Advantages Liberal and Democratic
Disadvantages Unlikely to win this time
This is not a party political broadcast on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.I write not as a party loyalist but an uncommitted neutral, suspicious of all politicians and sceptical about their promises. Nevertheless, when General Elections come round the outcome is going to affect all our lives for the next four or five years. So we owe it to ourselves to take a close look at what’s on offer, and to try to pick the least bad option available. In my view, on this occasion the least bad option is the Liberal Democrats.
Why?Three main reasons: ~
~ Who they are
~ What they stand for
~ What a vote for them might do in current circumstances.
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In a perfect world politics would be about policies not personalities, but the British political world is far from perfect. Our constitution puts enormous power – in my opinion too much power – into the hands of government. The character of those who exercise that power is therefore critical to our welfare. We need to assess not just whether they are competent, but whether they are trustworthy.I don’t trust Tony Blair and I don’t trust Michael Howard, and I don’t trust many of their underlings either.
It would be easy to say that I don’t trust Tony Blair because of the slippery business over the Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, with the dodgy dossier passed off as an objective review of the evidence, when it was clearly only intended to exaggerate the case for war. But in truth I already didn’t trust him before then, if for less specific reasons. I didn’t trust him because of his palpable obsession with popularity and power, and his sanctimonious self-satisfaction. The quip “The secret of success is sincerity – once you can fake that you’ve got it made” could have been written with him in mind, or so it seems to me.I didn’t trust him because he evidently loved lording it over those around him, at the same time as being in awe of those more powerful than he – witness his squirm-making subservience to Clinton as well as to Bush. This seems to me to be a man with a pecking-order mentality, eager to push his way up the order but ready to defer when he can push no further, whereas I am a believer in equality. And my distrust has been reinforced since on many occasions, most recently when he assured Blunkett – rightly forced to resign for abusing the privileges of his position – that he left office “with his integrity intact”. That’s how much, or rather how little, our Prime Minister understands the meaning of integrity.
As for Michael Howard, well, would you buy a used car from this man? I know I wouldn’t. Indelibly fixed in my mind is the squirmy evasiveness with which, time after time, he refused to give a straight answer to a simple question from Jeremy Paxman. And why did it stick when a close colleague described him as having “something of the night about him”? Only because the description seemed so apt. To me, everything about him smacks of power-hungry opportunism – his cheap point-scoring, his simplistic seizing on populist issues for political gain. And let us not forget that – as part of the discredited Major administration – he was the most illiberal Home Secretary in living memory, at least until David Blunkett came along.By contrast, Charles Kennedy seems eminently trustworthy (not that this is hard by contrast with the other two, of course). He took a brave and principled stand in opposing the Iraq war, and has done so since on issues of civil liberty. These were not the actions of a “lightweight”, whatever that may mean, which tends to be the sneer thrown at him by opponents. Maybe they simply mean that he does not, as some of them do, try to inflate his stature by self-importance.
The other reason I would be more inclined to trust him than I would to trust the others lies in the simple fact that he is a Liberal Democrat. This may seem a circular argument, but consider: if he were a power-crazed megalomaniac or a cynical careerist he would hardly have chosen to join the LibDems in the first place. The road to power is so much simpler for those who join the ranks of the other two parties. Indeed, this seems to me to be a compelling reason for trusting not just Kennedy, but the LibDems as a whole.The supporting cast of the LibDem leadership are not well-known to the public for the simple reason that they receive less publicity than do their Labour and Conservative counterparts. If one takes the trouble to find out about them though, people like Menzies Campbell (Foreign Affairs spokesman) and Vincent Cable (Economics spokesman) emerge as impressively knowledgable and sensible. I see no reason to worry about their inexperience in government. After all, when Labour assumed power in 1997 none of their leaders had previously served in a cabinet either, and they were not noticeably worse than the experienced Conservative administration that preceded them.
‘What they stand for’ and, for comparison, what their opponents stand for.There once was a time when the Labour Party had idealism. It may sometimes have been wrong-headed idealism, but the party stood for something beyond merely seeking to gain and hold on to power. It is hard to see what else it stands for nowadays, though it is easy to see what it does not stand for.
