Radical ideas and the real Opposition

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The Independent Online

The remarks by Peter Hain, the leader of the House of Commons, regarding the Liberal Democrats are the clearest indication yet that Charles Kennedy's party is making real progress. Mr Hain claims that if people vote Liberal Democrat in the next general election they could split the progressive vote and let in a Tory government "through the back door", as he puts it. This is intended as a wake-up call to disaffected Labour voters who have flirted with the Lib Dems in recent years.

Mr Hain would do better to focus his attention on the reasons why people are increasingly turning to the Lib Dems, rather than dangling the prospect of a Tory government in front of them in the hope of frightening them back into the Labour fold. The Liberal Democrats' stance on the invasion of Iraq is an obvious area for study. Alone among the major parties, they opposed the invasion and pressed for UN weapons inspectors to be given more time to complete their job. Since this was the view of much of the British public, it is little wonder the party has since done well at the ballot box.

Then there are the party's domestic policies. Its financial team, made up of Vincent Cable and David Laws, has put together a compelling critique of the Government's stewardship of the economy. Mr Hain has attempted to portray such ideas as Thatcherite, seizing on a new book in which a wholescale restructuring of the National Health Service is suggested. But it is arguably such radical thinking which voters find attractive. Along with a humane attitude to asylum-seekers, it is what sets the Liberal Democrats apart as the truly progressive party in British politics at the moment.

Mr Kennedy and his party can draw pride from the fact that a key government figure views them as more of a threat than the Conservatives. This certainly rings true. The Tories have failed to fulfil their duties as the official Opposition for some time, and over Iraq, it was unquestionably the Liberal Democrats who adopted the role. Perhaps Mr Hain, and the Tories for that matter, ought to consider that the reason why people are increasingly inclined to favour the Lib Dems is because they respect what they stand for.

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