Left or right: the eternal third party dilemma

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Indy Politics

Any group of Liberal Democrats will jeer and heckle someone who tries to define them as left wing or to the right. But the dilemma which haunts the Liberal Democrat faithful is one the party and its predecessors have been grappling with for years as they attempt to carve out distinctive ground as a force in British politics.

The Liberal Democrats' traditional liberalism of social justice and equality is accompanied by an economic liberalism that favours free trade, markets and limited intervention.

The two concepts clash in the internal battle between the party's radical wing, which focuses on equality and state provision, and the reforming wing, summed up by the "Orange Book" of 2004 that advocated replacing the NHS with a system of national health insurance.

Under Sir Menzies Campbell, the party had a policy platform that was, in important ways, to the left of Labour. The party's strong stance in opposition to the Iraq war and its scepticism about nuclear power and nuclear weapons chimed with many on the left

Sir Menzies reserved some of his strongest attacks for the Conservatives. However, he scrapped the party's 50 pence top rate of tax in favour of tax cuts for low and middle earners.

Liberal Democrats insist the left-right divide is irrelevant. However, how the party positions itself between those poles will be the crucial test of its new leader.