Spin, deception and why the voters don't want to 'trust Tony' any more

'I am increasingly asked whether I am making veiled attacks on my predecessor, Mr Ashdown'
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It's a shocking truth, but more people have voted in recent Big Brother polls than voted in the European elections. That tells you a lot about the interests of the broad British public - and it says that TV is of more interest than politics for a substantial part of the population.

It's a shocking truth, but more people have voted in recent Big Brother polls than voted in the European elections. That tells you a lot about the interests of the broad British public - and it says that TV is of more interest than politics for a substantial part of the population.

There is a crisis in British politics at the moment. Ken Livingstone used to say that if voting changed anything, "they" would abolish it. The fuel crisis is a clear sign that some frustrated people are starting to feel that direct action offers the best chance to shift government. As Europe becomes ever more unified, people are learning more and more from the politics of our neighbours.

For many, conventional politics is too slow, too cumbersome and too blurred to make any impact on their daily lives. Part of the blame for that rests squarely on the shoulders of politicians. I am not just talking about the sleaze that was a feature of the last government, or the spin that is a feature of the present one - though neither has helped. Rather, I am concerned that politics doesn't seem to be inspiring enough to most voters. "What's the point?" they ask. Too often, the answer is lacking.

That's one reason why I have taken time to set out some of my basic principles in a book out this week: The Future of Politics. I am genuinely concerned that politics may not have a future unless politicians inject some idealism into it. For me, that means setting out the Liberal Democrat philosophy of freedom more clearly than we have done in recent years, making it clear that our policies on schools, hospitals, pensions and the environment stem from a passionate belief in furthering individual freedom.

I am now increasingly asked whether, in doing so, I am making a veiled attack on my predecessor, Paddy Ashdown. Am I saying he didn't talk about principles enough? Am I saying that he was too close to Labour? Not at all. Paddy was an inspiring leader who delivered much from his co-operation with Labour.

Since I was elected leader last year, the joint consultative committee that Paddy set up between the Liberal Democrats and the Government has met twice, and we have made a contribution to European reform and made a significant impact on the Government's UN policy. I think it is fair to say that the committee is meeting less often now than it did at first. However, it is also fair to say that the reason for that is very simple - there is less need for it to meet and less to discuss. Many of the constitutional matters that were put on the agenda after the election have been both discussed and acted on - such as devolution in Scotland and Wales.

Circumstances have changed in the past few years, and the party is responding to changes in British politics. I think there have been three principal developments.

First, the agenda for further constitutional reform has run into sandy ground. Labour is very resistant both to the cause of English regionalism, and to moving rapidly on electoral reform. While I have no intention of ending our meetings with ministers and arguing the case for further reforms, it is now clear that the extent to which we can make such co-operation our major concern is extremely limited. That means talking far more about our own principles, so that we are not seen as relevant only in terms of our relationship with the Government.

The second change is that there has been a dramatic reduction in trust in Labour. "Trust me, I'm Tony" simply doesn't apply in the same way as it did in 1997. What once looked like good presentation is now more often seen as spinning - for which read "deception". Remember that Prime Ministerial memo? The PM set forth his concerns "that the British Government - and this even applies to me - are somehow out of touch with gut British instincts", and then set out plans for policy wheezes aimed purely at winning image battles and having nothing to do with good government. That makes it all the more necessary for the Liberal Democrats to set out an honest agenda, saying where we wish to improve public services and how that spending will be paid for.

The third development in the past year or so is in many ways the most important. It's the complete failure of William Hague's Conservative Party to make any significant progress in the public mind as a real potential government. As our newest MP, Sandra Gidley, proved at the Romsey by-election earlier this year, a Liberal Democrat agenda that proposes significant and honest public investment, paid for by taxation, is popular with Conservatives, who care just as much about their local schools and hospitals as supporters of any other party. I do not believe that William Hague's party offers any sort of political home to "caring Conservatives".

Proportional representation is, some say, a Liberal Democrat obsession, because it is in our party interests. Well, it is. But it is also in the interests of democracy. It is about fairness, and Liberal Democrats, rightly, are primarily obsessed with fairness.

I do not intend to get bogged down in the theology of the different types of PR. Some can be obsessed by them, to an extent that makes counting angels dancing on a pin-head seem like a matter of simple arithmetic. What is more important is to make the case for the principle of PR. To explain why PR is good for everyone and to keep the pressure up for a referendum on voting reform. On health, education, pensions, the environment and Europe, we are now making an appeal to people who have traditionally supported the Conservatives, but who now find William Hague's approach difficult to stomach.

I am extremely ambitious for the Liberal Democrats, for two solid reasons. First, I believe that we have the right analysis of the problems in the body politic and how they can be cured, and our recent excellent poll showing confirms that the public is responding to our messages. Second, I am convinced that we will secure the opportunity to put these beliefs into governmental action. 2001? There's all to play for, and increasingly, there's a distinctive, strong Liberal Democrat team on the field.

The writer is leader of the Liberal Democrats