong), plus the other party having say, 25% (but they are just short of a majority), that coalition would have 45% of the national vote share, and that is more justified IMHO than most governments that we get around here.

  • This is one of the more interesting and better informed discussions in LDV for some time.

    Could I make a plea however to Greenfield and anyone else who wants to repeat the old chestnut about being neither left nor right but going forward. I have a copy of an election poster from the 1920s which tried this slogan. It did not work then. It has never worked since. It certainly did not work in May 2015. Much as some people in our party would like re-write the language to accommodate this meaningless slogan, they will fail just as they have failed for the last one hundred years.

    Left and right (as politicial adjectives) are clearly understood all over the world in all languages. Live with it!

    Commenting on Charles Kennedy’s very successful time as party leader Tom Watson MP yesterday made the point that Charles was the leader of a centre-left party. Everyone understood what Tom Watson meant by that.

    Everyone knows that the attempts over the last eleven years to “reposition” or “rebrand” the party further and further to the right has resulted in electoral disaster.

    The facts of the 2015 election result for Liberal Democrats spell out why positioning our party as a right of centre, friend of The Conservatives and Unionists, why moving to the right is just crazy. Count the nber of oat deposits.

    For those who did not take too close a look at those results, this table of percentage support for Liberal Democrat candidates may bring the point home —

    In only one seat (Westmoreland) did we get more than 50%
    In only 2 seats did we get between 40% and 50%
    In only 28 seats did we get between 30% and 40%
    In only 29 seats did we get between 20% and 30%
    In 571 seats the Liberal Democrat got less than 20%

    Let me put that another way for people who like their statistics presented in easy to remember pieces —

    We only got 30% or more of the votes cast in 31 seats of the 631 seats where we had a candidate.

    We only got 8 MPs and only one of those MPs was popular enough in his own seat to get more than 50%.

    In the two seats previously held by MPs most closely associated with moving the party to the right our result was absolutely dreadful.
    You do not have to believe me — just look at the facts. Check the results from Yeovil and from Taunton where the decline in Liberal Democrat support was on a massive scale.

  • Malcolm Todd 4th Jun '15 - 4:10pm

    How does that song go again … “FORWARD!” he cried from the rear, and the front rank died…

  • Peter Watson 4th Jun '15 - 4:33pm

    @TCO “But the most vociferous commenters on here believe that economically Liberal policies are right-wing. They aren’t.”
    That is a very interesting point. If left-right means anything these days then it is on individual policy areas rather than for a party as a whole, but are you suggesting that you would not put “economically Liberal policies” on such a spectrum or that they would not be to the right of it. “Economically Liberal policies” often seem to be characterised as the sort of profit and market driven winner-takes-all / devil-take-the-hindmost approach that many would consider as “right-wing”.

  • Peter Watson 4th Jun ’15 – 4:33pm
    What if many people characterised “economically liberal policies” as having lifted millions of people out of poverty?

  • I realise people here are more inclined to link the Guardian than the sorts of right-wing “Neoliberal” sites I frequent, but please humour me:

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/06/economist-explains-0

  • @John Tilley “Commenting on Charles Kennedy’s very successful time as party leader Tom Watson MP yesterday made the point that Charles was the leader of a centre-left party. Everyone understood what Tom Watson meant by that. ”

    I don’t – humour me by explaining what you think that means.

  • matt (Bristol) 4th Jun '15 - 5:43pm

    John TIlley, I will try to make a more intelligent response than this at some point, but I am temporarily captivated by the idea of our MPs last month sitting dejected surrounded by piles of ‘oat deposits’.

  • Left and right are not perfect political standards, but they do reflect some reality; and in those terms it would be fair to say that the Conservatives are well to the right of all but the most right-wing Liberal Democrats, and that while Labour has a left wing which is distinctly left of the Lib Dems, it also has a — probably more dominant — right wing which is far enough right to overlap with the Tories; and that the Lib Dems tend to be people who don’t much like Labour in either its left or right variants.

    What the Liberal Democrats naturally are, or ultimately should be or will be, is a matter so dependent on contingencies that one hesitates to answer out of fear of false prophecy. But it is fair to say that the Lib Dems have been a centre-left, progressive but non-socialist party; and that for the last five years the Lib Dems have at least appeared to be a centre-right, socially libertarian but economically right-wing party analogous to the German Free Democrats.

