Monday, December 19, 2005

LIB DEMS TURN ON CHARLIE

Well I never. Realising that David Cameron represents a better challenge to Labour than their own party, the knives are being sharpened in Lib Dem HQ and it looks like Charlie could be on his way out. From the Times:
Charles Kennedy yesterday vowed to cut back on his drinking as he appealed for time to make a fresh start as Liberal Democrat leader yesterday. Mr Kennedy admitted that he had been told by senior colleagues to “reflect” on his position over a turbulent week that saw his fitness to continue as leader called into question.

But he tried to silence the critics within his own Shadow Cabinet yesterday by insisting that he did not drink to excess and would in any case cut back. Mr Kennedy, who has pledged to reduce his alcohol intake before, also admitted that he was struggling to give up smoking on the advice of his doctor.

He was forced to address the issue after days of anonymous briefing about his “lifestyle” and accusations yesterday from Paul Marsden, a former Lib Dem MP, that he had a drink problem. Mr Kennedy, speaking on Jonathan Dimbleby’s programme on ITV, said that he had cut down, adding: “I am actually an extremely moderate and infrequent consumer of alcohol.” Asked if he was determined to continue to drink less, he said: “Absolutely and I feel a lot healthier for it, particularly with an eight-month-old baby.”
To be fair, the Lib Dem's problems run far deeper than their dear leader's fondness for the odd sip of whisky. From an article entitled "It's the Party Stupid", Stephen Pollard rightly points out:
The Lib Dems are a make-believe party with a make-believe philosophy, a make-believe reputation and make-believe MPs. That its main spokesmen choose to refer to themselves as Shadow Cabinet members is par for the make-believe course.

They are make-believe because their only purpose is protest against the two main parties. In areas where Labour barely exists, such as the South West, they are the anti-Conservative party. Where the Conservatives are effectively absent, such as some inner cities, they are the anti-Labour party. Lib Dem MPs are make-believe MPs because they are elected not for what they represent but for what they do not.
How true. During Tory rule, a vote for the Lib Dems was a protest vote against the Government, generally in areas where the Labour candidate stood little or no chance of winning. A Labour victory posed a problem in terms of future Lib Dem electoral strategy. By maintaining their stance as a protest party, the Lib Dems have been able to benefit from growing dissatisfaction with Labour (on issues as disparate as the Council Tax or the Iraq War) and many voters' reluctance to return to voting Tory given their disastrous final term under Major. This tactic won them their greatest number of parliamentary seats at the last election.

It also provided an opportunity for the Lib Dems to outline clear-cut policy proposals of their own to differentiate themselves from both major parties, a second stab at a Third Way if you will. Sadly they shirked the challenge, instead preferring to carry on carping from the sidelines.

With the Tories beginning to show signs of rejuvenation under Cameron and finally providing the Labour government with some form of opposition, the Lib Dems may well have missed their chance to cement their position as a serious third party. Should Cameron convert his glib smile into substantial gains at the ballot box, the Lib Dem's failure to capitalise on the feeble opposition provided by the hapless Hague and IDS will haunt their policymakers for many years to come.

Kennedy must shoulder some of the blame for this (although it was good to see he was as confused about their proposal for a new income tax as the rest of us were) but the rot goes deeper.
It is not that party members have no philosophical stances; it is that they have too many. Some — the beard and sandals brigade — are as left-wing as most Labour members. Others — the so-called “Orange Book” liberals — are genuine Gladstonian liberals. The rest are an incoherent mixture of the two.
And there's the problem. Clearly unification has done little to bridge the inherent differences between the old SDP and the more right-wing Liberal Party.

In addition, years of both official and unofficial Lib-Lab alliances seem to have boosted the numbers of the "beard and sandals" Party members. Whilst New Labour have managed fairly effectively to keep a leash on their own B&Sers by booting out the likes of Galloway, the Lib Dems let their's run wild: Jenny Tonge's comments on suicide bombing (although Kennedy did eventually tell her to step down) or Baroness Nicholson's description of Iran as "an advanced form of democracy in the region" being fine examples.

Maybe Kennedy figured that a lurch to the left was in order after New Labour stole the traditional Liberal centre-ground. If so, he deserves what he gets: parties dominated by those on the extreme political fringes tend not to fare well in British elections.

Currently, with Prescott stirring up talk of "class war" and Brown's leadership of the Labour Party almost guaranteed to involve submission to the unions, the Lib Dems are in an awkward position: should they follow the B&Sers and head further to the left or listen to the Orange Bookers and reassume their role as a centrist party? A tough call, and one that could turn even the staunchest tee-totaller into "an extremely moderate and infrequent consumer of alcohol."


UPDATE

Tim Hames makes similar remarks in today's copy of the Times.
Is it the end? Probably, yet not certainly. Mr Kennedy’s plight is in essence the opposite of that of the Prime Minister. Loyalty to Mr Blair is (usually) at its strongest at the Cabinet table, becoming weaker with each rung down towards the increasingly independent backbencher. Mr Kennedy’s dilemma is that his most senior colleagues have begun to despair at what might be harshly described as his Hammy the Hamster approach to leadership. Hence the emergence of several Ratty the Rats of late.

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