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Monday, February 09, 2004
Barely a party at all

The emergence of Lib Dem Watch seems to have struck a chord with a number of bloggers, judging by their renewed focus on the party of Jenny Tonge. And the quality of response they have thus far provided is excellent. Paul Richards dug up a Tribune article he wrote a few years ago, at a time when a Lib-Lab coalition combined with a PR voting system looked a possibility. He advised first that Labour members personally would be extremely hostile, but second, that it wasn't really possible.

The Liberal Democrat Party does not exist. Even Liberal Democrats do not exist. Charles Kennedy sits on top of a disparate, divided, ill-disciplined rat-bag of activists. They are the pick-and-mix of politics. Some are those who left the Labour Party in the early eighties and belong back in the Labour fold, their sins forgiven. Others are implacable opponents of socialism. How can we do a deal with these people? How would Kennedy enforce any kind of discipline on the local Lib Dem franchises? It would be like herding cats.

I think the sheer peculiarness of the Liberal Democrats is not something a political outsider can fully appreciate. Certainly it was only when I became active in the Conservative Party that I began to appreciate what a bizarre coalition the modern Liberal Democratic Party is. To Paul Richards' words, I would myself add that a good section of the party also now lies firmly to the left of Labour when it comes to taxation and nationalisation, meaning you can find Lib Dems in camps left, right and on-target when it comes to the government's economic agenda, depending on whom you ask. And since 11 September 2001, we can further add that instinctive anti-Americanism and a general sympathy with terrorism - once the preserve of a tiny awkward squad of Labour backbenchers - now seem to be lurking quietly in many quarters of the party, making their ugly mark and extending the divisions in the Lib Dem camp.

But that nothing seems to unite the party is something entirely lost on many of them. One of the most astonishing things about the Lib Dem bloggers is that the majority of them actually believe their party stands for a distinct philosophical tradition. As James Steerforth has said:

[O]ne has to ask just what the Liberal Party is for. In its heyday it stood for a distinct sectional interest - nonconformists - and specific ideas: religious tolerance, free press, abolition of slavery, equality of all classes before the law, peace and international law abroad. The sectional interest is now irrelevant and the ideas are now accepted by almost everybody in the western world. It is hard to see just what connection the modern LibDems have with this tradition.

I wouldn't quite expect them to agree with me when I argued here that the most reliable guide for what the party will stand for one week is what got clapped on Any Questions or Question Time the previous week. But still it's a shock that these bloggers - who seem fairly representative of their party - really appear to believe you could go into a library, pick up the works of Locke or Mill, say, and get quite a way towards a prescription for the Liberal Democrats in 2004.

In fact, the party is a shambles, a weird coalition of the centre-left and the far-left, the mediocre and the bad, the silly and the nasty, and standing for few coherent ideals and representing no philosophical tradition of its own. In a fantastic post - one apparently so devastating Vivienne Raper deleted everything she has written on her blogs in response - DumbJon puts it best.

I've said this before, and no doubt I'll say it again, the Lib Dems aren't a political party in the sense of advancing actual policies. Voting Lib Dem is the political equivalent of getting a tongue stud. Their whole raison d'etre is to bug the squares, shout rude words and moon at the grown-ups.

UPDATE: Plastic Gangster opines:

I suspect that the real problem with the Lib Dem party is that rather than being a search for a genuine alternative to the two doctrines offered by the mainstream parties it is actually little more than a retreat - a cultish sanctuary for people who can't handle the cruel harsh reality of real world governmental responsibility and the nasty choices that go with it that come with Labour and the Tories. They tell themselves and others that Labour and Conservative alike are dishonest sell-outs and bullshit merchants when in fact all that has happened is that by virtue of having been in government they have been tainted by reality. The Lib Dems are a solid bastion from which those who can't bring themselves to accept that that reality exists fight a determined siege defence.
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