1 OCTOBER 1988, Page 22


Not the sort of party one would bother to gate-crash


and hypnotically unmemorable name 'So- cial and Liberal Democrats' has a lot to answer for. The obvious label, 'Liberal and Social Democrats', was turned down for even more obvious reasons; but at least 'the LSDs' would have stuck in the mind, and by now all the most facile jokes about hallucinogens or pre-decimal coins might have been exhausted.

My own guess, when the SLD label was announced, was that they would call them- selves the SoLiD party, and that the Owenites would prefer to call them the SoLD party. But 'the Salads' sprang of its own accord into the political consciousness of the nation, and there it has stayed, with ghastly appropriateness. It is not just that salads tend to be rather miscellaneous, with chopped-up bits and pieces of various colours. The real point is that although we all vaguely feel that salad is good for us, and that we ought to like it, it never quite appetises in the way that a traditional meat-and-two-veg meal does. A 'salad' party sounds, then, as if it is destined to remain on the side-plate of history. It is a name which has supplied one good joke to Dr Owen, and one poignant parting shot to the former Liberal official, Mr Adrian Slade. Borrowing a line from his brother's hit musical, he told the conference on Monday: 'Let us leave our salad days behind.' Doubly poignant, in fact, when you think that the party might just as easily have been called 'the Slades'.

'Democrats' is a pretty meaningless name, and not just because of its lack (compared with the origins of the Amer- ican party, for example) of any particular historical context. The term 'social demo- crat' had a real meaning originally, because the second word qualified the first: it distinguished the sort of socialist who would work through the democratic par- liamentary process from the sort who wouldn't. To use the qualifying word on its own is to use a label which ought to apply equally to all the other parties which use the democratic system. Sir Russell John- ston pointed this out with surprising can- dour on Monday: 'To me, the word "Democrat" simply has no clear political meaning. Conservative and Labour politi- cians are democrats.' For this he was roundly booed and heckled.

But in the end the presence or absence of clear meaning is not the main thing. All that Mr Ashdown (or Ashford, or Ashley, according to my Blackpool taxi-drivers) really wanted was a short, snappy, memor- able name. 'Donald Duck' would have done almost as well except that within a year the party would have been implacably divided into those who wanted to shorten it to 'Duck' and those who refused to aban- don 'Donald'.

Image-conscious Mr Ashdown is doing his best to lead his party towards the future — that destination towards which, not surprisingly, most politicians claim to be travelling. 'Whatever you do,' he told them at their rally on Sunday, 'don't look back.' The debate about the party's name was meant to reinforce the sense of new identi- ty which will render the SLDP more forward-looking; in the event it had pre- cisely the opposite effect, encouraging an orgy of retrospection and introspection. It is as if a driving instructor, worried that his pupil was spending too much time looking in the mirror, told him first to concentrate on the road ahead and then to brush his hair and straighten his tie.

This may be part of the explanation of something which at first puzzled me at this conference. I was struck, I am afraid to say, by the lack of any sense of a new outward-going spirit; if anything, it felt more inward-looking, self-obsessed and semi-private than the last two Liberal assemblies. It may be a brand-new party, but it lacks that feeling (which the SDP had, exhilaratingly, in its first two years) that new members, and even people entire- ly new to politics, are just waiting to be drawn in right, left and centre. At The moment it doesn't look like the sort of party one would bother to gate-crash.

Nowadays no party can do without image-management, of course. But Mr Ashdown's obsession with his party's im- age is a special result of a process of mythologising which has gone on in the Alliance-SLDP since June last year. The party organisers have comforted them- selves with two attractive theories about 'Its about getting gold by chemistry.' the reasons for the Alliance's poor showing in the general election. One is that they did badly because they said they were not expecting to replace the Tories as the party with an absolute majority. And the other is that they suffered from an 'image' prob- lem: when it looked at the Alliance the electorate saw double and, in seeing dou- ble, saw nothing distinctly. All that is needed, therefore, is a snappy name, a single charismatic leader, and Paddy's (de- finitely not Bob's) your uncle.

The first theory is at best a half-truth. It is true that, in the British electoral system, nothing succeeds like success: many people fear that a vote for a minor party will be a 'wasted' vote. But it is not therefore true that a minor party automatically increases its support by making wildly unrealistic claims about its chances of an absolute majority. This is a point which could be made about any third party; but it is especially relevant to the SLDP. As Mr David Alton has observed, a political party which preaches co-operation and part- nership, and attacks Dr Owen for his 'macho' tendencies, is under a special obligation to refrain from any boastful, go-it-alone machismo of its own.

Where the 'image' theory is concerned, the point about double vision last year may be true, but it is an unimportant truth. The overall image of the Alliance was clear enough: 'tough but tender', individualist but caring — the sort of fine-sounding dualities which Mr Ashdown is still churn- ing out. (1 quote from his word-processor, which must have a special programme to generate these formulae: 'choice and oppOrtunity, liberty and community, prosperity and sustainability'.) And at the humdrum, nitty-gritty level, the Alliance had no shortage of detailed policies.

But there is, in British politics, a level somewhere between detailed policies and overall image. It is the level where you can locate one or two major policy positions, on issues which matter enough to stick in, and sway, the mind of the voter: above all, on the economy and on defence. This is the field on which. Labour and the Tories win or lose their battles. It is the area in which, crucially, the Alliance failed to take up clear, strongly defined positions at the last election. And there are few signs yet that Mr Ashdown either recognises that crucial failure, or would be able to remedy it even if he understood it.