18 JANUARY 2003, Page 10


The Lib Dems are a mess of contradictions, says Simon Heifer. They

want to build and conserve; they want to decriminalise cannabis and ban smoking in public places, Disenchanted Tories should not be seduced

HER Majesty's Government is in a right mid-term mess. The public services don't work, despite all the extra cash being thrown at them. The public has, according to a poll last weekend, completely lost confidence in the forces of law and order. Illegal immigration continues unchecked. The gap between revenue and expenditure is expanding. Mr Blair is losing the support of his party, and Mrs Blair is the public's choice to be deported. Another opinion poll shows the gap between Labour and the Tories to be a mere 5 per cent.

However, while the government's support is collapsing, the Tories' is hardly shifting upwards. Disillusioned voters are either swelling the ranks of the millions who do not participate in the political process, or they do something even more inexplicable: they decide to support the Liberal Democrats.

For some time now, seeking to capitalise on the difficulties facing the Tories, the Lib Dems' affable leader, Charles Kennedy, has been talking of his party as the opposition'. Indeed he said, just a fortnight after the last election, that 'Britain chose the Liberal Democrats as the effective opposition to Labour'.

This phrase set the tone of mendacity for the party's course through this parliament. It has 110 fewer MPs than the Conservative party, making it the effective opposition in much the same way as Scunthorpe United threatens Arsenal. Since Labour only governs in Wales and Scotland with the aid of the Lib Denis, the party's claim to be an opposition of any description is remarkably far-fetched. At Westminster the party voted with Labour 68 per cent of the time on secondand third-reading votes in the 1997 parliament. Anybody supporting them because of disillusion with Labour makes a peculiar protest; equally, anybody supporting them because they might get honest or competent politics for a change is making a serious mistake.

At last September's party conference lucky people could still buy the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors' booklet entitled (wait for it) 'Effective Opposition', in which the following advice was given on how to practise politics in opposition at a local level. 'Be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly,' it said. 'Don't be afraid to exaggerate,' it continued, advising zealots that responses to petitions of grievance had always to be 'massive', and that public expressions about councils' shortcomings had always to be of 'outrage'. If all this sounds a bit negative, so it should. 'Positive campaigning will NOT be enough to win control of the council.' Nor need it be consistent, and God help us if it comes anywhere close to exhibiting any principle. 'You can secure support from voters who normally vote Tory by being effectively anti-Labour and similarly, in a Tory area, secure Labour votes by being anti-Tory.' There is also advice to 'oppose all service cuts' and the fundamental tenet of wisdom, 'You are not running the council. It's NOT your problem.' It hardly squares with the assertion by the party's Welsh spokesman, Lembit Opik, only three months ago at his party's Welsh conference, that he wanted 'a moral crusade to clean up politics', which would spell 'the end of political opportunism'.

Tory and, to a lesser but still noticeable extent, Labour activists around the country will find none of this surprising. Because the Lib Dems are, in different places, an urban party, a rural party, a suburban party, a Welsh party and a Scottish party, they can end up having about five different policies on any given subject. Local issues and the feelings of local people dominate what passes for their philosophy. They are the ultimate practitioners of what Mr Blair once so brilliantly called lollowership'. It is not, sadly, even a coherent, unified, national act of followership: it differs not just from area to area but also from constituency to constituency and even from street to street If local residents want a bypass to alleviate traffic noise and improve safety, the Lib Dems will campaign for a bypass; if residents don't want one, the Lib Dems don't want one either. National transport strategy doesn't come into it because there isn't one. Regrettably, for their already confused adherents, this is the case on any number of subjects.

Because the Liberals have been a third party for so long — for ever, given that you have to be 86 to have lived under a Liberal government and 113 to have been old enough to vote for one in the December 1910 general election — no one has wasted time taking them seriously. As trivialists and idiots in the Tory party talk of changing their leader yet again, and factionalising their party even more, they, in particular, need to be clear about what the country is likely to get in their place. It would mean the ascendancy of a party even less principled than Labour, generally somewhat to the Left of it, whose trademarks in local politics are smear, deceit and graft, and with little coherent idea of how, if the worst came to the worst, it would govern Britain.

Even their sometime allies in the Labour movement find the Lib Dems impossible to stomach. John Prescott, in an article published under his name just over a year ago, asked a pertinent question: 'How can you expect to be taken seriously, as Paddy Ashdown himself warned recently, if your only answer for improving public services is extra money while opposing every reform to ensure this investment delivers real results?' Mr Prescott picked at two of the party's most painful scabs: the promise to spend 'billions of pounds extra' on the public services without saying where it would come from, and 'how [you] keep getting away with posing nationally as a pro-European party while suggesting at a local level that you are against Brussels and all its evils.' But then, of course, when you have to appeal at the same time to Welsh nationalists, Scottish nationalists, urban socialists, rural Tories and suburban waverers, it is jolly difficult to play the same tune to all of them and hope that they will like it. This leads to absurdities. After the footand-mouth debacle, the Lib Dems were loud in their calls for a public inquiry in England; but in Scotland, where, of course, they are part of the government, they felt no such inquiry was necessary.

The money question lies at the root of the Lib Dems' intellectual and political incoherence. Exactly a year ago Mr Kennedy said, 'We might well go into the next general election saying that we favour lower taxes.' However, when the party's alternative budget was published six weeks later, it called for a new 50 per cent top rate of tax for those earning more than £100,000 a year. It promised to abolish capital-gains-tax exemptions, and even expounded a crackpot plan to create regional assemblies and devolve to them the power to raise further National Insurance contributions. It also promised to 'end the practice of giving non-domiciled tax status'. This would put a torpedo through the City of London where high-achieving foreign workers enjoy such status — driving them abroad, lowering the performance of their companies and ensuring that less, not more, revenue goes to the Treasury.

