The Liberal Democrats meet in Brighton this week when the British media are fixated on incestuous battles within the Labour Party. The one issue to be discussed at our conference that interests the media is the standing of Menzies Campbell, the new leader.
Critics, inside and outside the party, point to Sir Menzies' performance at Prime Minister's Question Time, which has become the media's litmus test for leadership. Success in it depends upon a genius for sound-bites, an appetite for personal attacks and a capacity for avoiding difficult questions. At none of these does Menzies Campbell excel. He is that rare creature, a serious politician who believes in substance, not spin, and who is deeply averse to exploiting personalities. I once said of him, and I meant it, that he thought spin was something to do with washing machines.
David Cameron is a politician of photo-opportunities and glittering, imprecise speeches. He is targeting our voters, and has made some ground, but as people become aware of how serious the world situation is, his response will surely be seen for the cosmetic operation it is.
Prime Minister's Question Time has become a popular sitcom in the US. But no one thinks it is statesmanship. One would never guess from watching it how dire are the issues now confronting the globe. Climate change is coming faster than we ever expected. The Middle East is in a near-permanent state of war, a cancer that metastases into terrorism, and the best we can do is Tony Blair's visit to Palestine and Lebanon, too little and too late, after his inexplicable failure to call for a ceasefire when Israel invaded Lebanon. Who did call for a ceasefire? Menzies Campbell and the Liberal Democrats. Who opposed the invasion of Iraq? And who, day after day, Bill after Bill, fights to maintain the civil liberties we claim to stand for, the civilised values that reject torture, imprisonment without trial and extraordinary rendition? The answer is the same. The Liberal Democrats, in both Houses of Parliament.
On foreign policy, the Liberal Democrat position is distinctive. That is less true of domestic policy, and it is vital at this conference that the party's position is clearly defined.
The tax proposals put forward by Vince Cable, our shadow chancellor, deliberately make room for councils to impose their own taxes without increasing the overall tax burden. Local authorities are beginning to revive after years of control by Westminster and Whitehall. These proposals would give them back the room to innovate and plan.
I have been much less happy about dropping the proposal to tax incomes of over £100,000 at 50 per cent. I felt this policy defined the Liberal Democrats as a party deeply concerned about inequality in our country and the stubborn levels of poverty, worse than almost anywhere else in Western Europe. Unlike the vague Conservative musings on tax, this was a very clear position. The new tax proposals are indeed radical. The principle of taxing environmental pollution has to be right. Again, these plans are better thought through than Cameron's amiable words of concern. I am not, however, satisfied that we have yet got our ideas across to the public. The advantage of the 50 per cent pledge was its simplicity. Liberal Democrats must be a party committed to fairness and that has to mean some redistribution.
Liberal Democrats are now the only national opposition party, strongly represented not just in the South-east but in Scotland, Wales and northern English cities too. For all Mr Cameron's smooth charm, the Conservatives have almost no presence in any of these places. As people tire of Labour's quarrels, quarrels that have damaged both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, many will turn to the Liberal Democrats. We must be ready for that opportunity.
Baroness Williams is the former Liberal Democrat leader in the LordsReuse content