Leading article: We need a strong liberal voice in politics

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The Independent Online

After the defenestration of Sir Menzies Campbell earlier this month, a mood of despondency settled on the Liberal Democrats, as well it might considering that the party had ditched its second leader in the space of 20 months and continues to languish in the polls. Indeed, some have even gone so far as to question whether there is space for a genuinely liberal force in British politics? The answer is an unequivocal yes.

Consider the political events dominating the news yesterday. Firstly, there was the controversy surrounding the Saudi Arabian state – and the admirably principled stand taken by Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat's acting leader, in boycotting a banquet thrown for the visiting royal despot. In a move that underlined the surprisingly sure touch he has demonstated in the role, he alone among the major party leaders pointed out that it was wrong to roll out the red carpet for a leader of a corrupt, barbaric and repressive regime.

Then there was the speech by David Cameron, in which the Conservative leader attempted to draw a spurious link between family breakdown and immigration rates. This, along with Gordon Brown's oft- repeated mantra of "British workers for British jobs'" shows the need for a party prepared to stand up against the forces of fear and prejudice.

The Liberal Democrats will always find fertile ground in defending civil liberties. Mr Brown's speech on liberty last week was encouraging in its stated desire to roll back some of the recent incursions of the state into private life. But for all his fine talk, the Prime Minister signalled there will be no reversal of the Government's plans to introduce ID cards, or to extend police powers to hold suspects without charge.

Additionally, there is worrying evidence that both Labour and the Conservatives are backsliding on their commitments on climate change too, despite all the green rhetoric bandied around Westminster.

These are all areas where the Liberal Democrats should be shaping the political agenda. In fairness,they have not been silent on these matters. At their party conference last month, Mr Clegg pushed through a bold plan for an "earned amnesty" for those irregular workers who have been in Britain for at least a decade. And Mr Huhne was responsible for devising the party's "green tax switch" last year, a watered down version of which has been adopted by the Conservatives.

But, as we report today, the Liberal Democrats continue to lag in the polls. Our poll of polls shows them registering 16 per cent of the national vote, substantially below the 23 per cent they won in 2005. This slump is not entirely the party's own fault. The revival of the Conservative Party under Mr Cameron has eroded the Liberal Democrats' support. The departure of Tony Blair as Labour leader has also removed one of the main sources of the party's recent popularity. But it is also the case that the Liberal Democrats have been failing to get their message across.

They need to find new ways of demonstrating where they stand on civil liberties and the environment. We also need to hear more radical thinking on matters such as health and education, two areas where policy has long been rather opaque. The party has also seemed dangerously in thrall to the providers of public services at times.

Mr Clegg was right to argue yesterday that the party has been too inward-looking in recent years. Now is the time to forget the trauma of recent months and to begin to sell the party's values to the wider public. Whoever wins the leadership contest, there has rarely been a greater need for liberalism.

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