Wednesday 15 January 2014

Future Imperfect

(This is the Commentary from Liberator 363, now out)

There are two certainties and one conundrum coming in 2014. Barring some utter cataclysm, there will not be a general election, and the fevered speculation about “will the prime minister go early”, usually heard at this stage of previous parliaments, will be absent.

In May, there will be the European and local government elections. In the former, the Liberal Democrats have finally, and rightly, decided to fight an explicitly pro-European campaign (Liberator 362). The realisation has been a long time coming that a pro-European vote exists and that hardly anyone disposed to vote Liberal Democrat gives a toss about referendums on the EU.

Now that it has come, it will be interesting to see whether the ‘party of in’ holds its nerve in the campaign. If it does hold its nerve, this should embolden it to take other positions that may not be popular with a majority of voters but which are popular with as many of them as the party needs for a decent result. Green taxes, provision of land for house building and a trenchant defence of civil liberty, among other things, could all come into this category.

There are local elections around England but probably of most interest are those in London, where an oddity of timing means the Liberal Democrats have escaped the municipal carnage elsewhere, as the London boroughs have not been contested since the 2010 general election.

One possibility is that party campaigners in London, having not previously been through the anti-coalition fire, face a mauling. The other is that initial anger with the coalition has worn off and they will survive in rather better shape than in urban areas elsewhere. Inner London’s peculiar social mix of the rich and poor living side-by-side also makes predictions difficult.

The conundrum is the referendum on Scottish independence. So far, the ‘no’ campaign has exuded confidence that Scotland will stay in the UK and it has had polling evidence behind it. But people are seldom rational when they hear nationalist drums being banged (just look at UKIP supporters) and that could change.

While it is unlikely to be helpful to send large numbers of Liberal Democrats from England and Wales north of the border to tell Scots how to vote on their country’s future, Liberal Democrats elsewhere will surely wish the ‘no’ campaign well. This is because, despite Tory noises about saving the union, it is hard to think of anything more likely to benefit the Tory party than getting shot of Scotland, which is no doubt why David Cameron so readily agreed to a referendum there.

An independent Scotland would see the Tories lose one MP, the Liberal Democrats 11 and Labour dozens, radically changing the make up of the remaining UK parliament. Speculation about potential coalitions after 2015 rarely takes account of the possibility of an absent Scotland. Maybe it should, and Scottish Liberal Democrats should make clear what kind of assistance if any would be useful.

We can also be certain that 2014 will see the bulk of the work done on the Liberal Democrat manifesto for the 2015 general election.

As Paddy Ashdown argues elsewhere in this issue of Liberator, a manifesto will be rather pointless if the numbers all add up but to no purpose that voters can see. There is an obvious danger in boring voters with technocratic detail when they, not to mention party activists, need rather more than that to motivate them.

Indeed, Ashdown takes credit for adding the words “enabling everyone to get on in life” to the “stronger economy, fairer society” message, his idea being that the Liberal Democrats want to bring people the freedom to live their lives as they want, not as conformity demands.

It seems Ashdown at least does not want to play safe by having a manifesto that seeks to offend nobody and which persists with the mistaken belief that everyone is a potential Liberal Democrat voter. But as the time draws closer to it being completed, expect any number of grave warnings about “you can’t say X in the manifesto in case it offends Y”. If Y is not likely to vote Liberal Democrat anyway, there is no earthly reason to avoid giving offence to them, since saying something that does so could secure the allegiance of those much more favourably disposed to the party.

The ‘party of in’ approach to the European elections recognises this idea, and the party should not be deflected from fighting on what it believes in – rather than what it thinks a majority of voters want – even if the European results are poor.

Voters do not treat European elections very seriously and they are an unreliable guide to general elections. The danger, though, is that the party leadership only half believes this and is quite capable of the next minute boasting of being ‘in the centre’.

We all know what happens there – you end up splitting the difference between other parties who define your position for you, offending no one and inspiring no one either.

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