A ban on bobble hats would work wonders

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The Independent Online
MID-TERM politics is a landscape of marshy ground and misty illusions. We scan polls, salivate over local elections, castigate leaders, follow the economic statistics and the party splits. But we know, deep down, that what happens in 1994 may be wholly forgotten by the next general election, and that how it seems now is a poor guide to how it will seem then. The political classes, pointing, hectoring, warning, are as reliable as so many Met Office maniacs discussing in May the rainfall prospects for June. Sometimes it seems that disembowelling a sheep would be just as instructive.

This (rare) confession of fallibility is prompted by a recent national poll suggesting that the Conservatives are facing electoral destruction in the South-west. They are polling so badly that similar results at a general election would lose them 33 of their 37 seats in the region. If the Liberal Democrats break through there, the Conservatives have lost the country, so Tories wondering about ditching John Major look West. And the impression of looming collapse may well be confirmed by the local, European, and Eastleigh by-election results. There are even predictions of the Tories coming third in each.

All of which is good for the gossiping trade. It will take more than banning the press from the House of Commons terrace, that summer plotters' Pimms-drenched paradise, to stop a barrage of stories about the Tory leadership. Cabinet ministers assure me that the parliamentary recess will start unusually early and that politics 'will not happen' during the summer and autumn, giving John Major the best possible chance of surviving the party conference that follows. Even so, a string of electoral thirds would drive the party mad with fear.

I am no spoilsport. But I reiterate, this is mid-term politics, not yet general electoral politics. Whether Mr Major makes it through or not, it would be the height of folly for the Liberal Democrats or for Labour to take seriously any of the cascade of polls, election results and analysis that is about to flow across the breakfast tables of the nation.

It may feel like victory, but it won't be victory. Though Tory panickers assent with masochistic enthusiasm to the suggestion that they've 'had it', they haven't. Some of the wiser, older heads in the party are still talking optimistically about 1996-97.

The point is not, however, that nothing matters in the mid-term. It is that we should judge it not by the passing dramas but on the basis of common sense, including our experience of past general elections. In this case, it makes sense to believe that millions of people would like, all things considered, to see a change of government, whoever the Tory leader is. But it is much less clear that they would vote for a left- of-centre government which they believed would tax them more heavily.

For the Lib Dems in particular, this means that their party's current economic policies are too fuzzy, and indeed too left-wing. Tory strategists still believe the South-west problem, however dramatic it seems today, will melt away with the traditional 'squeeze', as middle-class voters are told a Liberal vote is a Labour vote. One cabinet minister told me recently: 'It's always worked before, and I don't see why it shouldn't work again.'

One retort comes from a senior Liberal Democrat who argues persuasively that there is a gearing effect on Lib Dem votes. So long as the middle classes are more frightened of Labour than the Tories, the anti-Labour squeeze works remarkably well. It did in 1992. But as soon as voters start to be more concerned about the Conservatives than Labour, the process suddenly reverses, and Southern voters will flock into the Lib Dem camp.

But the Lib Dems could also protect themselves against the squeeze. Suppose that the party adopted a tougher economic stance, including the rigid acceptance that any proposed increases in spending meant cuts elsewhere, not higher taxes? Suppose it also went for a more conservative defence policy, emphasising the obvious dangers of the post-Cold War world in a way that Labour hasn't done?

Suppose it returned to the Liberal tradition of standing up for small businesses, the fastest-growing sector of the economy, and a vocal, influential lobby? Policies connect with voters when they seem to tie sensible proposals to something deep in the philosophy of the party advocating them. Liberal individualism and anti-statism ought to make them the natural party of that sector of the economy which is doing best and where our future probably lies. The South-west, by the way, is second only to the South- east in the number of small businesses based there.

Some Lib Dems would see all that as an outrageous betrayal of party principles. Perhaps it is. Certainly, the party faithful are well to the left of their voters, and what I am suggesting would be the mental equivalent of a ban on bobble-hats.

But it would work. The Liberal Democrats would be offering themselves to disillusioned middle-class voters as the guarantors of Southern moderation and restraint in any coalition government. That would have a real impact on one of the main faultlines in contemporary British politics. And such a sharp change of tack would be more to the point than either mid-term complacency or chat about Lib-Lab pacts.

Could it be done? It would require changes in the Lib Dem front bench, plus reform of the party's somewhat ragged policy-making system. It would cause a row, with lots of people waving this year's election results and asking, why change a winning formula? But it could be done. Whether it happens is one of the most important questions for British politics this year: there is a case for saying it matters more than who is Prime Minister.