Are the Lib Dems still relevant?

THE Liberal Democrats today ditched their long held "socially responsible" tax and spend policy in an attempt to tell voters the party is on their side during the difficult economic times.

Graham Dines

THE Liberal Democrats today ditched their long held "socially responsible" tax and spend policy in an attempt to tell voters the party is on their side during the difficult economic times.

In Bournemouth today, EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES went in search of an answer to the question: Do the Liberal Democrats have any relevance in these recession-hit times?

IT wasn't just Labour which benefitted from the meltdown of the Conservative Party in the mid-1990s. Labour may have swept into office, but the Liberal Democrats also gained dozens of MPs as Tory voters looked for an alternative in the post-Thatcher era.


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And at the 2005 election, Lib Dems were able to mop up seats in Labour's urban heartlands in a campaign dominated by the fall out from the invasion of Iraq.

But today, it's all change in UK politics. Under Gordon Brown, Labour has staggered from one disaster to another.

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In danger of becoming the most unpopular Prime Minister of all time, Mr Brown has seen his party's and his own poll ratings slump to historic lows while the Conservatives have surged ahead after a decade of slumbering in opposition.

But the decline of Labour has not been matched by any significant rise in support for the Liberal Democrats. As they sacked not just one leader but two in the last three years - Charles Kennedy and Sir Ming Campbell - they have been outflanked by David Cameron who is making all the running as a prime minister in waiting.

Their new leader Nick Clegg has not been exactly earth-shattering. If the man in the street could name any Lib Dem MP, it's likely he'd come up with Vince Cable, who was acting leader during the last interregnum.

Nobody knows if Gordon Brown will survive until the next election, whenever that is called. As the groundswell of worried Labour MPs grows, the party could be heading for the equivalent of a Margaret Thatcher or an Iain Duncan Smith moment.

Remember 1990, when the Tories panicked over the poll tax and toppled the Iron Lady? And 13 years later, when an underperforming Duncan Smith was shown the door after a rebellion by MPs initially conducted in the columns of the national media?

If Brown is not to suffer the same humiliation as Margaret Thatcher, he has a matter of weeks to somehow restore Labour's confidence.

Depending on which opinion poll you read, the Conservatives are enjoying a lead over Labour of around 20%, enough to send Cameron to Downing Street with a parliamentary majority of more than 100.

Yet the Lib Dems are hovering around the 20% mark and although they talk up the prospects of capturing Labour seats in regions where the Tories have been traditionally weak - the north-east, north-west and Scotland - they appear to be going backwards in southern England, where they won seats as dissident Tories decided they were a safer haven for their protests than the Labour Party.

The Liberal Democrats are, of course, eternal optimists. But even the most robust and gung-ho of their strategists must have blanched when they failed to make any impact in the by-elections at Crewe & Nantwich and Henley earlier this year.

It was the Tories who emerged the stronger, following their sweeping success in council elections and seeing their London mayoral candidate Boris Johnson win an astonishing million-plus v votes mandate in the capital.

So it's make or break for the Liberal Democrat. Nick Clegg, when he speaks to the Lib Dem conference on its closing day on Wednesday, must stand up and be counted. The party as a whole must demonstrate that it is able to jettison long standing policies and move with the times.

So will the Liberal Democrats still be in the reckoning come the General Election or will they be squeezed by the Tory revival.

In Bournemouth yesterday, I gathered some of the party's East of England parliamentary candidates together to discuss how confident they were of doing well, both personally as well as the party nationally.

David Chappell, who contested Bury St Edmunds in 2005 and who will be tackling the seat again, pointed out that Labour's vote had fallen from 15,000 in the last General Election to just 4,700 in the local elections.

"Yes we have a real chance of beating the sitting Tory in Bury," says Mr Chappell. "Labour's support in the constituency has collapsed and if we harvest those voters and expose the Tories' lack of policies on housing and the rising cost of living, we could be heading for victory.

"We are relevant today both regionally and nationally."

Stephen Robinson, who has twice stood in Chelmsford West, believes the change in the boundaries will help him win the new seat of Chelmsford.

"We did a survey recently on cutting the tax burden and for the building of more affordable homes. We called it `Stephen Robinson's fair deal for Chelmsford' and received more than 1,000 replies from people energised by the campaign.

"There is huge disillusion with Labour, but no great enthusiasm for the Conservative," says Mr Robinson, who believes Tory voters do not like David Cameron because they don't know what he stands for.

"Pull all this together, and you have the basis for a Liberal Democrat gain in Chelmsford."

Simon Wright, who will be trying to unseat one of Gordon Brown's fiercest critics - former Home Secretary Charles Clarke - in Norwich South, says Labour will lose because people feel they've been betrayed.

"Voters have been encouraged to borrow by a Government which has itself borrowed heavily, and now they find themselves deep in debt.

"In Norwich South, the Lib Dems are just 3,000 votes behind Charles Clarke. Tory voters there who want to get rid of this Labour government will back us."

To the party's East of England chairman Paul Clark, the next election will see two centre-right parties - the Tories and Labour - offering the "same old promises" against the Lib Dems, "the only party which offers social justice."

"Before much longer, David Cameron will have to come out and offer real policies instead of the vague promises he spouts now. When he does, people see that only the Lib Dems will be able to them solid help on a range of polices."

To Mr Robinson, there's another reason to be optimistic. "The more people see of Nick Clegg, they more they like time. When he gets prime time television exposure during an election campaign, his ratings and the party's will go up in leaps and bounds."

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