Charles Kennedy’s tragic death occurred while I was on holiday. That was reason enough for my silence on this blog. But also, I wanted to pen a more critical appraisal of his time as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Such was the esteem in which he was held, and such the shock of his death, that any hint of criticism, especially from within the Lib Dem family, would not have gone down the right way. I hope that things are now a bit more settled.
But first I must pay my own tribute to Charles Kennedy. What impresses me most about his politics, looking back on it, is the absence of tribal rancour. When the SDP was formed in 1981, part of its idealism was the wish to move beyond the tribal nature of British politics. tribalism means the imperative of politicians to paint their opponents as evil and corrupted. Of course this tribal hatred serves to cover weaknesses and divisions in your own side. It stifles true political debate. Our party generally has failed to live up to this ideal – but Charles was an exception. And that was one the reasons that he was so widely liked, across the political spectrum and by the general public. For this achievement, I hold his memory in huge respect. I also enjoyed his quick, self-deprecating humour, and the firmness of his core political convictions.
And on another issue I feel the need to speak out. Charles’s critics on the left have suggested that his stand on the Iraq War was reluctant, and in one case “fraudulent”. And indeed to many anti-war campaigners, he did appear reluctant initially. But such campaigners have little idea of the pressures put on the man by the mainstream political establishment at the time. His advisers were pointing to some kind of meaningless triangulation which would allow him to be on both sides at once. And when he did finally make his stand, criticism from within the establishment was fierce – for a respectable political party not to be fully behind the troops in a war was considered the height of bad form. Charles deserves all the credit he is given on the issue.
My issue with Charles was with his leadership, from 1999 to early 2006. This may seem a bit strange. The two elections he fought in 2001 and 2005 were successful for the party – increasing its number of MPs. We know that this is not to be taken for granted. I had two issues. The first was that he seemed a bit “lazy” – not as active engaging with the party’s activists as he should have been. This may have been related to his illness, of course. But amongst many activists he was seen as “one of them” – part of the the out of touch and cosy Westminster establishment, seen by some as overly compliant to corporate lobbying. Nick Clegg, his effective successor (the intervening leadership of Ming Campbell did not last long) was much better on this score, though he got little credit from the activists.
But a much greater problem for me was the way the party’s policies evolved, especially at general elections, on his watch. This has been characterised as “being to the left of Labour” – and indeed one left-wing Labour MP, Brian Sedgemoor, did defect to the party. As Tony Blair’s New Labour adopted a series of policies described as “neoliberal” or “centrist”, depending on your point of view, there was a gap in the political market amongst former Labour supporters. Charles Kennedy’s Lib Dems benefited a lot from this. But to me the policies appeared not so much left-wing, but muddled and incoherent. It seemed to be wish list of things designed to appeal to these new supporters. We started offering lots of “free” things – university education, personal care for the elderly. Policies that were designed to address real gaps in the way the country was run, local income tax or political reform generally, were progressively downplayed. I actually though the party’s 2005 election manifesto was a disgrace. The impression was not unlike that of the Green Party in this year’s election. The Greens seem to have lost interest in global warming and the environment, in order to bang on about the evils of austerity, and offer free everything from the state. That too has done their initial electoral standing no harm.
This proved popular for a time, but led to the question of what it was, exactly, that the Liberal Democrats were for. For Charles’s predecessor, Paddy Ashdown, the party stood for political reform firstly, and improving education after that. He saw that the way to do this was to work with Labour, preferably in coalition. But to Charles such a stance got in the way of picking up Labour voters. He quickly dropped Paddy’s regular meetings with Labour – though these were hardly popular from most of the Labour side. And the party picked up a ragbag of policies that would be nearly impossible to accomplish in coalition, with Labour or anybody else.
The problems became apparent in 2010 when the party had the opportunity to form coalition with the Conservatives, without the real choice of working with Labour. Such a coalition looked like treachery to these newer Lib Dem supporters, and they quickly deserted the party. And although Nick Clegg had made the party’s policies much more coalition-friendly, he had not succeeded in dropping the policy on free university tuition. Indeed a pledge not to increase tuition fees was the centrepiece of many constituency campaigns in 2010, encouraged by the central campaigns department. Such a pledge could not survive coalition, and the party’s reversal came to symbolise its insincerity in its bid for political influence. No doubt Charles foresaw these outcomes of his own legacy – and he opposed the coalition with the Conservatives. A coalition with Labour, had it been feasible, would hardly have been easier, though.
Which only takes the question back to what, on earth, is the party for? If it can’t actually achieve political power, what is the point? The party must wrestle with that question now. But the temptation will be to sidestep it. The prospect of power seems so distant now that many will like the idea of returning to Charles’s protest politics. I think that fails on two counts. Firstly it risks taking the party through the same old cycle. And secondly the Greens have stolen a march on it, and don’t have the party’s newly acquired baggage.
I think Paddy had it right. The party stands for liberal values (which, incidentally, Charles did care a lot about) in a way that the other parties do not. The party wants to change the political system in a liberal direction, especially with more devolution of political power, and more checks on the executive. I also think that the party should be at the forefront of developing new ideas of economics and public services based on more distributed power. We need to develop and sell implementable policies on these issues. And we need to work with Labour and the Greens where we can. I am not clear on where the SNP or Plaid Cymru fit into the picture, though. The party needs to channel frustration with the political system, and the slowness of Labour to embrace genuine political and economic reform.
Charles Kennedy was a great man, and his loss is indescribably sad. We should remember the many lovely things he brought to British politics. But the Liberal Democrats should not attempt to repeat his political strategy.