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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

 

The plot thickens

The reasons for Charles Kennedy's decision to trash systematically the reputation of his party's conference (see yesterday's posting) are becoming clearer.

Today's
Guardian reports,

The Lib Dem leader has appointed pro-market "Orange Book" MPs as key spokespeople, in time for the major policy overhaul he announced last week.
Today's Independent adds,

Charles Kennedy shifted his Liberal Democrat Party to the right by promoting young Turks who espouse the politics of free-market liberalism.
This Liberal Democrat reshuffle is more of symbolic importance than anything else. Taken at face value, it does rather have a ring of "And tonight Matthew, I'm going to be a shadow cabinet minister" about it.

But if party policy is in future to be made by a cabal of MPs rather than the democratic institutions of the party, it helps to have 'sound' people in position.

The symbolism of portfolio allocations was evident in the transfer of Ed Davey from the ODPM portfolio to education. On paper, it looks like a promotion or at least nothing worse than a sideways move. But someone has been spinning to the press that Davey's transfer is some sort of punishment for masterminding the policy on local income tax.

Local income tax could not have become a major plank in the Liberal Democrat manifesto without the enthusiastic endorsement of the party leader and a majority of the MPs. And it wasn't Davey's fault that Kennedy famously forgot the details of this policy. So who could have any motive for scapegoating Davey? A rival to succeed Kennedy as party leader, perhaps? Who could that be, I wonder?

Meanwhile, those Liberal Democrat MPs from the social liberal wing of the party, who believed Kennedy could be trusted as a 'neutral' figure in the party's internal battles, have quite obviously been taken for a ride. Hadn't they noticed the extent to which their party is being run by the SDP?

It would be a mistake to assume the Liberal Democrats' right-wingers are a unified group. There remains a distinction between MPs such as Vincent Cable and David Laws, who have an essentially economic agenda, and the Mark Oaten/Liberal Future clique, who seem more concerned with espousing authoritarianism.

These divisions are evident in the briefing and counter-briefing that must have gone on to produce the
leader in today's Times, which attacks Charles Kennedy's close ally, Lord Razzall, while talking up Mark Oaten as a future leader. Incidentally, the Times's notion that Oaten is "capable of making a case to the membership" is comical.

Despite their personal rivalries, the strategy of the party's right-wingers is now clear. They could never hope to get their whole policy agenda through a party conference, certainly not in one sitting. And the centralisation of power they want would require changes to the party constitution, which can be made only by the party conference.

The conference has proved generally supine during the Liberal Democrats' 17-year history. On the rare occasions it has rebelled (such as the proposal to elect nominees for life peerages), the party leader has shown that he can simply ignore it. Nevertheless, it is the one remaining obstacle to the right's goals. It is therefore imperative for them to break what little power the conference has.

If you're a member of the Liberal Democrats, maybe you're happy with the thought of becoming a foot soldier in someone else's army, with no rights and no say. Perhaps you're content for all the key decisions to be made by a small clique of MPs, while you get on with delivering their leaflets.

If not, then you should realise that this September's party conference will probably be the last chance party members have to fight back and retain any vestige of control over their party. There's just one snag - you will have to spend a week in Blackpool.

Holding the conference in Blackpool, a grim venue that most party members would rather avoid, looks like a stroke of political genius. The Liberal Democrat right-wingers are not that clever. For them, it is just a stroke of good luck.

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