Where are the Liberal Democrats?

This, after all, was supposed to be the election in which the party came to the fore
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The Independent Online

The implosion of the Tories may be providing the more dramatic story of this election, but equally intriguing must be the failure of the Liberal Democrats to make any headway. It's not that they're actually failing. Indeed on the opinion polls they're chugging along quite nicely at around 20-22 per cent, while their leader, Charles Kennedy, notches up personal ratings considerably higher than Michael Howard and even, on the odd poll, quite close to those of Tony Blair.

The implosion of the Tories may be providing the more dramatic story of this election, but equally intriguing must be the failure of the Liberal Democrats to make any headway. It's not that they're actually failing. Indeed on the opinion polls they're chugging along quite nicely at around 20-22 per cent, while their leader, Charles Kennedy, notches up personal ratings considerably higher than Michael Howard and even, on the odd poll, quite close to those of Tony Blair.

But is this really all they want, to chug along waiting for the failings of others to bring them votes and a tight election and deliver them the balance of power?

This after all was supposed to be the election in which the party came to the fore, challenging the Tories as the main party of opposition, picking up the votes of Labour supporters disaffected with the war and Tory supporters turned off by Michael Howard's stridency, and setting out a series of policy proposals that would make the two other main parties look evasive and shallow.

But it has not turned out like that, not on the ground at least. Go down to the heartland constituency of Somerton and Frome, which the Lib Dems took narrowly from the Tories in 1997 and just held in the last election by 668 votes, and you'll find barely a Lib Dem poster, let alone a canvasser, in sight. At the farmers' market in Frome at the beginning of the month, there were Tory activists in the hall and every vehicle was leafleted in the car park outside.

A quick call to the headquarters to find out how the promotion of postal voting was going - a strong feature last time - elicited the information that the person who knew about these things was away and might not be back in time to ensure that the papers could be sought and sent out by the deadline.

It's a wonderfully casual, if not posititively careless, approach that fits in with the leader's laid-back style. Don't seem too eager to seek votes, don't sound too negative about your opponents, don't indeed even show yourself too conversant with the details of your own policies. The hurly-burly of confrontational politics is not what the public wants.

To be fair to the Lib Dem strategists, this is not quite as foolish a policy as it seems. The polls suggest that the public doesn't much care for adversarial politics and that even Charles Kennedy's worst gaffes and confusions don't actually do him any harm in the ratings.

It is also true that this election has proved a lot more difficult for the third party than they might have expected. The hunting issue has galvanised Tory support and embarrassed Liberal Democrats in the shires. The Iraq war has gained the party approval, but is not an easy issue to take advantage of when a newly elected government is taking over in Baghdad and needs a fair wind to get going.

This is also a peculiar election in the extent to which the main parties have sought to concentrate on getting their own voters out rather than moving to the middle ground. Most elections since the Second World War have been fought over the "floating vote" and hence have forced a policy debate in the centre ground. On this occasion, Labour and Tories have looked primarily behind them at their own supporters. The result has been a curiously sterile conflict over facts and figures in which the two have sought to create distrust in each other's competence rather than develop alternative positions on the questions of the day.

A third party in this scrimmage finds it difficult to seize the agenda and, in seeking fresh and original ideas, leaves itself vulnerable to the assault on detail that characterises the debate between the main parties. It's all very well commentators bewailing the way the election lacks reference to the issues that will really determine the country's future - the threatened economic slowdown, the prospects of a French "no" in the constitutional referendum, the squeeze on public finances - but if the two main parties don't want serious debate, then it's awfully hard for a third party to do so without simply looking worthy.

And yet is passivity really the only response? Charles Kennedy talks of this being an election of by-elections, reflecting his party's strategy of concentrating on individual seats in the hopes of making specific gains outside any nationwide trend. It may work, although Somerton and Frome suggests it could lose seats as well as gain them.

But it is also the duty of any party seeking a place in the centre of politics to speak nationally, not just locally. The British public may not like the negativism of debate, but it does like to feel that those who contend for power are actually prepared to fight for it and for ideas they espouse. That Charles Kennedy has yet to show.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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