Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Down the pan with Menzies Campbell

How many Liberal Democrats does it take to change their leader? Don’t be stupid, the Liberal Democrats will never change anything.

Well they are changing him now, and it’s just possible that Menzies Campbell’s successor as leader of Britain’s third party could have a decisive influence on who forms the next government. In the event of a hung parliament it will be him (there are no serious women contenders) who will negotiate with David Cameron and Gordon Brown on which party gets Lib Dem backing.

Under the last three Lib Dem leaders it was all but inconceivable that they would have backed anyone other than Labour. Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell were all firmly aligned with the anti-Tory majority that eventually got its voting act together after the divisions of the 1980s and swept the Conservatives from power. Although Labour never had need of Lib Dem votes in parliament as things turned out after 1997, tactical voting against the Tories in individual constituencies enabled both parties to do a lot better than they would have done otherwise.

At times the Lib Dems positioned themselves to the left of Labour – most notably over the Iraq war, for which they reaped the benefit in 2005. But long before that they had backed the sort of policies that made it relatively easy for Labour supporters to support Lib Dem candidates in constituencies where they were best placed to beat the Tories.

Some Labour loyalists were never comfortable with this tactical anti-Tory voting. John Prescott has refused to speak to me since the New Statesman ran a cover story during my editorship declaring ‘Now is the time for all good socialists to come to the aid of the (Liberal Democrat) party’ for the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election in 1995. The Lib Dems’ Chris Davies beat Labour’s Phil Woolas by 1,993 votes to take the seat from the Tories on a 17 per cent swing.

There have been signs, in the 2005 election, in local government elections and in recent opinion polls in the marginal constituencies, that a similar kind of tactical voting may now be emerging against Labour. On present indications the Lib Dems could emerge from the next general election having done relatively well (as a result of tactical Tory voting) in areas where their main opponents are Labour but rather badly (because of the return of ‘soft’ Tories to the party of David Cameron) where they are fighting the Conservatives.

The danger for Labour is that the new Liberal Democrat leader will consolidate a shift towards the centre-right in electoral politics. The wider problem for the left is that he is likely to shift the centre of political policy-making and debate even further away from many of our core concerns.

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