A little while ago, a fellow blogger asked for my thoughts on the Liberal Democrats as I seem to follow their fortunes closely, so I'll try to take my party political hat off for a while and let you have the benefit of my wisdom. No sniggering at the back, there.
At the core, the Liberal Democrats are oppositionists - that's their unique selling point and it is a tremendous political weapon for them. Their effectiveness depends upon building coalitions of tactical voters opposed to the current administration - hence their omnipresent graphs showing that only the Liberal Democrats can defeat the Tories/Labour (delete as appropriate). I'm not sure I buy Don Paskini's assertion that the natural vote for the LDs is around 2%, but he makes many good points in this analysis.
The party is famed for inconsistency and this drives activists from both the Tory and Labour party to distraction (one of the few occasions where we find common ground). The classic example locally, of course, is the selection of Nichola Davies as their parliamentary candidate in Hodge Hill (against the wishes of the local eminence grise, John Hemming, as I understand it). The Lib Dems have made an art form out of opposing mobile phone masts across the country and it is a great vote-winner because people don't like them and the LDs know only too well that while they are usually wasting their time opposing a planning application (as the legislation from central government will ensure that it goes through), there's votes in the issue. So, selecting somebody whose day job was working for the mobile phone industry convincing councils to wave applications through was a touch inconsistent. Jon Hunt's petition to Birmingham Council on Tuesday falls into the same category of inconsistency with their own national policy. The late, lamented LibDemWatch did a marvellous job of recording those and Yellow Peril and Fib Dems continue the tradition.
They can usually get away with this because politics is a local business - people in Erdington don't know or care what the Liberal Democrat attitude is in Northfield, for example. So in local politics, the approach works very well as they promise exactly what people in a given area want to hear. It is even effective at a national level and in by-election campaigns. Where it becomes problematic is when they actually achieve power, because being an oppositionist is a problem when you have the levers of power in your hands. Even then, Lib Dem councillors have been caught out blaming 'the council' for specific issues - conveniently ignoring the fact that they run the damn thing.
I suspect that their opportunistic oppositionalism will become a weakness. This worked in their favour as long as the Tories were as useless and disorganised as they have been for most of the past decade, but now the Conservatives seem to be on the march again, the LibDems are vulnerable to desertions from their motley crew of left and right-wingers seeking an outlet for their opposition to the Labour government. Everyone thinks of them as a centre-left party, but they have a record of hoovering up dissatisfied Tory vote. If you run the current tranche of opinion poll results through something like Electoral Calculus (and I should add the usual health warning about assuming that swing works evenly across the country), while Labour doesn't do well, the Liberal Democrats face a thorough kicking as well, with their parliamentary representation slashed to just 35 seats. This runs counter to a prediction I made after the last election - forecasting that the Lib Dems were on the verge of a breakthrough into the real big time and genuine contention for power - but the Tories have revived themselves, driven by desperation to make difficult decisions. 2005 may well prove to have been the Lib Dems' highwater mark for a generation, as I suspect that the next election will see some roll-back and some high-profile victims. Don't forget that the next election looks to be the first since 1992 when the result could go either way, so people will be less willing to cast a protest vote when it could make a difference to the Tories or Labour actually gaining power.
However, don't forget that mid-term opinion polls tend to under-estimate Lib Dem vote when it comes to an election. The third party doesn't get the same focus outside election time, so we typically see a higher than expected Liberal Democrat vote after they have some national attention during the campaign.
The party has traditionally been a bottom-up party (make up your own Mark Oaten jokes) in that policy is developed from the grassroots of the party and they have the final say through the conference system. That's perfectly fine and democratic, but the problem is that it can be a slow process when the news agenda moves so swiftly and journalists demand a party line on something or other instantaneously and not in six months or a year's time. The Tory conferences have always been occasions for the party grandees to descend from Westminster and distribute their nuggets of wisdom to the grassroots. Labour have gone the same way in the past few years, when they realised that public displays of vicious in-fighting weren't guaranteed to win votes.
The Liberal Democrat policy-making process also had the bonus for the other parties in that the muesli sandal-wearing wing of the party would find a way of slipping one of their nuttier policies past the leadership. This was a reliable source of campaigning headlines, be it porn at 16 , legalising cannabis or votes for serial killers, but one that looks to be denied to us in future as they have learnt enough to impose greater controls on what policy votes actually get to conference.
As I have noted before, their by-election machine is, frankly, terrifying. While a national campaign stretches their resources to the limit, give them a single seat to fight and no majority is safe. The tactics are tried and tested and backed up by a mass of campaigners who will descend on a constituency in a way that neither the Tories nor Labour can match. They will find a local issue on which to hang their campaign - even if it means inventing one. In the current council by-election campaign in Camden, the local Labour party highlight a Lib Dem scare story about the closure of the local police station - a story kicked into touch by the local copper. Failing that, as Don Paskini pointed out, they will run a negative campaign while trying to spin themselves as being different from other politicians.
Their image as the 'nice' party took a well-deserved beating over their treatment of Charlie Kennedy. For all his faults, he was a popular and recognisable national figure with decent approval ratings. Ming Campbell lacks Kennedy's touch and is too patrician when compared to Blair/Brown or Cameron. Small parties depend on the image of their leader - the only one who will get any sort of media exposure - and Campbell doesn't cut it.
Another change is that they seem to be trying to take over the ground occupied by the other parties - dropping the 50% tax rate and other elements of the Orangista crusade will destroy one of their strong points. The party has always been seen as a little bit different, but if it tries too hard to adopt Labour or Tory policies, then people won't have a reason to vote Liberal Democrat over either of the parties able to win a majority. A drift to the right won't win them seats.
Any more thoughts, anyone?