Monday, 26 November 2007

Liberals: Doomed to Defections?

Has Liberalism lost its way? Certainly defections from the Lib Dem to Conservative Camp this week suggest something is amiss´at the heart of liberal democracy. But is the change of heart by Jean Pierre Cavada, chairman of the European Parliament's influential Civil Liberties Committe and Lib Dem Sajjad Karim, indicative of an ideological loss of confidence or simply the fear of electoral failure?

In the case of both men, the temptation to join forces with a revived conservatism just before the elections may simply have been too great. Certainly Saj Karim's distant second place on the Lib Dem list behind Chris Davies MEP was a sting that was hard to ignore. Harder still may be the brute electoral facts. At Lib Dem conference in Brighton his aides talked openly about the unlikelihood of having both men re-elected in 2009 when the party's share of the vote is expected to fall sharply. Cavada, fighting for a municipal seat in the 2nd arrondissement in Paris, clearly feels that Bayrou has lost his way and is putting his faith in the winning side.

But is this the same as idelogical disintegration, as Karim alleges? I think not. It is true that both the MODEM and Lib Dems have found it difficult to steer their parties' priorities of late, but that is due in large part to the opposing currents - and therefore factions - inherent in Liberalism rather than an ideological loss of nerve. Indeed, just as the Labour and Tory parties have undergone periods of introspection in recent years to resolve internal disputes over the place of market liberalisation or attitudes towards Europe, Liberals, who perhaps over-emphasised their unity over the last decade, now need to do the same with regards to the economic/social liberal divide.

Even then, I don't believe the gulf is as big as the media suggests. Huhne and Clegg's appearance on Question Time was memorable, if at all, for the remarkable similarity of their positions which led one viewer to ask 'How can we tell you apart'? The Calamity Clegg incident days later may have been bad publicity but it wasn't really based on policy divergence either, although you could argue that Huhne is the ideological leader and Clegg the follower. If this leadership contest is the sign of a party in ideological crisis, then what standards do we set for unity?

It may not be the best time for Liberals in Europe, with convergence to the centre by both socialists and conservatives squeezing our vote. But that does not mean we are an irrelevance. Our battles will be fought on the issues, the ideological issues, that the other parties neglect or tacitly consent on in their quest for electoral dominance. Whether it is the security state , abdication of human rights , euroscepticism, warmongering, scaremongering over immigrants, or nuclear rearmament beloved of left and right we will be there offering voters choice, where otherwise none would exist.

The Liberal Democrats, whatever their faults, have at their heart an ethos of internationalism, openness, environmental sustainability and respect for fundamental rights that the other parties, whatever their propaganda, simply do not share.

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