  • @Peter Watson I characterise Economic Liberalism as, amongst other things, in principle favouring more competition in provision, in order to do the following:

    – provide a mechanism to drive improvements in products and services
    – disrupt concentrations of power held by monopoly or monopolistic providers that lead to the producer being favoured over the customer or service user
    – generate innovation to the betterment of customers or users and the fulfilment of producers

    Note competition in provision does not favour one sector over another but encourages participation of all sectors in all areas of provision.

    The ultimate aim for improving life for those with the least power – a very Liberal concept.

    Things Economic Liberalism is not:
    1) Corporatist – we are in favour of dispersion of market power as widely as possible and against concentrations of power in monopoly or monopolistic providers
    2) Biased in favour of one mechanism or another; state, private and co-operative models are all equally valid assuming they do not permit concentrations of power and favouring of producer interests
    3) anti-regulation; it just believes in the least regulation possible to ensure the most efficient operation of the market

    This is why I do not classify Economic Liberalism as inherently right-wing. To me right-wing is about the defence of privilege and accumulation of power and wealth; efficient markets and competition seek to break up these concentrations and so are subversive and disruptive.

  • matt (Bristol) 4th Jun '15 - 5:52pm

    TCO, thankyou, and Phyllis, I totally agree with you about narrative and communication.

    In hidsight, Charles Kennedy was gifted, in the Iraq war, a coherent issue on which all the various kinds of people in the liberal big tent could more-or-less agree, that was ideologically compatible with Liberalism, and which clearly distinguished the party from both the other two main ones at the time. I don’t know when another of those is coming.

    I think (I could be wrong), the cruel irony for us is that ‘big tent’ politics was WORKING at that time for Labour, and later (under Cameron and for a more limited extent) for the Tories…. but if you have a numerically big party that is less likely to get wiped out in one night, you get a breathing space to repitch the tent if it falls over or people suddenly run out of it to go somewhere else,a nd the risk of periodic ‘big tent’ failur is lessened.

    Meanwhile, we are standing here with our tatty bits of canvas, trying to work out what we do with them, and how big we want the next tent to be, whether we’ll be able to stitch it together and whether we’ll get enough people willing to come into it at all when a lot more nice new (or refrubished) tents have been erected just down the road.

  • matt (Bristol) 4th Jun ’15 – 5:43pm
    John TIlley, I will try to make a more intelligent response than this at some point, but I am temporarily captivated by the idea of our MPs last month sitting dejected surrounded by piles of ‘oat deposits’.

    Well we are often characterised as a bunch of sandal-wearing muesli-munchers 😉

  • @matt(Bristol) “In hindsight, Charles Kennedy was gifted, in the Iraq war, a coherent issue on which all the various kinds of people in the liberal big tent could more-or-less agree, that was ideologically compatible with Liberalism, and which clearly distinguished the party from both the other two main ones at the time. I don’t know when another of those is coming.”

    I forget which commander in chief who said it, but someone once said that he wanted his Generals to be lucky above all else.

    Its pretty clear that a great many people here equate the good performance in 2005 as an endorsement of a particular policy direction when actually it appears that there happened to be a huge slice of good luck for the party in that election when both Labour and the Tories were in the doldrums. I’ve long believed we should have done much better in that election in taking Labour-held seats, given the alignment of the political stars, than we actually did.

    So – unless one of those famous “events, dear boy, events” should happen its difficult to see what can or should be done other than to definitively hammer out a direction of travel and hope for the best.

  • matt (Bristol) 4th Jun ’15 – 5:43pm

    🙂
    “oat deposits”
    A product I guess of ageing iPad, poor eyesight and fat fingers.
    Hopefully not a Freudian reference to a one time MP for Winchester who was Orange Tendency even before the book was written.

    It should of course had said “lost deposits”.

  • Paul In Wokingham 4th Jun '15 - 8:00pm

    YouGov has an interesting poll result today: they asked people to recall whether they had thought the invasion of Iraq was right or wrong in 2003. 37% now claim they had thought the invasion right in 2003, while 43% now claim they had thought it wrong at that time. But YouGov’s own poll in 2003 showed 54% thought it was right and 38% thought it was wrong. So a very substantial 17% “misremember” supporting the Iraq War.

