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Birmingham 1, Ross Skye & Lochaber 0

May 16th, 2010 Posted in Liberal Democrats by

The news from Birmingham is that the Special Conference has voted to endorse the Liberal Conservative coalition agreement, and has amended the motion to do so to ensure that the Liberal Democrats are…

  • reminded that Labour were really ghastly and unhelpful
  • still a political party
  • not in favour of encouraging inequality
  • except when it comes to subsidising well off students
  • reminded of a policy motion passed 3 months ago
  • still in favour of Human Rights
  • particularly for people staying in B&Bs of which Chris Grayling disapproves
  • and still think the electoral system is just horrid.

I think we can all now sleep safely in the knowledge that our liberal representatives in Government are still bound to being liberal by internal party democracy.

The other political news story of the day was that former Leader, Charles Kennedy MP had abstained in Tuesday’s coalition agreement vote, and articulated his reasons in the Observer. Broadly that it was not in line with the long-held hope of successive Liberal Democrat leaders for a realignment of the left.

This is a curious intervention for a number of reasons. First whilst in office Charles Kennedy showed remarkably little interest in co-operation with Labour. Quite the opposite. He ended the informal Joint Consultative Committee (a stool to Blair’s sofa government) set up by Paddy Ashdown, and made a number of moves to reach out to the centre-right.

Where that was concerned, early in his leadership, Kennedy worked closely with Mark Oaten. Oaten set up two vehicles. Liberal Future which made the liberal case for markets in public service delivery and the Peel Group which provided contact and comfort for former Conservatives. He spoke frequently and approvingly at meetings of both. Several of his key advisers were market liberals.

Branding of the party’s position under Kennedy referred invariably to being the ‘real alternative’ or ‘real opposition’ to both the Labour government and Conservatives. This not obvious evidence of a grand ‘progressive’ project.

Six months before Kennedy was ousted from office, Mark Oaten was already preparing his own leadership bid, apparently with Kennedy’s blessing, this on an apparent presumption that Kennedy for whatever reasons had decided himself to step down after the local elections in 2006. However unlikely of success, even prior to his personal implosion, it is fair to say an Oaten-led Liberal Democrat party would not have delivered a new left consensus.

In 2004 Kennedy wrote the foreword to the Orange Book, an attempt to unite left and right around liberalism as a distinct platform, rather than it’s proximity to the other traditions, and widely regarded as on the right of the party’s thinking at the time.

The Huhne Commission under his stewardship, made market mechanisms central to the improving public service delivery and other social outcomes.

It is suppose entirely possible that Kennedy regarded all of these initiatives as a part of long-term ‘realigning the left’, however this would show a remarkably inconsistency with some of his key lieutenants banging on about ‘replacing the Tories’ as the main opposition force. If he was uncomfortable with any of this it showed an extraordinary failure of conviction and leadership to let it continue for so long.

It is also possible that Kennedy has adjusted his views in light of the facts on the ground; and given his noted reputation for being pragmatic rather than a political visionary, this might have happened. The 2005 election put to bed the notion that the Conservatives could be ‘destroyed’ as a political force, and 2010 seems to have showed some limits to the depth of Labour’s collapse.

But that still doesn’t explain the general trend of his leadership, promoting Orange-bookers to key positions, ending Labour collaboration, and laying the groundwork for Clegg’s ‘liberal realignment’ narrative that has been consistent through his leadership election, general election campaign and coalition agreement.

If there has then been a pragmatic shift it happened after Kennedy was ousted as Leader, and that then makes it very hard to know whether he is sincere in his discomfort about coalition, or is giving back a little of the personal pain he received from his colleagues.

If he is, it is unworthy. If he’s always been a fan of ‘the Project’ then what in his 7 years of leadership helped that cause?

11 Responses to “Birmingham 1, Ross Skye & Lochaber 0”

  1. Calum W Says:

    I suspect without Kennedy’s scepticism of the coalition the number of Lib Dem seats in Scotland wouldn’t be much higher than the score quoted for Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
    2011 is the first big referendum on the arrangement – Holyrood may not see the likes of Jeremy Purves or Nicol Stephen or even Ian Smith again and would instead see more genuinely centre-left constitutionally progressive and truly democratic SNP and Green MSPs returned.

  2. Stuart Says:

    How tedious that Calum W somehow sees this as a purely Scotish issue. The Scots need reminding that this was a UK election and they are a very small if overlly vocal part of the electorate. To me as someone who has allways voted Conservative and will continue to do so, this coming together of two parties with broadly liberal small state views is to be applauded, long may it continue.

  3. Calum W Says:

    The title was about the implication of Charles Kennedy, a Scottish MP, being unable to bring himself to vote for the coalition and I was merely pointing out the implication in his home country. I assumed my comment would be quickly drowned out by people actually debating the pros and cons of the coalition but to my surprise it took 24 hours before someone replied!

  4. Duncan Says:

    “…more genuinely centre-left constitutionally progressive and truly democratic….”

    Huh? Has the party changed its manifesto for the Holyrood elections without telling me again?

  5. Chris Says:

    I think you’re right that it was the political landscape at the time that prevented Kennedy from realigning with Labour. A third party is always being squeezed under FPTP and is forced to maximise its electoral appeal by continually re-positioning according to the ebbs and flows in popularity of the two main parties. After the Tories dismal showing in 2001 there was a clear opportunity to capture more Tory voters so inevitably the Lib Dems had to go in that direction. This was reinforced after Duncan Smith was forced out as Tory leader in 2003. I think Kennedy would have been far more comfortable personally realigning on the left – but this would have meant turning his back on an opportunity for a major breakthrough which no LibDem leader can afford to do. So this coalition is counter cyclical as it sees the Lib Dems embracing the right at a time when they would normally be moving to the left to pick up estranged Labour voters.

  6. Ziggy Says:

    Andy you seem keener then most about this coalition to the point that one wonders why you don’t just join the Tories.

    Why not stress what makes the Lib Dems distinct from the Tories?

    I mean if there are so many similarities between the Lib Dems & the Tories what’s the point of having the Lib Dems.

  7. Duncan Says:

    “Why not stress what makes the Lib Dems distinct from the Tories?”

    Differences between (extreme!) market-liberals and Tories

    1) M-Ls like Europe
    2) M-Ls don’t tolerate homophobes
    3) M-Ls appeal to the market as a means to alleviate poverty.

    Of course there are some folks on the ‘left’ of the Tory party who some of the above would apply to. Dan Hannan doesn’t appear to care much above poverty or Europe (or the welfare state), Ken Clarke voted for section-28 and is socially conservative, Iain Dale has a ‘salute-the-flat’ attitude towards the armed forces and (so far as I’m aware) is eurosceptic. Given the Conservative party contains both Iain Dale and Theresa May it’s fair to say theirs is a ‘bigger tent party’ than ours. Maybe if we fudged/softened our attitude towards Europe some of them might be willing to cross the floor over time, however it’s easier for them to get elected as Tories. If anyone said to me “I have a lot in common with Ken Clarke and David Willets but I couldn’t be in the same party as the Rees-Moggs, Norman Tebbit or Phillipa Stroud I would think that fairly sensible. I’m much more ‘pro-market’ than many in the LibDems (though consider myself left of centre) but the notion that I could join the Tories or give effective representation to the legion of social conservatives or folks ‘concerned’ about immigration who vote for them doesn’t bear thinking about. I imagine Andy might feel similarly.

  8. Julian H Says:

    A most sensible comment, Duncan – I very much hope you’re on our mailing list / list of supporters (!)

  9. Ziggy Says:

    Oh & you hope I don’t sign up lol

    If Ed Joyce had got his way I’d of been a writer for this blog but certain people hold grudges

  10. Ziggy Says:

    ‘2) M-Ls don’t tolerate homophobes’

    Yes but I’m sure some would point out that market liberals wouldn’t support pretection against homosexuals from homophobia

  11. thepilatesbiz Says:

    4) Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975) Excellent Italian giallo that will keep you glued to the screen. I would also highly recommend checking out any other Argento films apart from his awful Phantom of the Opera remake or Trauma which was also pretty bad.