The left turn is a dead end
The leadership election is getting interesting.
The contest started with the two contestants sitting on Andrew Marr’s TV sofa appearing to be agree with each other on virtually every issue. However as the contest has evolved the differences have started to emerge. Differences not just over policy but also over campaigning style and strategy. How someone campaigns in a leadership election might not seem terribly important at first but actually it tells you a great deal about how that person would lead the party if they were elected, how they would try to define the party and themselves if they won.
We are lucky, both our leadership candidates are real talents and can hold their own against the best Labour & the Tories have. The difference between them though is that Chris Huhne has decided to run to the left, outlining a platform which appears designed to appeal to the small selectorate of LibDem activists, while Nick Clegg looks to be trying to challenge the party and reach out beyond it to the wider electorate.
Why do I say this? Well, Chris has draped his campaign in the mantle of radicalism. However he has chosen to appeal to the comfortable verities of the party’s traditional policies. His latest campaign email for instance has a familiar feel - it calls for greater funding for health and education and the devolution of more power to local councils.n Chris´s programme is in the words of one of his vocal blog supporters ´meaty´ - it is not however particularly radical. Promising to spend more money on services, which will be more local but still run by middle class bureaucrats rather than the people who use them is not a revolution.
His policy on Trident is a calculated attempt to rub up the party´s errogenous zones - however it is not much more than a restatement of the policy of a smaller, cheaper, more independent nuclear deterrent that has been party policy in one form or another since the 1980´s. Chris´s genuinely radical big idea - the green tax switch - has been party policy for the last year, beyond that the new ideas are actually pretty thin on the ground.
What´s being proposed isn´t a liberal revolution it´s social democratic managerialism, but it is comfortable, it appeals to the party´s self image without forcing it to ask any hard questions of itself or its direction. It´s message is an insular one, that the party simply needs to restate its exiting policies more clearly and competently and we will all soon reach the `liberal´ nirvana. Bumping along as we are in the mid teens in the polls, that is a dangerous misconception.
What worries me more even than this though is the accompanying `dog whistling´ the subtle and not so subtle attempts to portray his opponent as some kind of lightweight, crypto-Tory, all spin and no substance. Chris´s own remarks about ´opposing the education vouchers & US style health insurance supported by some of our MPs´, and ´not wanting to be the third Tory party´ are clearly covert and unjustified digs at Nick, while his more outspoken supporters have directly attacked Nick in a way that will delight our opponents, but I suspect appall many of our members. Chris needs to calm it and them down before it gets out of hand.
Perhaps Chris is pursuing a sort of Lib Dem equivalent of Nixon´s famous Southern Strategy, swinging to the left during the leadership election only to swerve back to the centre if elected. Perhaps, though that would hardly be the most open and frank way to win an election. If though the appeal to the left is to be believed then Chris´s campaign is in danger of taking the party of in search of electoral fool´s gold. Positioning ourselves of the party of the statist left would be to abandon our natural liberal territory to parties that speak the language but not understand it. It would all but guarantee that the gains so pàinstakingly won over the last 20 years are wittled away. And it would deny the party the opportunity to reach out and connect with people who share liberal values but have never yet thought of themselves as Lib Dems.