Monday, April 11, 2005

General Election: Liberal Democrats schizophrenia

One of the very interesting things about the Liberal Democrats is that, until recently, they have effectively been a party of the periphery. By that I mean that their strongholds have been in the South West of the England and the North of Scotland. However, the anti-Tory boost that got in 1997 and retained in 2001 allowed them a chance to see themselves as something more, and in the local elections last year they were explicitly going after Labour in the cities.

Here in the South West I think the Lib Dems have three problems. The first is that down here is mostly rural, and city-orientated policies contain pitfulls. Not least the idea that they are no different from the other party of the countryside, the Tories. Also, the cities are, to some extent 'the enemy' in rural places. Bristol isn't well liked in Taunton. Town and country just rub each other the wrong way.

Most graphically this was demonstrated by the second issue: hunting. The fact is that hunting doesn't have to be a major issue for a lot of people, just for a few hundred. In Taunton it is thought to have lost the LDs the seat last time around. And the LD south-west heartland is also one of the more pro-hunt regions.

Thirdly, and ever more forcefully, is the matter of Europe. The LDs take pride in being the most pro-European party in Britain. However, their South-West heartland is one of the more broadly anti-European places in the UK.

Clearly there are problems here. It may be that personal loyalties to various MPs will triumph over consideration of policies. Or it may be that the Liberal Democrats are heading for a fall, though if so I'd expect it to materialise over several election cycles.

Now, maybe none of this matters, but I think that it will start to matter, especially since it seems very unlikely that they will retain an anti-Tory vote. We will now have a chance to see if they have managed to convert disaffect Tories into loyal LDs.

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