You have to feel a little sorry for the Liberal Democrats. And if, like me, you consider them the party that most closely represents your own beliefs, you also have to feel a little frustrated by them.
I feel sorry for them because, as a marketer, there’s nothing harder to promote than the middle ground. Common sense just isn’t sexy. Being practical rarely attracts fanatical support.
Yet it is the pragmatism that appeals to me. Unlike Simon Jenkins, writing in today’s Guardian, I don’t want a radically liberal party, unlikely to ever get elected but with sufficient clout to drag the political debate in their direction. Sure I’d like to see a little more vehement rejection of the current incumbents’ more authoritarian tendencies, but I couldn’t comfortably vote for a party that pursued the liberal principle to its fundamentalist extremes. I don’t want ID cards, but I also don’t believe in wholly abolishing regulatory controls on finance, business practice, or health and safety.
To me the fusion of the Liberals and the SDP created a party of reason and balance, rather than the one without principle described and decried by Jenkins. In both manifesto and behaviour, the Liberal Democrats have consistently appeared to me to be the most genuinely progressive party on show. It is the greenest party other than the Greens; the one that recognises the need for a state that is more than a safety net, while acknowledging that the books need to balance; the one willing to set tax levels to pay for its policies while aiming to maintain a business environment that encourages growth and investment. It is the party that seems to have the most detailed policies based on its members’ beliefs, not on the current headlines from the most influential papers.
And this is where the frustration comes. Because while practicality may not be the most promotable characteristic, it’s a far from impossible brief. There are threads that could be pulled together to create an overarching vision for the party; some imagery that could be used to explain what the party stands for — a common question, even from the politically aware. Throughout the coverage of the current conference, I’ve heard nothing from the key figures about what the party stands for, yet for me this is the biggest challenge they have to overcome in attracting votes from their potential supporters.
Without this vision, the party makes for easy pickings from the other parties’ more astute political operators. Cameron’s ‘cigarette paper’ jibe was picked up and ably wielded by Eric Pickles, the Conservative party chairman, in an interview on Radio 4. Chris Huhne responding was made to sound petty and childish by comparison with his barbs about the Tories’ European associations. He would have been much better using the time to talk more about the Liberals’ policies and how they differentiate the party from the big two.
With a wishy-washy Tory party straying from its safe ground in a bid to bolster its ageing support base, and a Labour government staggering along after the damage sustained during the years in power, there is a great opportunity for the Liberals in the next election. But my fear is that, without radical change, the party’s practical message will fail to connect with the voting public.