Sometimes, it's good to be alone

Ever since Paddy Ashdown left the national stage to spend more time with his diaries, the Liberal Democrats have seemed a little lost. Thanks to his relationship with Tony Blair, Ashdown had the whiff of power about him. Quite how close Ashdown came to power we will know very soon. He has decided to publish his diaries this autumn, after all.

What we know now is that his successor is a long way from the cabinet table. There will be one more election, at least, before Charles Kennedy gets his fingertips anywhere near a Whitehall department. It is harder, therefore, for him and his party to command attention. When his MPs speak, and some do so with a self-importance quite at odds with their lack of power, an instinctive response is: "So what?" In the Commons at Prime Minister's Question Time, Kennedy has not helped himself by placing himself on one of the front benches. When he stands to ask a question, he looks as if he is hailing a taxi. Although his questions have started to hit home, he badly needs a prop (Blair and Hague have the Despatch Box).

Suddenly, however, Kennedy's party matters again. The Lib Dems have been on the front pages of newspapers and the subject of endless editorials. Unfortunately for their leader, the coverage has been mostly hostile. The provocative decision by Simon Hughes to refer both the other parties to the Commission for Racial Equality over their treatment of asylum-seekers has been portrayed in most quarters as a threat to free speech.

Negative media coverage is not the sort of thing sensible parties deliberately seek in the middle of an election campaign. What is more, this is no ordinary campaign. As well as the local elections and the mayoral contest, there is the Romsey by-election. The Liberal Democrats have high hopes of gaining the seat from the Conservatives, which presumably means they must attract some support from voters who are far from happy with the level of asylum-seekers. "We are all entirely comfortable with what Simon has been saying . . . sometimes you have to speak your mind and to hell with the consequences," a senior party source tells me. This suggests that they are not all entirely comfortable with what Simon has been saying and that some of them are very nervy of the consequences. If that is the case, they should relax.

Kennedy has been seeking a distinctive big idea and now he has found one. Much of the political terrain is overcrowded, but there is still plenty of space on the area marked "An Outward-Looking Britain". With the government's public-spending plans exceeding anything promised by the Liberal Democrats, Kennedy has not made much progress, yet, on his chosen theme of "social justice". At last, his party has had some political room to itself.

The government has a genuine, practical problem over the number of asylum-seekers. Some local authorities are extremely worried by the financial burden. Nor are these confined to the south of England. Labour council leaders in the north-west tell me that they are also feeling the strain. One suggested that it would be easily the biggest issue in the local elections. But none of this excuses the language used by some ministers to convey their concerns. It was a Home Office minister, not William Hague, who described the actions of some asylum-seekers as "vile". Such language only helps to legitimise the Tories' crude positioning. The populist excesses in their manifesto for the local elections sound less shocking when ministers - albeit in a precise context - use emotive language of their own.

Simon Hughes's intervention will make no practical difference. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives are breaking any law. But it has sharpened the debate. Blair, via Alastair Campbell, stressed subsequently that all parties should watch their language in such a sensitive area. In recent months, Blair himself has been extremely careful to separate the practical difficulties arising from a large increase in asylum-seekers from any attempt to rouse xenophobic passions (he has been very robust when questioned on this by Hague in the Commons). Blair's delicate handling of the issue in the Commons, though, does not seem to stop his ministers addressing this issue partly with the Daily Mail and the Sun in mind.

The Liberal Democrats have claimed a similar distinctive role for themselves over Europe. At the next election, they will be alone in their unequivocal support for the euro. Again, the parallel with asylum-seekers extends to the other parties. Blair has no truck now with any rhetoric that panders to Euroscepticism. I doubt if the British bulldog that featured in party broadcasts at the last election will make an appearance next time. Greatly to his credit, Blair has worked tirelessly to show that Britain can work constructively within the EU. He has not turned his back on the sometimes nightmarish complexities, as John Major did after an initial flurry of post-Thatcher goodwill.

But Blair knows, also, that what he calls Britain's "ambiguous relationship" with Europe will not be fully resolved until it has decided to join the single currency. Only he does not dare say so in public. He and Gordon Brown have transformed the debate over "tax and spend", but they have made much less progress in tackling Britain's post-Thatcherite parochialism.

In some ways, the insularity is getting worse. Labour's focus groups suggest that the single currency has become less popular than ever. Feelings over asylum-seekers are as irrational as they were when Margaret Thatcher warned about Britain being "swamped" in the 1970s.

The Lib Dems have moved into a vacuum and made their mark. Whether it will do them any good electorally is another matter. But, sometimes, being a voice in the wilderness is better than having no voice at all.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy