Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/422/4937
What we think
Make your mind up time for Lib Dems?
IT SEEMS that all wings of the Liberal Democrats parliamentary party became involved in the brutal campaign to force their leader, Charles Kennedy, to step down because of his alcohol addiction. Nonetheless, political issues on the Liberal Democrats' future direction lie behind the immediate question of excessive whisky consumption.
Under Charles Kennedy's leadership the Liberal Democrats tried to pose simultaneously as being marginally to the left of New Labour, in the hope of picking up some traditional Labour voters, and to appeal to Tory voters that they need to win over to gain MPs in their target seats.
On this basis they increased their number of MPs to 62 in the general election. However, this was a disappointment to Liberal Democrats. As the only mainstream party that could claim to have opposed the Iraq war, facing two deeply unpopular leaders in Blair and Howard, they expected to do better. Cameron's 'rebranding' of the Tories has turned discontent into crisis.
There is no doubt that there is a huge constituency for a party genuinely to the left of the Labour Party. At the last election New Labour was elected with the lowest percentage of the popular vote, 36%, of any governing party in history.
The Lib Dems, however, have been only able to win the votes of a small part of that constituency, because they don't offer the 'real alternative' that they claim. In the last general election they pledged to privatise virtually anything they could find still in public hands, including the Royal Mint and the wholesale sell-off of the prison service, outdoing even New Labour's privatisation plans.
When they have been elected at local level have carried through the same cuts in services as the Tories and New Labour.
On some issues they are clearly to the right of New Labour. In a country with the most repressive anti-trade union legislation in Western Europe, the Lib Dems have argued to go further, giving companies the right to take action against trade unions if strikes result in "a loss of earning and incomes". If this was implemented it would make any effective strike illegal.
They have also criticised New Labour for increasing the current paltry minimum wage by 20p, saying it would be wrong "to set a precedent"!
AND WHILE the Lib Dems have claimed the anti-war mantle, the reality does not match up to the spin. Having opposed the Iraq war unless it had UN backing, as soon as the war started they changed their position declaring: "The House of Commons voted earlier this week and we have to accept that democratic verdict ... supporting our armed forces now battle is engaged."
Never mind that, far from being democratic, the Commons vote ignored the opinions of the majority of people in Britain! Nor have the Lib Dems ever called for an end to the occupation. And whilst as socialists we have every sympathy with ordinary soldiers who have risked their lives in Iraq, this is no excuse for the Liberal Democrats' failure to oppose the war.
Without doubt, many of the British soldiers in Iraq would rather Kennedy had showed his support for them by demanding, as we do, that the troops are brought home.
Having failed to make a breakthrough by appearing to tilt to the left, a growing section of Lib Dems now want to move firmly to the right, particularly a younger generation of MPs - authors of the Orange Book. One of their number, Mark Oaten, has already declared he will stand for the party leadership.
One of Oaten's likely supporters, David Laws MP, calls for the complete abolition of the NHS and the introduction of a national health insurance scheme - a policy which the Tories have been forced to drop as too right wing. Ironically, Oaten may have the backing of Kennedy, who, while he was seen by the right as failing to decisively back their policies, nonetheless actually supported much of their approach.
The right's position is not supported by all the party. A section of the active membership could back Simon Hughes MP if he stands because he is seen as being more radical. However Menzies Campbell MP, the frontrunner in the race, while less ferociously neo-liberal than Oaten, and more liberal on social issues, is still likely to move the party to the right.
The removal of Kennedy has solved none of the Lib Dems' problems, but is part of a process where the big three parties keep converging, fighting over a smaller and smaller electoral space inaccurately called the centre ground, while working-class people are left disenfranchised.
If one conclusion can be drawn from events of the last week it is that the only way the working class will be able to vote against privatisation, cuts and war is if they found a new party - their own party.
In The Socialist 12 January 2006: