Monday, May 17, 2010

Charles Kennedy and the realignment of the centre-left

Charles Kennedy wrote an article for yesterday's Observer explaining why he abstained in the Liberal Democrats' vote to approve the coalition deal with the Conservatives. He wrote that last week's events:

drive a strategic coach and horses through the long-nurtured "realignment of the centre-left" to which leaders in the Liberal tradition, this one included, have all subscribed since the Jo Grimond era. It is hardly surprising that, for some of us at least, our political compass currently feels confused.

And that really encapsulates the reasons why I felt personally unable to vote for this outcome when it was presented to Liberal Democrat parliamentarians.

I was puzzled when I read this, because I do not recall much emphasis on the "realignment of the centre-left" during Charles Kennedy's leadership.

And my memory seems correct, because I wrote as follows for Comment is Free in September 2006:

When Kennedy stood for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in 1999, the West Highland Free Press - a radical newspaper published in his own constituency - remarked that people in London were beginning to ask what it had been asking for 15 years: what exactly does Charles Kennedy stand for?

Though he won that contest and went on to lead the party for nearly seven years, we never really found out.

Today Liberal Vision questioned Charles's presentation of himself as a proponent of the realignment on the left even further. In an article for them Andy Meyer points out:

whilst in office Charles Kennedy showed remarkably little interest in co-operation with Labour. Quite the opposite. He ended the informal Joint Consultative Committee (a stool to Blair’s sofa government) set up by Paddy Ashdown, and made a number of moves to reach out to the centre-right.

Where that was concerned, early in his leadership, Kennedy worked closely with Mark Oaten. Oaten set up two vehicles. Liberal Future which made the liberal case for markets in public service delivery and the Peel Group which provided contact and comfort for former Conservatives. He spoke frequently and approvingly at meetings of both. Several of his key advisers were market liberals.

Branding of the party’s position under Kennedy referred invariably to being the ‘real alternative’ or ‘real opposition’ to both the Labour government and Conservatives. This not obvious evidence of a grand ‘progressive’ project.

So you could be forgiven for concluding that Charles had other reasons for not backing the coalition and for making his dissent from it so public.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's not quite the whole story: true, LibDems' understandable need to show distinctiveness from Labour has been a hindrance to the "realignment" project at least since the 1980s, when the then Alliance was seen by many as maintaining Thatcher in power by draining off traditionally Labour votes. But the party's initial opposition to the Iraq invasion was a remarkable break with a political tradition that had remained intact with Suez, and one surely consistent with appealing to the left ground.

In the wider sense, it's not just Kennedy who had problems fixing on a course and navigating a way to extend the party's appeal deep into rivals' electorates. LibDems still face the problem that you don't appeal to a competitor's supporters by attacking it, and you may lose as many as you gain by allying with it. It's all very well for the other parties: they can count on directing most of their fire against each other while seeming measured in their criticism of the one in the middle. But LibDems have yet to find a way out of their predicament, and whatever its pros and cons, the present coalition isn't it except to the extent that electoral reform can deliver the seats so far denied it.

- Dave P