    It is easy now to forget that in the midst of jingoist fever (I have still not forgiven The Observer for its editoral) it was a hard decision to oppose that conflict at that time. If 12 years is enough time for “history to decide” (and I think it is) then Charles Kennedy was absolutely right to take a principled stand in 2003 and our party owes him an incalculable debt of gratitude. I can think of no higher praise.

  • Matt (Bristol) 4th Jun '15 - 9:03pm

    TCO
    “Its pretty clear that a great many people here equate the good performance in 2005 as an endorsement of a particular policy direction when actually it appears that there happened to be a huge slice of good luck for the party in that election when both Labour and the Tories were in the doldrums. ”

    Well, it could be both, and we may never know, and everyone will have different opinions. That is how politics works. Can we ever truly ‘know’ whether or how much (in a measurable way) the 1997 election was an endorsement of Blair’s policy direction or a punishment of the Tories for just being around too long? How much was Cameron’s success in 2015 an endorsement of his policy direction (does he in fact have a coherent policy direction)?

    To illustrate – I took the i (silly name) this morning and read on the front page ‘Outrage at social care cuts’. I’m not outraged. ‘Outrage’ implies you didn’t see something coming. No one promised to ringfence or protect social care (as opposed to health) spending at the last election. They all promised various forms of local government ‘efficiency savings’. Social care is managed by local government. QED. So if people actually are ‘outraged’, particularly if these people happen to have voted Tory recently, were they voting Tory because they endorsed Cameron’s policies or because he seemed like a less worse guy than that other bloke?

    Also, whilst we’re on the left-right spectrum, people tend to imply policy from personality. Was Major to the left of Thatcher, for eg? Or do we think of Thatcher as more ‘right’ because she projected a more forceful personality?

    But I think there is an extent to which what matters is the stories you tell about yourself, mixed with a pinch of the ones others tell about you, how much they differ from one another and how much they are all believed. We’re not entirely in control of that process, for sure, but it needs to be coherent.

  • Matt (Bristol) 4th Jun '15 - 9:23pm

    John Tilley, as much as I do want to agree with you (or at least make the related point that the more ‘right’ we go, the less coherent our offer becomes), I’m not sure your logic is infallible. If all the MPs we had prior to the election were lined up on a left-right spectrum, was Tim Farron the most left and Jeremy Browne the most right? Did all the constituents of those MPs know where their LibDem candidate stood on the left-right spectrum? I’m not sure you can infer automatically from that presentation of the facts that ‘right’ (whatever that means in our current context’ liberal policies were inherently rejected by the electorate and ‘left’ liberal ones excitedly gobbled up. The defeats of (among other) Adrian Sanders and Charles Kennedy himself would seem to make the simple truth you seek to draw out of muddy facts a little … truncated.

    What I think we can all agree on is that we are (as of now) lumped with a two-party system. There is a roughly leftish party, which therefore defines for the public where ‘left’ is or should be, and a roughly rightish party who generally more or less define for people for ‘right’ is or should be. The space between the two is roughly where the centre is believed (often erroneously) to be.

    As George Potter says above, and as Vince Cable makes it clear in the quote in the original post above, the ‘centre’ moves as the ‘big two’ kick it about, and many historic things that most people accepted as common ground for British Politics are being challenged or debased. Who will speak robustly and confidently on behalf of the historic British centre-ground of redistributive taxation, a non-judgemental welfare system, public services not hampered by ever-changing targets and contracts, combined with a pro-European, internationalist foreign policy? If this party chooses to do that, can we do it whilst continuing to espouse a credible politics that is radical in other directions ie towards personal rights, devolution and democratic reform?

  • The problem with describing ourselves as a “centre party” is that everyone expects us to be “in between” Labour and the Tories on every single issue.

    While Labour were a socialist party believing in control of the means of production, and genuinely controlled by the Unions, that was relatively easy. But now that Labour are returning to the Blairite position of being just a more pro-European version of the Tory party, there simply isn’t any room for us there. So if we insist on being on the left-right spectrum the only space remaining is to the left of Labour (or at least their leadership), to be honest, since that is now a wide open field occupied only by the Greens (who have become virtually a neo-Marxist party if you actually read their manifesto!), and in Scotland and Wales the Nationalists . Whereas to the right of the Tories we have UKIP, and I really hope we are not planning to camp on their ground!