The Lib Dems have gone quiet lately on their long-held promise to put a penny on income tax to improve education, but doing this would raise just 13 billion, whereas their education promises are independently costed at £6.4 billion. Their Treasury spokesman, Matthew Taylor, has also said that the party is considering a local income tax of up to 8 per cent, a carbon tax, a higher landfill tax and (the piece de resistance) VAT at possibly 7 per cent on new homes.

If this isn't enough to convince centristminded people that they risk supporting a rather extreme party, consider some of the other ideas that senior Lib Dems have advanced in the last year (again, there is no guarantee that these views apply throughout the country; only where they might be popular). They want a written European constitution, long considered the preliminary to a federal superstate. According to one of their MEPs, Andrew Duff, they are happy to give the EU tax-raising powers. They make noises against the Common Agricultural Policy, but they seek more powers for Brussels in interior policy, the administration of justice and foreign policy. They also want a common European defence policy, which would undermine Nato. Some of them, such as the foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell, have backed the American-led action in Afghanistan. Others, like the international development spokesman Jenny Tonge, have opposed it. As well as scaling down missile defence, they want to limit defence exports, which would cost thousands of jobs in a manufacturing industry of the sort they claim they want to protect. There are splits at the top on health policy, too. Their trade and industry spokesman, Dr Vincent Cable — one of the few genuinely talented people on their front bench — has criticised, in an internal memo leaked to the press last February, the policies of his colleague Evan Harris, the health spokesman. Dr Harris is, like Gordon Brown, wedded to the old style of doing things in the NHS, which Dr Cable attacked as 'Stalinistic'. He added that Dr Harris's prescriptions 'risk the Lib Dems becoming the last-ditch defenders of one of the few remaining experiments in centralised socialist planning', exemplifying the point that the party is way to the Left of Labour. Dr Harris hates the private sector, but when attacking it in the Commons last year he was embarrassed by the Tory MP Angela Browning, She asked him why, if that was the case, his own chief whip Paul Tyler had enclosed a brochure from a nearby Nuffield clinic in literature sent round his constituency the previous year. Dr Harris, predictably, had no answer.

If those fleeing to the Lib Dems think they will get a party that will clear up Labour's mess on crime, they stand to be disappointed. The Lib Dem spokesman on home affairs, Simon Hughes, told the last party conference, 'We must end the nonsense of sending so many people to prison.' Custodial sentences are to be imposed 'only as a last resort', according to a policy paper published just before that conference, though how many muggings or burglaries one has to commit before that resort is reached is not specified. They are against mandatory life sentences for murderers and serial rapists. They want to give prisoners (or the few of them who remain once the prisons are emptied) the right to vote, and to legalise prostitution.

At a time when even the Labour government is reluctantly admitting that the link between drugs and serious crime is inescapable, Dr Tonge has said she wants cocaine sold in the same way as tobacco and alcohol. She also wants heroin made available on the NHS. Since there is collective responsibility, in what the Lib Dems absurdly call the 'shadow Cabinet', only when it suits them, Mr Kennedy refused to criticise this interesting policy pronouncement by one of his senior colleagues. However, since it is their settled policy to end imprisonment for possession for personal use of illegal drugs, to reclassify Ecstasy downwards and to decriminalise cannabis, the pass has already been sold. How this sits with one of their other policies — a ban on smoking in all public places — is anyone's guess.

The institutionalised hypocrisy of the party is never more obvious, though, than in a field that the Lib Dems thought they had made their own: the environment. Charles Kennedy has said that he wants no building on greenfield sites for a decade or more. However, Lib Dem local government representatives have endorsed a Labour plan to build 840,000 houses in the southeast region over the next 20 years — something impossible without the development of greenfield sites. The Lib Dems claim that planning decisions will be taken locally, but by this they mean their beloved ideal of regional assemblies, which might be very distant from the communities for which they are planning. They oppose the building of roads, yet have supported some notable road schemes because local people wanted them, such as the new Hastings bypass and the controversial Newbury bypass.

Because the electorate hardly cares about what a party so far from power stands (or doesn't stand) for, the Lib Dems have got away with this for years. They are brilliant at campaigning, at choosing issues to campaign on, and at spotting moribundity in local Labour or Conservative parties. They have highlighted what they call 'development' seats — constituencies they know they cannot win next time, but which they determine to win at the election after next. They do this by identifying themselves with the local people and what they want done, irrespective of where that might sit with their national policies. They flood such places with publicity, time and money, and infiltrate the local consciousness.

This makes the Lib Dems an ideal dustbin for disenchanted voters; it also makes them incoherent as a national force and unimaginable as a real opposition, let alone as a government. The public's lack of interest in politics serves the Lib Dems well: in some areas they thrive on representing themselves, entirely dishonestly, as a party almost above politics. The fact remains that they are, of course, highly political. They have distinct policies that they would inflict on the public, causing great damage, were they to have a sniff of power. They have shown, in Wales and in Scotland, that they share all the vices of unaccountability and incompetence of the Labour party. They are long overdue for scrutiny. If they wish to be treated seriously, they can start by trying to explain all their hypocrisies and internal contradictions. They are a national confidence trick that has gone on for too long, and which now cries out to be punished.

Simon Heifer is a columnist for the Daily Mail.