Leading Article: A race to stop the Lib Dems from looking very silly

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The Independent Culture
RARELY CAN so many have striven for so little. The race for the Liberal Democrat leadership - not yet even formally open - is becoming farcically oversubscribed. A football team could be formed from the wide field of candidates who have "let it be known", as the phrase goes, that they would like to lead the supposedly radical centre into the next millennium. They fall, more or less, into pro- and anti-Labour camps and are, in no particular order: Simon Hughes, Malcolm Bruce, David Rendel and Jackie Ballard (all rather sceptical about closer links with Labour); and the more "project-friendly" Don Foster and Paul Tyler. Mr Charles Kennedy's policy is, perhaps deliberately, unclear at this stage. Seven candidates, then, who form a group of politicians in mortal danger of being labelled the "seven dwarfs" by a sceptical public.

You might think that the party's managers would do something about this frenzy of internal campaigning, all against the party's rules and a serious distraction from the European elections. Ideally the man to knock heads together is the party's Chief Whip. However, the Chief Whip, a quietly ambitious fellow named Paul Tyler, is otherwise engaged - on his own leadership campaign. He has thrown his referee's whistle away and joined in the game, on the bizarre grounds that adding his name to the list will narrow things down. Maybe Mr Tyler is the instrument of some sophisticated stratagem by the "pro-project" forces but he is, on balance, probably a symptom of disarray in their ranks. Overall this is a ludicrous state of affairs, and one that must not be allowed to persist.

The leadership of the Liberal Democrats matters because the party now matters - and it could matter much more. Mr Ashdown has been congratulated more than once, and rightly, for building his party up. But in the manner of his going - announcing the decision to stand down so many months in advance - he has not served his party well. However, the leadership election is now on and it is the best chance for the party to debate its future, a debate that has so far been somewhat muted.

Put at its simplest, the question is whether the Liberal Democrats should move ever closer to New Labour, extending their co-operation from constitutional and defence policy to, say, welfare reform, education and economic policy, eventually ending up in some vague progressive coalition. There is, of course, a case to be made for this strategy. One of the sadnesses about the turn of recent events is that the most effective advocate of that approach, Menzies Campbell, has ruled himself out of the contest. But, at a time when the Conservatives are proving to be such a feeble alternative to the Government, to the extent that a split in their ranks looks more likely than not, there is also a rather stronger case for the Liberal Democrats to retain their independence, conduct a constructive opposition and present a credible alternative to New Labour, if only for the voters' sake.

Whatever the merits of the arguments, this is what the Liberal Democrats need to debate during their leadership election. But, put bluntly, it does not need seven people (in a party of 46 MPs) to conduct it. The issues will be obscured by the participation of so many candidates. Three or four figures arguing roughly the same case will inevitably result in their resorting to personalities to differentiate themselves. The sheer unmanageability of a TV debate or party hustings should be apparent. By now the contenders should know who are the stronger runners, and some noble concessions are required. If the "sensible party" cannot sort out its leadership sensibly, then, to adapt one of Mr Ashdown's favourite phrases, they will deserve to be a party of protest rather than one of power.