Lib Dems must stop masturbating

Writing in today’s Manchester Evening News, David Ottewell suggests that ‘the Liberal Democrats are in some ways closer to power than ever before.’ If this is true, it has very little to do with the Lib Dems themselves and everything to do with neither Labour nor the Tories landing a knock-out blow on the other.

For David, Lib Dem success is to be found in ‘policy, image and credibility,’ but in truth these things will never get them very far.

The elephant in the Bournemouth conference hall, is not whether Vince Cable’s £1m property tax adds up or not, but that the Lib Dems will not win an overall majority at the next election. They have found their glass ceiling at around one in five voters.

Consequently, all this detailed policymaking is no more than political masturbation and it needs to stop, because it is sapping the third party of all its energy. And the electorate can see this and rather than enhance the Lib Dem’s standing, it actually undermines their credibility.

David shares a misperception that the Lib Dems are ‘ideologically squeezed,’ between two main parties that are increasingly converging on politics’ mythical centre ground. With the Conservatives increasingly importing radical ideas from their friends in the USA, particularly around the role of the state and the obligations of community, this is simply untrue. I reckon David Ottewell would do well to get himself an invite to the Atlantic Bridge do at the Conservative Party conference next month, where he’ll find right wing radicalism alive and well.

What is true is that David Cameron is very good at keeping his intentions hidden and is fighting a deliberately vague campaign around personality and whatever’s in the news this week. Cameron’s success has certainly not come from open policy development.

The answer for the Lib Dems is not to develop policy that makes them look like a credible alternative government. The answer is for them develop a genuine and radical philosophy of their own. This isn’t the ‘radical centre,’ between their opponents. They must not allow themselves to be defined by Labour and the Tories.

In practice, this means developing a vision. It means, for example, leaving detailed tax proposals to one side and instead talking to what makes a tax system fair, right, effective or whatever (but never populist). It means being consistent and painting a picture of the country they’d like Britain to become (because at the moment we have no idea). And if the people buy into that vision, then they can start to fill in the detail with the momentum of growing public support behind them.

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