    But I would prefer just to say we are not left, right or centre, but Liberal

  • @Andrew “spectrum the only space remaining is to the left of Labour (or at least their leadership), to be honest, since that is now a wide open field occupied only by the Greens (who have become virtually a neo-Marxist party if you actually read their manifesto!), and in Scotland and Wales the Nationalists ”

    Well, you’re correct to an extent. The nationalists straddle the spectrum through their anti English stance.

    By your reckoning though left of Labour, given the Green vote share, is not a popular stance and in any case they now own that space.

  • Matt (Bristol) 4th Jun ’15 – 9:23pm

    Matt, you make a perfectly fair point although you do seem to have missed that I was quoting the scale of the defeats in Yeovil and elsewhere. MPs had prominently displayed their rightwing views during the Coalition years, when they had been more discrete about the in previous elections, were “found out” by sufficient numbers of voters.

    You mention the resuts for Adrian Sanders and Charles Kennedy but the numbers show that they were within touching distance of victory and they would have won with anything like a properly organised target operation. See comments from Peter Chegwyn in LDV during the weeks leading to polling day. Peter helped in both constituencies.
    The same is true with Vince Cable and Ed Davey in South West London who I am told got virtually no outside help at a time when activists from South London were being sent to Haringey and bizarrely Maidstone. There were a couple of pieces in LDV about parliamentarians going to help in Maidstone. Why??? At the time I thought they must know something that was not obvious to the rest of us. From the scale of our defeat in that seat it is now clear that they were always on wild goose chase and by pushing the story in LDV and elsewhere they were taking others on the wild goose chase with them.

    You are right to imply that there is no iron law that links the results to the individual stance of MPs and that many voters will not have a clue about such things.
    There is however the evidence of the surviving Liberal Democrat MPs.
    Of the 8 only 2 were from the right of the party and one ofnthose – Nick Clegg – famously hung on in Hallam (a seat that has never before been won by Labour) thanks to the Conservatives shutting up shop in six council seats the year before and moving in their thousands to support the next best thing to a Conservative.
    You may also have noticed that Hallam was one of the few Liberal Democrat seats in which the Conservatives came second in 2010 that did not feature regularly on the itineraries of Cameron, Osborne, Johnson and Shapps.

    BTW — As a good secularist I leave “infallibility” to others. 🙂

  • matt (Bristol) 5th Jun '15 - 10:35am

    Andrew, whatever short words we use to define ourselves are subject to other people’s definitions and redfinitions of those words. Don’t give me a one-word ideological label, tell me a story…

  • matt (Bristol) 5th Jun '15 - 10:43am

    TCO, I think the ‘lucky generals’ quotee was Napoleon, that bastion of liberal democracy.

  • @matt(Bristol) iz it cuz he wuz French? 🙂

    He famously had to deal with Generals January and February of course

  • JohnTilley

    “Perceptions of left and right went into an era of confusion with the 1994 election of Blair as leader of the Labour Party.[…]
    very few people were to the right of Tony Blair[…]”

    Phyllis

    “In desperation, many in the Labour Party thought they had to be more right wing in order to win an election […]”

    In fairness to Labour (not something I spend too much time saying) they had a variety of positions prior to ’97 not just “right wing” they had some good liberal positions: HRA; FOI; Devolution; talking about concern over monopolistic activity not advocating state monopolies. At the same times there were signs of the centralising authoritarian streak, such as Browns views of charities.

    New Labour were experts of pitching the “all things to all people” hence when they reverted to authoritarianism no one should have been surprised.

    One of the key things that was evident from the Kennedy time was that unlike so often demanded by posters on here there was no exclusion of those who disagreed on many things. He had Mark Littlewood as a Head of Media among many others.

