Leading article: Lib Dems add electoral spice

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The Independent Online
You could be forgiven for thinking that only two parties - Labour and the Conservatives - are fighting today's local elections. You might also assume that just one issue matters: will Tony Blair's resurgent party hand out such a hammering to the Tories that John Major is fatally wounded, along with Conservative hopes for the General Election?

Such conclusions would, however, be mistaken. First, today's poll will almost certainly not be the Prime Minister's Waterloo. As the Tory losses are totted up, probably in their thousands, the doom merchants will ply their trade. Plots will be hatched to unseat the leader. But most right- thinking Tories have anticipated a humiliating defeat and have little appetite for further infighting. Realists believe that Mr Major, for all his inadequacies, will maximise whatever slim chance the Tories still have of getting out of their present mess. In short, the Conservatives will face the same problems tomorrow as they did yesterday: how to restore unity, develop a sense of direction and seize the political limelight through a combination of tax cuts and Euro-sceptical polemic.

The image of a two-horse race is quite wrong because it neglects the Liberal Democrats. Paddy Ashdown's runners and riders should today be crossing the finishing line in impressive numbers. They can reasonably hope to build on their position as Britain's third largest party, with more than 4,600 local councillors, 23 MPs and two members of the European Parliament. They do of course have a fight on their hands. In the South, the Labour Party seeks to restore its fortunes among inhabitants of Middle England who have latterly turned from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats. And in the northern conurbations, Labour councillors from Liverpool to Sheffield hope that the Blair factor will beat off the Liberal Democrat advance. Should it falter, observers will be quick to announce the beginning of the end for Paddy Ashdown's party.

It is important for British politics that the Liberal Democrats put up a good show today. The party's sense of identity may be problematic now that Labour has become a bolder and more innovative force. But only a fool could believe New Labour to be so transformed that the Liberal Democrats are rendered redundant. Britain's third party is more than just a pale imitation of its rivals. It is, after all, an organisation that has consistently led the way in advocating constitutional reform, the value of community, decentralisation and making education a priority.

The two major parties would perhaps like to see it so squeezed that the Tories could rule the South unchallenged while Labour maintained a northern hegemony. In the face of a tendency towards one-party fiefdoms, the Liberal Democrats retain a vital role in cleaning up after years of complacency at a local level, whether the guilty be the Tories or Labour. Their task on councils and in Parliament is to champion honest, efficient, pragmatic government, while heralding high-minded themes such as democracy and liberal values.

As British political discourse focuses exclusively on Blair and Major, a firm Liberal Democrat voice continues to be welcome.