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24 October 2007

Don’t become pressure group Rodgers warns Lib Dems

SDP founder and Lib Dem peer, Bill Rodgers, warns his party against becoming a pressure group

By Bill Rodgers

Within eight weeks, the Liberal Democrats will have chosen a new party leader. In Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, there are two strong candidates. Clegg has style and Huhne has weight, and it will be difficult for the membership to choose. Like Blair and Brown in their pristine years, if they can work well together, they will be a powerful combination in lifting their party. The departure of Ming Campbell is sad, but politics is a rough trade and Ming had become vulnerable several months ago.

Every party leader has a 24 hour day, seven days-a-week. This is physically and mentally demanding, but leading a small party is particularly hard. Paddy Ashdown had a skill appropriate to climbing mountains and that was his task in following the merger between the SDP and the Liberals — in Beatrice Webb’s terms, between the bureaucrats and the anarchists – at the nadir of its fortunes. He deserves great credit in raising the morale of the party and winning 46 Liberal Democrat MPs in the 1997 election.

But since then, at the general elections of 2001 and 2005, there has been only a modest parliamentary addition. And even before the Liberal Democrat Brighton conference, I feared that the next election would result in the range of ten more Lib Dem seats or ten fewer, probably fewer.

Over twenty years, the Liberal Democrats have established a significant third party. Their campaigning, especially in by-elections, is legendary and they have often triumphed in local government, turning-out long established, stale and complacent councils, both Labour and Tory. But the fact remains that the Liberal Democrats are a long way off from Downing Street.

An older generation of Liberals sometimes makes a favourable comparison with the time when Jo Grimond marched only five other MPs towards the sound of gunfire. But that was fifty years ago, while the advent of the Labour party, starting from scratch in 1900, reached majority government in a shorter period.

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At the Brighton conference, there was much discussion about who had been the greatest Liberal. There was an entertaining fringe event in which John Stuart Mill won over Gladstone. But are the Liberal Democrats a think-tank or a political party? Amongst 70,000 members there are a lot of clever men and women, full of ideas and committed to lobbying for good causes. Should they settle for such a comfortable and virtuous but undemanding life?

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The reality is that if the Liberal Democrats were to accept such a second best, it would soon shrink its influence and lose many talented people, drifting out of politics altogether. It is not easy to survive and grow, squeezed between Labour and the Tories, but the core of the Liberal Democrats stands for more than a protest vote.

The new leader will have a testing time in the House of Commons and it may take some weeks before he finds his feet. But if he performs well, he must also give the party momentum and direction, and turn his parliamentary team into an effective fighting force.

Iraq is a declining issue and international affairs usually attract a relatively small circle of voters. In my own parliamentary days, I campaigned about jobs, homes, schools and pensions again and again and again, bringing in hospitals when the NHS began to decline. I take for granted that Liberal Democrats must listen on the doorsteps and in the shopping precincts, and be quick-after-the-mark when critical problems arise.

Ming Campbell’s primary failure had nothing to do with his traditional style, age or House of Commons performance, but was about political direction. When Ming was elected early in 2006, I believed that David Cameron was rising fast and would probably silence its restless Tory old guard. As for Gordon Brown, while I gave him full credit as the long-standing Chancellor, I felt he was now fatally shop-soiled.

I was wrong about Brown and between his arrival at Downing Street and his extraordinary on-and-off Election aberration, he unexpectedly showed warmth as well as authority, and it was clever to invite several senior Liberal Democrats into the fringes of his eclectic political tent. It was full marks to him, but Ming Campbell was far too slow in grasping the dangerous significance of this proposal and to articulate an appropriate relationship between the Lib Dems and other parties, particularly the Labour party.

It is much too soon to speculate on how the votes will fall at the next general election but there may be a hung parliament with the Liberal Democrats holding the balance. For a Lib Dem leader it will then be a supreme test of nerve and judgement, in whether and how to enter a government.

In 1940, Churchill invited Clement Attlee to lead the Labour party into the wartime coalition. The circumstances then, were very different from the possibility of a hung parliament in eighteen months time. But the experience of government was a significant factor in Labour winning the 1945 election, and the Lib Dems would benefit greatly by walking the corridors of power, rather than ducking office and refusing to compromise. I hope there will be no ‘A plague on both your houses’ as some purist activists might prefer.

The Liberal Democrat leader would have to be strong in negotiation. I take for granted the importance of PR and a constructive role in Europe, together with civil liberties and human rights and Green issues. But the leader would require a proportionate share of ministerial responsibility, not a bumped-up version of Gordon Brown’s June embrace.

As a party of the centre-left, led either by Clegg or Huhne, and growing out of Liberal radicalism and the SDP spirit of conscience- and- reform, the instinct of most Liberal Democrats will continue to lean towards Labour. But if the crunch came, Gordon Brown should not take this for granted if he treats the Lib Dems as poor relations.