Liberal Democrat

Which David they choose will determine the campaign we fight

A crucial choice is being made which will profoundly affect the fortunes of the Liberal-Democrats at the next election.

So it’s rather unfortunate that we don’t get a say in it, and the people least qualified to make a competent choice are the ones who get to decide. That’s Tory party members, of course.

Not that we haven’t already breathed a sigh of relief. Ken Clarke would have hugely improved the political situation in Britain, but at a cost to us of seats not won, and perhaps hard-won-seats actually lost.

Both the Davids have already demonstrated that they lack the required equipment to revive the Tory party. Davis David has proved he can’t make a speech to a friendly audience on what should have been his virtual coronation day. Cameron David has now shown us that he doesn’t know how to hold a television debate. If he can’t hold his own against Davis in the sterile conditions of the TV studio, what hope does he have against Blair or Brown in the palace of Westminster?

But, still, the choice affects us profoundly. Cameron has his eyes much more firmly set on electoral victory. Already he is appealing to the non-Tory country. He followed up his debating experience with a visit to non-Conservative voters pledged to support him. He is carefully avoiding policies which could come back to haunt him in 2009, gambling on his personal appeal to get him through the leadership contest without them.

Davis, on the other hand, is forced as the underdog to focus on the Tory membership. He is telling them what they want to hear. Underneath the relatively smooth exterior we hear the rumblings of the old Tory self-deception — “we lost the last elections because we were not right wing enough”.

It should be fairly clear by now that while Cameron has more strategic vision, Davis has more political ability. Cameron has accurately noted what everyone else has seen for a long time: to win an election, the Tories must broaden their support. Davis is – right now – playing to the activists: more typical Tory policies, pronounced with more of a sneer at the politically correct liberal elite (by which I suspect he means people like us), transmitted by an army of foot-soldiers considerably more right wing than he.

Where does leave us?

We are now faced with three inconceivables for the next election. It is inconceivable that the Labour party, which grows more dissheveled by the day, will hold onto power for a fourth term. Brown’s economy is beginning to go off, and for all the popular distaste with Blair’s silky spinning, the chancellor does not have the public charisma to inspire the country.

It is also inconceivable that the Tories will revive to seize power themselves. Neither David nor David measures up to their opponents. We have seen a gigantic game of Weakest Link, where Tory MPs have seen off the two candidates most likely to damage their golden boy’s prospects, leaving the Davids in a protracted game of sudden death, while we all know that the strongest link has already been dumped. The Tory problem, though, is not the leader. It’s demographics — the average age of Tory members has been in the sixties for some time now — it’s policy — Britain is no longer ready to swallow the right wing ‘common-sense’ in the way it was under Thatcher — it’s boundary changes, which require a huge swing for a modest majority — and it’s the rebellious, rabbelous behaviour of Tory MPs for four parliamentary generations. They did for Thatcher (bless), they emasculated Major, they fought each other under Hague, they assassinated Duncan Smith, they allowed Howard to sink into the mire.

But it’s also inconceivable that Liberal-Democrats will take power this time. At our current rate of improvement, we will require 28 general elections, or 132 years, to achieve the 330 or so seats required for a majority. People are, of course, touting round the prospects of a Lib-Dem Tory coalition at the next election. But it does make you wonder if these people actually know any Liberal-Democrats personally.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Demographically, electorally, policy wise and in many other ways, Liberal Democrats have the greatest potential for growth. Our membership is younger, and we are the most popular party among young voters. Our policies are unashamedly centrist: the much-fought over centre ground is our natural terrain. Our leader has retained the highest trust rating of any mainstream politician in every poll since he was elected. And, although we did not win even half of the seats we wanted last time, some of the seats we did win should be sending cold shivers down the Tory spine. Ten years ago, if anybody had suggested that Solihull could fall, they would have been laughed out of court.

One thing is not inconceivable, but inevitable: there will be a general election around 2009, and one of these three inconceivables will become concrete reality.

Look who’s watching who

BBC NEWS | Election 2005 | Election 2005 | Lib Dems triumph in ratings war

More than half of the people watching TV at the time watched the Liberal Democrat party election broadcast when it was broadcast at quarter to seven on Wednesday evening. Overall, it pulled in 13.2 million viewers — ahead of the Tories at 12.8 million and Labour at 11.9 million.

