Liberal Democrats have a noble tradition, but it needs redefining

The party will be on a hiding to nothing if it seeks to occupy territory Labour abandoned a decade ago

IN THE end, the right man won. And those who point out that it was a narrow victory should remember that even Tony Blair didn't get more than 57 per cent of the vote when he took over the leadership of the Labour Party, admittedly on a first ballot. But a win is a win.

What's more, pragmatism triumphed over adventurism. In one fell swoop Kennedy signalled, entirely sensibly, that he is not going to rule out expanding links with the Labour Party, while continuing to criticise. There will be opposition. But there will be constructiveness too.

However, there's more to this election than that. After Paddy Ashdown, who sometimes made the party look as if it was a one-man band, Kennedy will need to put his own stamp on the party. Part of this means reaching deep into the roots of the traditions of an illustrious heritage and redefining Liberalism - or, if you prefer, liberalism - for the 21st century as Blair continues to define modern social demo- cracy. This means being the guardian of liberal causes such as racial equality and - topically - a tolerant, open attitude to asylum and immigration. It means a commitment, as Kennedy reminded his supporters yesterday, to constitutional reform that enhances and strengthens democracy rather than merely appearing to do so.

The Liberal Democrats stand necessarily for a House of Lords reform that contains a substantial democratic element, and results in more than an appointed quango. One of the problems Lords reformers are now confronting is that a new vested interest has replaced the hereditary peers; the life peers who, once having been appointed, or even expecting to be appointed, are deeply reluctant to give up their rather cosy existence to fight elections. Inside or outside Tony Blair's big tent, it is the historic task of the Liberal Democrats to ensure that they do not get their way.

Being the conscience of the left and centre left of British politics is a job that definitely needs doing, and which the Liberal Democrats remain especially well qualified to do. But liberalism is defined by what it is, as well as by what it was. In one sense, we are all liberals now.

Even Margaret Thatcher sought to usurp the term by being (in a Milton Friedman rather than a Gladstone sense) an economic liberal. But you don't have to be a hard-faced, socially divisive, grind-the-faces-of- the-poor, economic liberal to recognise that to the extent that she won the economic argument in the Eighties, she was on to something.

The electorate does now, for example, believe that markets, properly regulated, deliver competition in the interests of the consumer better than the old Morrisonian nationalised industries did. They also increasingly accept that genuinely free trade spreads prosperity, internationally as well as nationally, better than either protectionism or colonial exploitation ever did. And these are hardly ideas that large-L Liberals or Liberal Democrats should be frightened of. It would be odd if the Liberal Democrats turned back towards some form of Seventies social democratic statism in order to goad the Labour Party.

For a start, this isn't their natural role. Some years ago, the one-time Liberal MP Michael Meadowcroft described in a speech a conversation he had had with an old member of his party, in which he asked him how the party had kept the flame of Liberalism alive in the - for the party - dark days of the late Forties and early Fifties. "We couldn't stand the Tories," the veteran replied, "and we didn't trust the state."

That entirely healthy distrust of the state is what gives Liberalism so much of its lifeblood. It's why, to mention just one topical example, the Liberal Democrats are entirely right to seek to shame Jack Straw into a Freedom of Information Act that is much closer to the White Paper that he has now forsaken.

But it's also why it would go against the party's own grain to become the champions of a wholesale return to the tax and spend policies regarded as automatic by early-Eighties Labour.

That doesn't mean that there isn't a lively debate now to be had on whether increased - and transparently increased - taxation shouldn't once again be part of the dialogue about how the centre left achieves more fairness and equality of opportunity in British society, or that the Liberal Democrats and their new leader, a Highland radical as well as a pragmatist, have no crucial part to play in that debate. But it does mean that the party will be on a hiding to nothing if it merely seeks to occupy territory that Labour abandoned a decade ago. And that applies whether it continues its links with Labour, as Kennedy strongly hinted it would, or it doesn't.

In the meantime there will be tough, worldly decisions to take. Kennedy should not - and will not - be deflected from his pursuit of Commons electoral reform.

This will in itself be a daunting task. Kennedy will know, because he is nothing if not realistic, that despite its intrinsic merits, Lord Jenkins's hybrid formula of the alternative vote system - which institutionalises tactical voting - and a top-up to make it more proportional, is looking even more elusive than it did six months ago.

First, there is a receding possibility of a referendum on Commons electoral reform this side of the election; and secondly, even some of those in the Labour Party who are keenest on maintaining co-operation with the Liberal Democrats doubt whether their own party would wear, at least as a first stage, more than a shift to the Alternative Vote. One of the thorniest questions Kennedy will face over the coming months will be whether, with the flexibility naturally afforded a new leader, it is worth his pursuing a historic compromise to achieve a solution which on the one hand falls short of full PR, but on the other cannot fail to increase his party's strength in the House of Commons.

If he were to do so, there would be arguments in his favour. One is that a change to a full PR system - now likely to be modified by the Labour Party to make it more voter- and probably more Liberal-Democrat-friendly - did not deliver the holy grail of electoral triumph in the recent elections. Another is that a bird in the hand may in the end be worth two in the bush. Thirdly, there is every possibility that the adoption of AV could in turn lead to a further, more proportional change. And fourthly, while he remains absolutely committed to full proportional representation, Kennedy, to his credit, has never behaved as if he believes the achievement of PR is an end in itself, as if the Liberal Democrats existed only to maximise their own support, and nothing else.

Kennedy's campaign has been open to the criticism of being all things to all men. But in fact he has steel. If he hadn't, he wouldn't 12 years ago have taken the step of forsaking David Owen and opting for merger with the Liberals. He showed that he understood where the future lay then. There is every sign that he still does.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'