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What are the Liberal Democrats for?

What use are the Liberal Democrats? What are they for? It’s a question which has long been asked by Labour and Conservative politicians, but now even some Liberal Democrats are beginning to ask if they know what they are here for.

Both the Independent and the Guardian, the two newspapers closest to the LibDems, have been critical of the direction the party has taken under Sir Menzies Campbell. “Insipid…directionless” according to the Indie. “Just what – and whom – are they for?” queried the Guardian on Friday, decidedly unimpressed by Sir Menzies Campbell’s latest relaunch. The rest of the press more or less ignored it.

Under Charles Kennedy, the LibDems had carved themselves a niche somewhere to the Left of the political spectrum, as a party of redistribution, civil liberties and opposition to the war in Iraq. But the party has apparently abandoned progressive taxation and has been sounding decidedly muted on the war.

It’s well known that Sir Menzies was never as hostile to the Iraq invasion as Charles Kennedy and that he genuinely believed that Saddam posed a serious threat to the West. Certainly, the party’s antiwar edge has been blunted since Kennedy left. Some in the party are anxious to learn what Sir Menzies’ position is gong to be on Trident when Tony Blair announces the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Whatever he is, Campbell is no pacifist.

Last week, the gibe was that Sir Menzies not only looks like a Tory, he is sounding like one too. His big idea for Liberal Democracy has been to join the tax-cutting consensus by ditching the 50p higher rate, and promising #20 bn in tax reductions.

Now, Sir Menzies insists that his tax policy is in fact designed to benefit the less well off, and that the assets of the very wealthy will continue to be taxed. But he knows, and everyone else knows, that the new tax policy is far from socialist.

For a start, cutting income tax and shifting the burden on to green taxes may help the environment, but won’t help the poor. Indirect taxation is much less progressive than direct taxes on income. Taxes on air travel, road transport, home heating are paid at the same rate by all taxpayers, irrespective of their ability to pay. Many low income people depend on their cars and are already struggling with #1,000 a year heating bills. Nor, under the LibDems will they be able to afford that occasional holiday abroad using cheap flights.

Now, this is not an argument against taxing activities which damage the environment. Climate change is something we will all have to pay for and, like the congestion charge in London, it is going to hit poorer people particularly hard. But to claim, as the Liberal Democrats do, that this is redistribution of wealth, just because you fiddle with thresholds, is disingenuous.

If you want to tax wealth, you tax income – it’s the only reliable way. If they’d wanted to be really redistributive, Liberal Democrats could have levied a climate tax on the wealthy in order to pay for public transport improvements. But that wouldn’t have gone down well in the Tory constituencies in England that the Liberal Democrats are targeting.

The LibDems remain committed of course to introducing a local income tax, and perhaps that is where the redistribution is supposed to come from. However, the LibDems have been reviewing the whole idea of scrapping the council tax, on the grounds that it is politically unacceptable to middle income earners, so there is a degree of uncertainty there also.

Indeed, vagueness is the most serious criticism of the present Liberal Democrat image. Under Kennedy, they presented a clear alternative to New Labour, and the Conservatives. No one who voted for the Liberal Democrats at the last election could have been in any doubt about who and what they were voting for. That may be a problem for a small party whose fortunes depend on political visibility. Now, there is a very real question about where David Cameron’s ‘liberal’ Tories end and the LibDems begin. The new Tory leader was also calling for redistribution of wealth last week.

This problem is compounded by the new leader’s uncertainty in the House of Commons. I don’t think Ming’s age as such is a problem – we make far too much of youth in our system, and in America he would be regarded as a politician in his prime. But his orotund courtroom delivery simply doesn’t work in the playground atmosphere of question time. He hasn’t learned how to be brief, how to poke and mock. Sir Menzies sounds a little like one of those patrician Tory knights who were killed off by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s to be replaced by used car dealers.

But Campbell is improving. His challenge to Tony Blair on “extraordinary rendition” last week was pointed and hit the mark. Indeed, here I think we answer the question of what the Liberal Democrats are for. If it hadn’t been for Sir Menzies, the Council of Europe report into the alleged transport of terrorist suspects by American security services to countries which condone torture would have been completely ignored in parliament. There is strong prima facia evidence that Britain has connived in this “torture by proxy” turning a blind eye to what has been flying in and out of our air space.

In his reply, Tony Blair said that the government had said all they were going to say on this matter and he wasn’t going to say any more. Which is rather like a defendant in court saying that the charge was an old story and therefore he wasn’t going to answer any questions about it. Condoleezza Rice has given a very coded non-denial denial and Jack Straw said he “had no evidence” that there was torture traffic, even though he hadn’t looked very hard. Everything the government says on this reeks of evasion. A report from Europe on an important issue like this cannot just be dismissed.

The Liberal Democrats are an important part of our political ecology. They are the only party which offers a serious challenge to the growing authoritarianism of New Labour. And here’s another use to which the LibDems could be put. According to Proof John Curtice last week, we are “in a new political era’ of minority government. His take on Labour’s recent opinion poll slide is that it is now unstoppable and that Labour will no longer have a working majority after the next election.

The Liberal Democrats with their sixty odd MPs will very likely hold the balance of power and Gordon Brown, assuming he becomes Labour leader, will have to do a deal with Ming Campbell if he wants to stay in office. This puts enormous responsibility in the hands of Britain’s ‘third party’. How they handle themselves in the next couple of years could decide the future, not just of government, but of the British constitution, for they may be able to demand that Labour introduce proportional representation to Westminster as a precondition of any stable deal. That could change British politics for ever, because leaders like Tony Blair will no longer be able to act like absolute monarchs thanks to artificially inflated majorities in the Commons.

So, the stakes are very high. If Sir Menzies Campbell gets his act together, the Liberal Democrats could be a very useful party indeed.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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