I will be voting Lib Dem at the next election - but negatively and with little enthusiasm

The party is cautious and uninspiring. It needs to be hot, conscious that the destiny of our country is at stake
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The Independent Online

I will be voting for the Liberal Democrats at the next election, of that I am sure. Why is harder to answer, though some reasons are obvious. They did not support the bloody and illegal Iraq war, which has made so many of us feel disempowered, enraged and ashamed of being British. Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi Prime Minister (an old friend of the CIA), arrived in the UK to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our PM in Downing Street yesterday, each propping up the other as their credibility diminishes.

I will be voting for the Liberal Democrats at the next election, of that I am sure. Why is harder to answer, though some reasons are obvious. They did not support the bloody and illegal Iraq war, which has made so many of us feel disempowered, enraged and ashamed of being British. Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi Prime Minister (an old friend of the CIA), arrived in the UK to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our PM in Downing Street yesterday, each propping up the other as their credibility diminishes.

Over this catastrophic year, New Labour apparatchiks have allowed themselves and their party to fall into international disrepute. In private, they confess disquiet; in public, like the most hopeless of intimidated wives, they stand by their man. Too many on the left of the party have become fatalistic; they tell me "Gordon has no balls" and "There is no one else who can lead the party." Oh and how terribly anguished they are.

Geoffrey Howe was more gutsy and honest when he turned on the destructive policies of Margaret Thatcher, and she didn't have all this blood on her hands. Through this sticky swamp of cowardice, Menzies Campbell has risen to become a most incisive and steadfast inquisitor who insistently (but politely) interrogates the ministers who took us to war.

On other issues which mean a lot to me - asylum, the EU, equality - the Lib Dems are not (yet) drifting to the right or stirring up petty nationalism. The late Roy Jenkins, one of our greatest post-war politicians, knew how to use political skills to promote universal ideals. A number of Lib Dems who are worthy inheritors of this legacy - Shirley Williams, Navnit Dholakia, Anthony Lester, Julia Neuberger, Evan Harris, Sarah Ludford, Simon Hughes, Lembit Opik and others - have excellent records on speaking up for progressive policies.

With Blair now promising that thousands more asylum-seekers will be forced back into peril, and the Tories asking for still more punishing measures, there is but one party if you care for the rights and plights of these wandering creatures. UKIP is a force the Lib Dems can ignore - the other two main parties will accommodate the visceral anti-European sentiments that riddle this land.

But most of all, it is the unswerving commitment to civil rights and liberties that draws people to this party, because both are under such severe assault from the forces of conservatism. How satisfying to see the right howling this week about the importance of minority rights and the "brutality" of the police during the pro-hunting demos. Now they are with the miners and black protesters hammered by the Tories and those of us who fear state power under the anti-terrorism legislation. Welcome.

Charles Kennedy is right to clamp down on right-wing mutterings from upstarts who want a change of direction as their annual conference begins today. If this party steals the used clothes of New Labour, which stole them from the Tories, it will make itself shabby, pathetic and irrelevant. Our democracy will become even more distorted, leaving millions of Britons with homeless votes.

It is plain for all to see, and good for our nation, that we are now a three-party democracy. You can feel the surge. I relish the possibility of the muddled and manic Tories sinking into third place. Lib Dems could just kick out David Davis, Oliver Letwin and even Michael Howard. If they do, I will feel again that ecstasy which came over so many of us when Michael Portillo was knocked out and Chris Patten too. Bliss.

New Labour plays hard, dirty politics in constituencies where it is vulnerable to the Lib Dems and yet the latter move inexorably up, as they did in the last two by-elections. The polls show them at about 25 per cent - the highest level for decades. For black and Asian voters and potential politicians, this finally does seem a party which welcomes them. For half a century, it seemed we had only one choice, which is no choice really. Most of us handed our votes over to Labour, then to New Labour which, to give it credit, went on to appoint an unprecedented number of black and Asian MPs, peers and ministers. Now, though, Mr Blair's insufferable arrogance, conservatism, and military madness have led to many of us seeking new hope in the Lib Dems.

So why, oh why do I not feel more excited, more enthusiastic, more positively a Lib Dem? It must be because the party is too pale beige, tremulous, cautious, uninspiring. It needs to come across as a stronger flavour; it needs to be hot, more conscious that the destiny of our country is at stake. And in this world of personalities the buck stops at Charles Kennedy.

True, he has lost that deadly lethargy, that look of boredom as if he would rather be playing with words on some witty television show. So pedestrian had he made himself that he is mentioned just twice, briefly, by David Stenhouse, the author of On The Make, a terrific book about the powerful Scots who have taken over London. But there is a new, tough glint in his eye, a growing awareness of possibilities. People like him because he is playful and modest. I like him because he is bright. Now he must force himself to develop the qualities of good leadership even if this feels false to a man who is utterly himself.

The trick Kennedy has to pull off is within his grasp. Vast numbers of Britons detest both the mendacious, messianic Blair and the sinister Howard. New Labour has indisputably improved the NHS and education; and the Tories are working up some good new ideas - David Willetts, for example, is beavering away to find solutions that could dramatically improve childcare provision for the poorest in this country. It is the men in charge who are proving to be a liability in both the ruling and main opposition party. They turn people off even if the policies appeal.

Blair once said about Pontius Pilate: "the intriguing thing about him is the degree to which he tried to do the good thing rather than the bad. He commands our moral attention not because he was a bad man but because he was so nearly a good man. It is a timeless parable of political life. Should we do what appears principled or what is politically expedient?"

Prescient, yes, and perhaps one of the few indicators of what goes on in the head and heart of Tony Blair. But there is a test and a lesson in this quote for Charles Kennedy too as he confronts his destiny.

He is so nearly a leader, almost a success. He too faces the same dilemma. Does he opt for ruthless expediency for the Lib Dems - the "tough liberalism" some like Mark Oaten are calling for? Or does he forcefully launch policies that are practical and sensible but which keep faith with the values and principles of his party and the enlightened in the world?

Tony Blair chose the former and betrayed the millions who once supported him. I hope Charles Kennedy chooses the second, and with previously unseen passion.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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