Sunday, February 12th, 2006
It's a little-known fact that Dr Vincent Cable – the Lib Dems' grimly northern, silent-movie-villain Shadow Chancellor – is actually rather buff when stripped to shorts and t-shirt.
Now, before everyone hits the speed dial to the News of the World, I should say the reason I know this is that I once found myself queueing next to him for a machine at my gym and was able to observe that he's broadly the same shape as the fitness instructors (40 years his junior) but rather taller.
It's a good gym – quite aside from anything it might have done for Vince it's responsible for me dropping several cup sizes and developing muscles I've only ever seen in photos of wrestlers. But, admirable though it is in many ways, there is one aspect of it that makes me cringe – namely the signs and notices.
These are clearly written by someone possessing only a passing acquaintance with the rules of grammar but blessed with a compensatory creative approach towards punctuation.
This sounds snobbish, of course, and doubtless the l33t generation will sneer, but I was literally stopped in my tracks this morning by the latest example of savagery: the citation for January's member of the month, newly posted on the stairs up to the gym, included a mis-spelling of the word “tries” as “try's”.
The error almost caused me physical pain and I don't suppose it particularly impressed the deputy headteacher who had won the award – or Vince, who has a way with words. We recently saw him conclude a speech on public spending by declaring “there's always one bastard who has to say 'no' – and, unfortunately, I'm that bastard”.
More recently still, I saw this excellent article written by him in the Guardian, in which he pours scorn on the attempts by David Cameron and the Conservatives to suggest they're all fluffy and friendly and liberal, like cute little orangey-blue bunnies, and not actually as evil as we all know them to be. In it he writes:
I suspect I am not the only Liberal Democrat to have received chummy emails addressed to “my fellow liberal”, or invitations to join his shadow cabinet (albeit via the somewhat impersonal medium of the Daily Mail). These fishing expeditions are unlikely to net any more than the odd, obscure ex-candidate, but they demonstrate chutzpah.
They also demonstrate a few other things on the part of Cameron. (And in passing let me say I will not join the trend of referring to him as 'DC' – DC is a Formula One racing driver with no neck and a regrettable lack of consistency, not an overgrown schoolboy with a brass neck and a regrettable lack of ideology.
One thing it demonstrates is, obviously, that Cameron has a few lessons to learn about attracting defectors. Rather more importantly – and more creditably for him – it shows that he has identified what I think is going to be the trend that dominates British politics over the next decade.
It is different from what I wrote about recently when I said that voters would become sick of young, media-savvy politicians – that was just about personnel – but it is linked to the increasingly-obvious reality that people will soon have had enough of the Labour government, which I also mentioned.
For as long as I have been involved in politics – since the mid-1980s when I was at school – the battle-lines were simple. There were the Conservatives, who were the bad guys, and there was everyone else, who were therefore by default the good guys.
This was – as we jokingly knew it as students – the Great Patriotic Alliance Against the Conservatives, but really what it was, was the Great Progressive Alliance. It was comforting – you knew where you were at all times as the ground rules were simple. It defined who were your fellow political travellers, who you were willing to enter coalition with, whose public meetings you went to, who you argued with and who you applauded at debates, who you went to the pub with afterwards, even which party it was socially acceptible to admit to being a member of at dinner parties.
The reason the Tories stayed in power for so long was that this alliance against them was fragmented and incoherent. It contained socialists, both in and out of the Labour Party, it contained Greens, it contained Nationalists in Scotland and Wales, and of course it contained the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties. There were also a lot of single issue campaigners on subjects as diverse as the Poll Tax and road building.
Inevitably these people, ranging as they did from Socialist Workers to upper middle class opponents of destructive bypasses, did not always make comfortable bedfellows. For a long time the Tories were popular, but when they weren't any more they still won because of the perceived weakness or unpalatability of the progressives. The most striking example is, of course, the 1992 general election where that nice Mr Major survived as Prime Minister, even though people didn't think much of his party, because they thought even less of Neil Kinnock.
The territory over which the Tory vs progressives battle was fought was largely economic. Initially, during the first years of the Thatcher revolution, it was about jobs. Later it was about the proper provision of public services such as health, education and transport. It was very much a left / right battle and it's still the mind-set that dominates most politicians and journalists.
But for those with eyes to see – and apparently David Cameron is among them – it's rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
You can see the evidence when tactical voting works to defeat Labour candidates instead of Conservatives. You can see it when liberal and conservative bloggers (in Britain – not, of course, in the USA) find common cause against the government's civil liberties legislation, and when the Home Affairs spokespeople of the Lib Dems and the Tories are able to do a joint TV interview, as Mark Oaten and David Davis did, to celebrate forcing the government to back down over 90-day limits for detaining terror suspects.
And you can get a clue about what is replacing the progressive alliance when the leader of the Conservatives attempts to tempt over defectors by addressing them not as 'my fellow conservative' but as 'my fellow liberal'.
The new alliance which will come to dominate British politics will be the Great Libertarian Alliance against the Labour Party.
