I'm obviously not the first person to ask that question. Given their current difficulties, it's fairly topical. Personally, I'm not naive enough to think that they will ever form a government under the FPTP voting system. In fact, there's every chance that their 62 seats in the current parliament will be the highpoint from which they can only fall off. At the same time, it's worth pointing out that I thought much the same when Charlie won 52 seats in 2001, and I was certain of it when Paddy Ashdown retired when the party had 46 seats. Will the next parliament have more Lib Dem MPs than this one? It looks extremely unlikely at this stage but stranger things have undoubtedly happened.
They're obviously not going to be the largest party though and will, therefore, not supply the next Prime Minister (unless something truly bizarre happens). So, what is the point of the Liberal Democrats? This is a rough and ready guide to what I think it should be.
At the most basic level, they represent voters. Nearly 6 million of them in this parliament. Every time Labour and Tory MPs jeer a Liberal Democrat MP in the Commons as if they were a minor irritant of little or no relevance, they jeer all those people who voted for them. Due to the ridiculous FPTP system, this isn't a problem for Labour or the Tories but it is a problem for democracy. The system means that the views of almost a quarter of UK voters are consistently marginalised and under-represented.
In such a circumstance, the Liberal Democrats are faced with a very difficult task. They are the only party which genuinely promotes liberal values and the preservation of civil liberties but they are disproportionaly outnumbered by MPs from the big two parties. New Labour are certainly strangers to liberalism and the Tories are always prone to a bit of good old fashioned Daily Mail style nannying. So, the basic point of the Liberal Democrats is to represent the nearly 6 million people in this country who believe that the government should keep it's nose out of our business unless they can provide a very good reason as to why they should. That is, I think, what they should focus on.
Now they've been struggling with that recently. They need to find a consistent direction for the party and the friction between the beardie weardies and the Tory boys has been causing a bit of a problem. To my mind, the only solution is to go relatively neutral on economic policy.* Perhaps a policy of reducing the tax burden on the poorest section of society by promising to cut back on New Labour spending on authoritarian silliness would be a good starting point.
The other point of the Liberal Democrats, in my view, should be to promote the death of FPTP. It's a stupid system. A proportional system is what's needed. (FPTP = stability proponents should take this quiz.) Nationally, each Liberal Democrat MP represents 96,481 voters. Each Labour MP represents 26,859 voters. This is fair how exactly? The Liberal Democrats should make that point at every opportunity. Sure, it's in their own self-interest but it's also in the interest of actual democracy. They could use "Freedom and Democracy" as their slogan.
If a proportional system were to be introduced, of course, the Liberal Democrats would have a lot more points and 22% of the voting public's views would no longer be grossly under-represented in parliament. For that, what we really need is a hung parliament. Current long term predictions suggest it's a good possibility in the next parliament.
That'd obviously be a nightmare scenario for the traitors at the Scum. They need a clear winner to back. Making friends and influencing people is much harder when it's not immediately obvious who it is you need to befriend and influence. A third party just confuses the issue still further. (On the offchance that any Lib Dem MPs are reading this, you may want to check your closets now. You can, I think, be fairly sure that Murdoch's minions will be doing so shortly. Who outed Hughes again?**)
Anyway, that is, I think, the point of the Liberal Democrats. They are advocates for freedom and democracy. Now, sort yourselves out and get on with it please.
* Not my own choice, I'd prefer an attempt to reduce the tax burden on the poorest section of society (by passing that burden on to the richest section if necessary). And no, I don't think that this sort of redistribution is illiberal. The tax system is government intervention and we can't realistically abolish it. It is, in my view, a flawed system in that it places a disproportionate burden on the poorest in society. That needs to be addressed. And I do understand the low tax/high growth argument. This isn't about the overall level of tax though, it's about how a given level of tax is collected.
** On that subject, an interview with the Scums political editor is available here (via). In it, you can hear Trevor's witty justification for use of the phrase "another one bites the pillow" on the front page of a national newsaper. Very amusing.
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