  • Psi yes I agree about Labour having many good policies. I have always respected Gordon Brown for persuading the richer countries to write off third world debt. I think of Brown as a Shakespearean tragic hero who had many good qualities but was destroyed by his burning personal ambition to be Prime Minister, for which he was totally ill-suited. I think he made a good Chancellor and should have stayed there with Tony Blair doing the glad handing and fronting ‘the vision thing’ . Yes he made mistakes but then he and Darling were on track to get the economy back to growth in 2010. Ultimately New Labour were terribly hampered by their terror of the rabid Press. Not surprising considering the monstering previous Labour leaders had had. A Coalition in 2010 with Blair as PM and Clegg as DPM would have been verrrry interesting.

  • Phyllis,
    I fear you may be wrong in your speculation about a different sort of Coalition in 2010.
    Those who say “History will be kind to Nick Clegg”, ignore what history has already said about his role once a Coalition had been agreed to and established. It was not just the jolly ‘both public school boys together’ image from the Rose Garden
    It was Clegg’s inability to extract much of consequence from the Tories that the Tories did not want to give.
    The likelihood is that Clegg would have been just as naive and undemanding and ineffective in Coalition with Labour.

    It was not the fact of being in a Coalition with the Tories. People like me may have hated the thought of propping up a bunch of Old Etonians but that was not what put off the general voter — it was the fact that the then leader of the Liberal Democrats was not very good as the leader of a political party.

    I make this point because we are now picking a new leader and should learn from our collective mistake last time we did it. It is not enough to have someone who is “nice”, or “inoffensive”, or “younger than Ming”, or whatever it was that caused some people to opt for Clegg in December 2007. We need to have someone who has demonstrated that they can be a political leader. The job specification for leader of a political party should include “ability to lead a political party”.

  • Matt (Bristol) 6th Jun '15 - 9:33pm

    John Tilley: The job specification for leader of a political party should include “ability to lead a political party”.

    Well … the traditional method of thoroughly testing to establish that elusive quality – in all parties – is sudden-death, no-practice, live-fire, oh-dear-there-goes-another-one-let’s-start-again.

    The only person in pretty much the last 50 years who has been close to effectively apprenticed in the ‘leading a party’ game is Nicola Sturgeon (and her mate Alex managed to get two bites at the cherry, which puts him in an exclusive club including Lloyd George, Asquith, Ramsay Macdonald and Bonar Law).

    I wonder if, for a semblance of objectivity, we look at leaders from other parties since the war who did _not_ get to be PM (which tends to distort things a bit as you are generally regarded as a ‘success’ for at least a fortnight on that basis alone) who you (or anyone else) would consider to be more ‘effective’ at party leader than the others?
    – Gaitskell?
    – Foot?
    – Kinnock?
    – Smith?
    – Hague?
    – IDS?
    – Howard?
    – Miliband?

  • @TCO
    The point I was trying to make is that in my view Tories, Labour and UKIP are all (or soon will be) right of centre now, so while they are all huddled in one corner of the field the Greens with 5% of the vote are confined to the opposite corner. So there is a wide open “centre ground” for us to occupy but it is NOT in between the Tories and Labour.

    While we occupied this ground, which I would call the “mixed economy” ground or perhaps the “post-war consensus” that established or consolidated the NHS and the welfare state, free education for all etc etc, we were getting over 20% of the vote. When we tried to squeeze ourselves the width of a cigarette paper to the left of the Tories, we got 8%. The conclusion seems very obvious to me!

    But I would also say that we project onto this left-right line from some distance away, and did even during the coalition. It is just that economically and on social policy we projected onto the wrong place, and abandoned the position that voters everywhere expected of us.

    If you walk like a Tory, and talk like a Tory, voters will go for the real thing…

  • Richard Underhill 11th Apr '18 - 3:28pm

    Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are pictured today on page one of The Times, holding hands, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the ‘Good Friday’ /Belfast Agreement.
    Credit should also be given to those who have ALWAYS worked for peace and inter-communal harmony. John Alderdice, former leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, first Speaker of the devolved Assembly (numbered 3 in the group photo on pages 8 and 9) is one of those.
    Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams (10) has one foot on the ground and appears to be having a laugh.
    The Agreement should be implemented in full. The devolved Assembly was elected more than one year ago, but needs to meet and act.
    Meanwhile the current British Prime Minister (Con) is dependent at Westminster on the DUP (founded by the late Ian Paisley).

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