Lib Dems facing classic election squeeze

LIBERAL Democrats gather in Brighton this weekend, reassuring themselves that they are on the brink of a major breakthrough.They always do. But over the years, the Lib Dems have had false dawn after false dawn.

By Graham Dines

LIBERAL Democrats gather in Brighton this weekend, reassuring themselves that they are on the brink of a major breakthrough.

They always do.

But over the years, the Lib Dems have had false dawn after false dawn. They sniff success, but it turns out to be little more than the scent of a bonfire of lost vanities.

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Yes, in the past three general elections in which Labour has dominated the political landscape, they have seen a rise in the number of MPs elected. Initially this was down to the unpopularity of the Conservatives - last time, hostility to the Iraq led many Labour voters to switch their allegiance.

But until and unless the voting system is changed from first-past-the-post to proportional representation, their hopes will always be just hopes.

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The electoral system in Britain is stacked against third and minor parties. Unfair as it might be, there is little hope of any change unless there is a hung parliament and one of the big two parties is forced into coalition with the Lib Dems.

At the next election, the party faces a classic electoral squeeze. The rejuvenated Conservatives under David Cameron are ahead in the opinion polls. Labour will have a new leader and two years to establish himself before facing the voters.

In the 2005 election, the Lib Dems increased the number of MPs to 62. Since then they have won the Dunfermline & West Fife by-election from Labour in Gordon Brown's back yard and ran the Tories close in Bromley & Chislehurst.

But this year's set of local government elections, with the exception of a couple of outstanding results in London boroughs, was only average. The Lib Dems will have to be on top form if they are to do well next May, when the English rural shire districts will be holding their quadrennial elections.

So in Brighton this week, it will be important for the Lib Dems to put on a unified show of support for Sir Menzies `Ming' Campbell, elected in March to succeed the popular Charles Kennedy who lost his battle with the booze.

Mr Kennedy remains hugely popular among the party activists, many of whom were furious at the behind-the-scenes Westminster coup which forced him out of office because of concerns over his alcohol addiction.

Mr Kennedy will be sure of a rousing reception when he speaks at conference. And although he won't be out to embarrass his successor, there is bound to be a parallel drawn between the speeches of Mr Kennedy and Sir Ming.

Much will be made next week of the launch of the party's environment campaign, with the claim “The Liberal Democrats will switch off climate chaos by switching to green taxes” - a cut in income tax offset by green taxes of pollution and carbon emissions.

Liberal Democrat Euro MP Andrew Duff, a key supporter of Campbell during the leadership election, says the Brighton conference will be Sir Ming's first chance to print his authority on the party.

“We are looking forward to his distancing himself from Labour's disastrous foreign policy and military adventurism. He needs also to expose the emptiness of David Cameron's Tory `revival,'” says Mr Duff.

“The Lib Dems remain Britain's only European party and we are committed to strengthening local government and to creating a fairer democracy where seats won at Westminster will match votes cast in the ballot box.

“We are pioneering a big reform of tax policy, switching the burden of taxation away from jobs and on to the environment.”

Sir Ming tells his party in a forward to the conference directory: “We Liberal Democrats are faced with a great opportunity.

“We are the party that is serious about power. Unlike the Tories, we don't have to reinvent ourselves and unlike Labour, we don't have to shore up a crumbling edifice.”

It's probably churlish of me to suggest that the Lib Dems exist because they reinvented Liberalism, which was indeed a crumbling edifice.

But back to Sir Ming.

“It is the Liberal Democrats who are naturally closest to the values of the British people - who want a government that promotes freedom and choice, challenges unfairness, attacks injustice, and confronts prejudice.

“But we must convert this natural affinity into actual results.”

He says the Brighton conference will be important in terms of shaping the Lib Dem agenda for the rest of this parliament in readiness for contesting the next election. He wants next week to be “qualitatively different, not just in how it looks but in the experience it provides” for all party members who attend.

When those party activists return to their constituencies at the end of next week, they must look beyond the forthcoming local elections to the distant general election and work out how to stop ex-Tories returning to the natural home they deserted in 1997 now that Mr Cameron has made Conservatism look human again, and how to hold on to traditional Labour voters who backed the Lib Dems last time because of disillusion with the Iraq war.

In the East of England, converting “natural affinity into actual results” will be a struggle. Even if they manage to hold on to their three MPs - Cambridge, Colchester, and Norfolk North - it's difficult to forecast any gains. They failed last time in Labour-held Watford, despite a near 13% swing, and the seat is now a three-way marginal with the Tories fancying their chances as well.

Three seats in Norfolk - Norwich North, Norwich South and the new Broadland constituency - will all be targets, as will Chelmsford where Tory MP Simon Burns has been the victim of unkind boundary changes. Yet polling experts believe the Lib Dems will fail in their ambitions.

Nobody ever said that politics was easy.

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