The Labour Party does not stand for democracy. For example, having done away with the ludicrous old House of Lords, it has resisted all moves towards a democratically elected replacement – an ideal opportunity to inject a little more fairness into our electoral system. As it stands, our electoral system has an inbuilt bias towards the larger parties in general and Labour in particular. Don’t expect any action to correct this bias as long as self-interested Labour stays in power. For, to cap it all, we find the party introducing postal voting arrangements that they were warned were open to abuse, and which have already been abused by Labour at council elections in Birmingham, for example – an abuse for which, so far as I am aware, we are yet to hear any Labour expressions of regret, let alone apology.Not that the Conservatives seem to me to be much better in democratic stakes – witness their continuing with the old House of Lords when it had an inbuilt Conservative majority working in their favour. If the Labour Party has become a machine for staying in power and little other purpose, the Conservatives have always been a machine for staying in power and little other purpose.
The Labour Party does not stand for the rights and freedoms of the individual citizen. In numerous ways, our liberties have been eroded since they came to power, and they seem intent on eroding them further. And, far from opposing such measures, the Conservatives determined to outbid Labour in the authoritarian auction. Both are increasingly using the word “liberal” as if it were an insult, as the Republicans have tried to make it in America. What a deplorable example to follow. Historically, small-l liberalism is to be thanked for most of the characteristics we – or at least I – value in our society today: tolerance, concern and respect for the rights and welfare of others.In fact, what has been increasing driven home to me over recent years is that the neither of the two larger parties is either democratic or liberal. I am both, so perhaps it is natural that I should be drawn towards a party that proclaims its commitment to those values in its title.
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It would be nice to think that it might deliver a LibDem government, but that is an unrealistic hope in the circumstances of this election. More realistically, it will swell the visible ranks of those dissatisfied with the both the other two parties, and send a message to them that should not take us all for granted.Beyond that, given the vagaries of our electoral system, the impact of a LibDem vote will vary in accordance with the parliamentary constituency in which it is cast. In my own constituency, a safe Conservative seat unlikely to fall to anyone else, it might just help the LibDems edge out Labour for second place. If so, so be it.
Of course, it would be more satisfying to be able to vote in a marginal constituency which the LibDems might thereby either hold or gain, where in fact my vote would really count for something. But having our votes really count for something is a luxury that our silly electoral system denies most of us in most elections. Let me say, though, that this time I would vote LibDem even if I were in a Labour/Conservative marginal. The other two parties have aped each others’ worst characteristics for so long that it no longer seems very important to me which comes out on top. Or, at least, it seems much less important than registering my disgust with both of them.And if the next parliament does contain a few more LibDems, and a smaller majority for the winners in consequence, perhaps that will help to restrain the arrogance of whichever party is returned to power.
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The LibDems are sometimes accused of having no policies. This is nonsense. They have masses of policies about everything – economics, public services including health, education and policing, foreign affairs, the environment, etc, etc – most of which make at least as much sense as those of the other parties, and are in most cases more appealing to someone like me of liberal and democratic inclination. They are informed by generosity towards the unfortunate in our society and respect for citizens’ freedoms. If you want to learn more about them, go and look at the LibDem website, address below. I do not, however, intend to go into them in detail here, because they are not crucial to my decision as to how I shall cast my vote, which is after all the topic that this review is addressing.What the “no policies” jibe seems to mean is that the LibDems are less adept than the others at communicating their policies in sound-bites, or are given less opportunity to do so by the media. The national newspapers in particular are preoccupied with the contest between the other two parties, and usually support one or another of them. But one cannot only blame the media, nor the bigger advertising budgets available to the LibDems’ rivals, for in truth the LibDems do not seemed very skilled at modern campaign techniques. That is to say that they’re not very good at razzmatazz, nor at sneers and smears, nor at insulating their spokespeople from real questions put by real voters.
Increasing, politics as practised by the two larger parties treats the electorate not as intelligent adults to be persuaded by argument, but as morons to be manipulated. So far the LibDems haven’t sunk quite so far. It may be, for all I know, that they would do the same if they could and that they are just less practised at it rather than more honest and respectful. I doubt that, but even if so, a vote for them is still a vote against manipulation in its modern form, and therefore a vote worth casting.This may be gesture politics, though for the reasons outlined above I believe that there are stronger and more convincing reasons to vote Liberal Democrat. In any case, a good old-fashioned, two-pronged, two-fingered gesture to Blair and Howard alike seems overdue, and I will delight in making it on polling day. © torr 2005
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