This will be partly defined by opposition to the erosion of civil liberties and historic freedoms in response to terrorism, but there will be more to it. It will tap into fears and hopes that have little to do with the government – but a government as keen to micromanage as this one will reap more than its fair share of the whirlwind.
This new alliance will include people upset about a loss of privacy in a world where advances in technology allow everything from your Tube ticket to your shopping card to track your behaviour. It will include the Open Source Movement, and also the Anti-Globalisation movement. Fair Trade will be as much a part of it as fair votes. Where once we demanded 'no more cuts', soon we will demand 'no more oppression'.
And, very likely, the catalyst to all this will be the introduction of ID cards – the point at which people see them in action and start to feel their effects. It will be the equivalent of when the Poll Tax registration forms began to drop onto people's doormats.
During the gene
ral election Chris Lightfoot created a survey to analyse people's political opinions, which he then combined with relevant data from the pollsters YouGov. The results are available for download on his microsite and should be compulsory reading for every political strategist. Obviously, the analysis is almost a year old now but it perfectly explains why this change is happening.
In its simplist form, it shows that the biggest dividing line in public opinion these days is not economic policy. Most people fall closely to one side or the other of the centre axis, with very few lining up to cheer for either socialism or for free market economics. Any politician who wants to base the appeal of their political party on economics – be it public service provision, tax cuts or simply financial competence – will be batting on a dusty wicket. It's not what people want to hear.
Where there is a huge difference, however – and therefore an opportunity for one party to steal a march on all the rest – is along a measurement that Lightfoot dubs “the Axis of UKIP“. UKIP, obviously, has imploded since then but the point is still valid. The values that this axis measures are, broadly speaking, liberal vs authoritarian, and they cut right across party boundaries. At one end of this access are people who believe in rehabilitating criminals and in the rule of international law. At the other end are – to use a couple of stereotypical lables – the Little Englanders and the Hang 'em and Flog 'em brigade.
And guess what? There are more of us than there are of them, marginally.
It's a difficult split for Labour, which is by nature authoritarian and is currently eroding civil liberties almost daily. It's a party that likes to tell people what to do, but it has its bleeding heart wing too, and that's a recipe for conflict and strife.
But it's worse for the Tories. Socially, many of its supporters are at the wrong end of the scale. So as Cameron tip-toes towards the liberal end of the spectrum, sensing that this is where the new votes are to be found, the suppliers of his party's existing votes are looking daggers at his back. And if his strategy fails to deliver, or if he goes too far for them, the daggers in his back will become rather more corporeal.
Nevertheless, it's potentially a winning gamble for Cameron. The progressive alliance eventually triumphed because it found a leader, in the shape of Tony Blair, who people trusted with their votes – and with their hopes for a better country. Realistically, the only person who could fill that role at that time was a leader of the Labour Party. Cameron will be hoping that the only personal a libertarian alliance can rally behind is a leader of the Conservative Party. If he finds the right way to do that, if he finds the magic button to press, then it will be 1997 all over again but in reverse.
But it doesn't follow that only a Tory can become the new head of Hogwarts. In fact, for as long as the Tory Party remains the natural home of people who demand authoritarian responses to crime, foreign policy and immigration it's highly unlikely to happen.
So what does that imply?
Firstly, that Labour should be more relaxed about the next election than it probably is, post-Dunfermline. It will probably lose seats – anti-Tory tactical voting will unwind and be replaced by anti-Labour voting, for one thing – but there will be no meltdown until there is a general for the libertarian alliance to follow. And if the Tories do something stupid, as Labour did in 1992, all bets are off.
The Conservatives have hope for the first time in years. Cameron is following the only possible correct strategy. It probably won't work, but even if it fails it will be a more successful failure than any other course of action. And there's a risk, possibly demonstrated in Dunfermline: by linking the Tories with liberalism in people's minds he may drive traffic in the other direction to the Lib Dems who, it would appear from what he says, aren't so bad after all. But at the moment Cameron is holding a hand that includes a pair of aces, and no-one knows what the dealer holds.
For the Lib Dems, this is a time of huge opportunity if someone is smart enough to recognise it. The leadership election has not – as some hoped and others feared – become a platform to discuss the tensions in the party between economic and social liberals, but such differences as have emerged have mostly been on economics and taxation. This is such a wasted opportunity. I see no-one trying to stake a claim for leadership of the libertarian alliance. We have none of the baggage that holds back the Tories and are therefore well placed to build (and lead) a cross party consensus. The winning response to David Cameron e-mailing “my fellow liberal” is to say “welcome aboard, why not follow where we're leading?” Our silence could hand leadership to him by default.
And yet I hear none of the leadership candidates sounding a rallying cry for liberty. Why is no-one saying 'you know what – none of this tax stuff matters that much, what really counts is freedom'? There is a bigger job available in British politics right now than mere leader of the Liberal Democrats, and whoever snatches it will be more than half way to Downing Street. We need to make sure that person is not David Cameron.
No matter how hard he try's.