Pick of the bunch, then, and arguably more popular than Doctor Who. What’s more, it was probably the cheapest to make. Labour hired in Oscar-winning film director Anthony Minghella. A sound choice, perhaps, since he specialises in fiction.

No, no, no, no, no, Mr Howard

By their very nature, Conservatives look back to the good old days. Since the glory days of Margaret Thatcher, there hasn’t been a great deal to look back to. But probably the Tories’ finest subsequent moment was the 1999 European campaign message ‘In Europe but not run by Europe’. Ever since then, they have been trying to find a soundbite to rival it.

So Michael Howard must have thought he was really on a winner when he came up with “Countries have constitutions and I do not want to be part of a country called Europe.” Well, was he?

The The Advertising Standards Authority did some research a couple of years ago into what makes advertising messages really work. Looking at the most successful advertisements across the entire industry, they came up with three things.

First, the messages that worked were informative – and of course, accurate. Second – and this only worked if the first was fulfilled – the messages that worked were clever. And third – and this only worked if the first two were fulfilled – the messages that worked entered popular culture. Winning messages are things like ‘Ronseal – it does exactly what it says on the tin’ and ‘Carlsberg don’t make room-mates, but if they did they would probably be the finest room-mates in the world’.

So how well does Michael Howard’s sound-bite do? In reverse order, it hasn’t exactly entered the popular culture. “In Europe not run by Europe” caught the public imagination. Nobody but Michael Howard and his cronies ever say “Countries have constitutions and I do not want to be part of a country called Europe.”

But, of course, this is less important than the question ‘is it clever?’ Well, not exactly. Not in the same league as the red billboards that say “You can so tell the people who like don’t read the Economist”. It doesn’t quite have that ring to it.

But, again of course, this is trivial compared to the question ‘is it informative and accurate?’

Well…

No, no, no, no, no, Mr Howard. Clubs have constitutions. Baptist churches have constitutions. The Liberal Democrat party has a constitution. The Labour party has a constitution. Interestingly, the Conservative Party does not have a constitution. Oh yes, and Great Britain doesn’t have a constitution either. At least, not a written one.

But now, of course, the European Union does have a constitution – signed today, by every one of the Union’s member nations. It has yet to be ratified, but it has been signed.

It’s probably a good thing that political party messages are not governed by the Advertising Standards Authority code.

Caught between Kerry and Buttiglione?

This week the European Parliament is split over the prospect of Rocco Buttiglione taking on the role of Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security after his remarks about homosexuals and single mothers. Everyone except Buttiglione seems to agree that he should never have said what he did, but the answer to the underlying question is more troublesome. At the same time, theologians are discussing the position of another Roman Catholic who is running for a rather higher office. John Kerry’s position on abortion has caused some scratching of the head in Vatican circles. During the presidential campaign, both Bush and Kerry have pushed their Christian credentials. Meanwhile, in the UK, Tony Blair, a man who has also made a lot of his faith (although he has denied rumours that he is about to become a Roman Catholic), is preparing a new set of gambling laws which have been denounced by many church leaders.

Let me say that I’m not a Roman Catholic. But as a committed Christian, the issues do concern me.

In apologising to European Commission president Barroso, Buttiglione closed by saying: “The only thing I cannot do is to change my principles against my conscience for political convenience.” The Italian press do not share his conviction. Rome’s right wing Il Messaggero said: “It is a mistake to mix religion and politics. Europe does not want to hear about this mixture of State and Church, which is part of our history.”

At the same time, across the wide water, Kerry is under fire for failing to adequately combine his faith with his politics.

In the Spring I took part in a debate with Evan Harris MP on the subject: “Does faith belong in politics?” Evan, a dedicated secularist, of course put forward the case that it does not. I took the opposite view.

It seems to me that the dilemma caused by trying to separate faith from politics is greater than that of trying to combine them. In fact, fundamentally I believe that that dilemma is irresolvable. Separating them means the institutionalising of a kind of hypocrisy – a politician may appeal to his faith when standing for election, but cannot be held to it when making policy. The dilemma is no less resolvable for someone who arrives in public life with a secular philosophy.

Which is a long way from saying that I have much sympathy with Buttiglione.

When I first heard about his remarks I was forcibly reminded of the words of Jesus: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”

BBC NEWS | World | Europe | European press review: “Buttiglione”

Martin Turner is Chair of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum

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