The Dissenter's Voice

The ocassional comments, opinions, rambling and rants of a liberal dissenter in New Labour's Britain

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The 5 Tests

Here is an article that I´ve written for Lib Dem Voice....

I didn’t vote for Ming Campbell to be party leader, but I’ve never been one of those who have criticised his leadership, I have had no time for those who listened to the media fluff about dissent in the party over his style & age. In fact his first year has been better than I expected or even hoped for. He has imposed a degree of organisational rigour on the party that was sadly lacking previously, he has set a clear policy lead challenging much of the party´s soggy corporatist hobby horses and he has generally repaired and steadied a ship that was badly holed below the water line by Charles Kennedy’s messy departure.

So far, so good or at least until last weekend it was.

Ming’s speech to the party’s Spring Conference has left me deeply worried about the strategic direction of the party and the advice that he is getting. In his speech he laid out Five Tests for a Gordon Brown government. This was at best a very peculiar thing to do. Don’t get me wrong the tests themselves were perfectly sound in as far as they went, though they were a little vague and with one or two glaring omissions. However, publicly declaring them was I believe a serious tactical error .

One of Charles Kennedy’s significant achievements as Party Leader was to reach a point where the Lib Dems were being judged, for better or for worse, on our own agenda and our own terms. He did this by resolutely refusing to discuss the idea of pacts, deals or coalitions, until journalists finally became bored of receiving the same non-answer, something he even managed to maintain under the intense pressure of two General Elections.

That achievement is now being undermined. Although the 5 Tests were presented to the party as criteria for judging a pre-election Brown Government it is clear from the media reaction that virtually no-one has taken them at face value. They are widely seen as the opening gambit for coalition talks should Labour be the largest party in a hung Parliament after the next general election. Even if they genuinely are not, that is how they are perceived, perceived by the public, the media and by the Labour party.

It makes perfect sense to have a set of criteria for judging the Government´s performance at the next election. However publicly setting those criteria out it is a diversion that gives no advantage to the party in the short term and instead opens a Pandora’s Box of media speculation in the run up to the General Election. We know to our cost that most journalists can only cope with one Lib Dem story at a time, last year it was our pending implosion and mass defections to the Tories, as a result of the 5 Tests the next story is likely to be whether or not we will support Labour not what are our own policies.

What is even more troubling though is the one sided nature of the tests. If they are good enough to judge Gordon Brown & the Labour leadership, why can’t they be applied to David Cameron’s Conservatives?

Like most Lib Dems the new Rainbow Tories fill me with a mixture of incredulity & distaste, despite their pantomime attempts to masquerade as liberals we know who they really are, it is Patrick Mercer he speaks from the Tory heart not David Cameron. However, if the 5 Tests are to be seen as a genuine framework for judging performance – why can’t they be used to assess the Tories? If Cameron has been judged and found wanting without the need for pre-set criteria, why do we need them for Brown? Indeed looking at the test Cameron seem to perform as well, or as badly as Brown. It is this point which leaves me wondering whether there are some people at the top of the party who still hanker after ill-fated ‘project’ of co-operation with Labour.

If the 5 Tests are the first step towards reviving the idea of a progressive anti-Tory alliance then they are a mistake, both as an idea and a tactic. In the 1990’s I supported co-operation with Labour because I thought there was the chance to secure a truly radical centre-left Government that would transform this country. However the last 10 years has amply demonstrated that nationally Labour is very far from being a progressive party, and is in fact a totally untrustworthy partner – remember that promised referndum on PR? Even if you share the view that we should be working with Labour after the next election the Tests do not work as a tactical negotiating gambit.

It is a pretty strange tactic to start negotiations in public and to do so by effectively dropping a central policy condition. Let alone capping it all by giving up any leverage you might have had by making clear that even if you don’t get what you want, you have no Plan B, because you won´t work with the Opposition!

10 years ago, when the country had had enough of the unsavoury shambles of the Major Government the Liberal Democrats, along with Labour, rode an anti-Tory tidal wave, more than doubling our seats. We did that in large part because many people who did not necessarily identify themselves as natural Lib Dem, looked at the local political situation and decided that we were the best vehicle for removing the Conservatives from power.

Today the political tide is turning again, as more and more people are repulsed by Labour’s arrogance and authoritarianism, Cameron is finally beginning to surf that tide not because people love the Tories but because they are tired of Labour. Surely we as a party won’t choose this moment to stand against that tide?

Publicly announcing the 5 Tests was a mistake, at best a diversion that will lead to the revival of the tired ‘will they, won’t they’ press speculation loved by pundits. However, far more worrying is that they may indicate a train of thought and action at the higher echelons of the party that could lead to us propping up a defeated and discredited Labour government after the next General Election. I for one am wholly opposed to that idea and I suspect so are the overwhelming majority of party members.


Blogger Matthew of Sunny Swindon said...

Can anybody remember Mings five tests? I doubt if it is really important either way.

Proping up Labour or the Conservatives should not on our agenda at any stage in the run up to the 2009 elections.

We fight the elections on our own manifesto and invite the Conservatives or Labour to assist us in governing the country if either of the other two do not win an overal majority.

We should not kid ourselves that either of them want to work with us. They may choose to hop into bed with the Nationalists from Ireland, Wales and Scotland or indeed form a grand coalition of the largest two parties.

6:08 PM  

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