Thursday, July 08, 2004

Things we forgot #1

Whatever happened to 'The Progressive Century'? For those who don't know, the 21st century was going to the period when the 'progressives' (i.e. Lib Dems and Labour) would bury their differences, come together and oust the Tories from the self-appointed role as custodians of British democracy.

There was even a book of the same name, which came out a month before the 2001 election. I remember taking it away on my holiday and reading through it that summer. But it's an indicator of how much things have changed that only a few months later, with the destruction in New York and the Pentagon, that this optimistic outlook has been shattered - and the idea that Lib Dems and Labour are natural allies only held back only by tribal affiliation.

This Parliament will be remembered, not for the proposed changes to public services which are currently being discussed, but for Britain's role in the world and our resulting foreign policy. With Blair and the Tories being almost as one in the crisis preceding the Iraq war and then the year subsequent to it, only the Lib Dems appeared to offer a counterpoint in Parliament (forget the other, marginal groups like Respect with no representation). In other words on the most pressing issue of this Parliament, it wasn't Labour and the Lib Dems that buried their differences, but Labour and the Tories, leaving the Lib Dems on the outside. Thus the end of 'The Project', that Ashdown-Blair goal to unite the two parties.

Within the Lib Dems there's a section which cheered this development. It was the part of the party which sees Labour not as allies, but rivals, being generally based in the inner cities and coming from the old liberal wing where their champion is Simon Hughes. Their hate figures are former social democrats like Vince Cable and Mark Oaten, who occupy the Treasury and Home Affairs spokesmanships in the party. The fact that these two arrived in those positions after the last reshuffle may find their pleasure at the apparently abrupt end to 'The Project' tempered somewhat.

But those in the anti-Cable, anti-Oaten camp overlook an important point: both MPs voted along with the rest of the Parliamentary party against war in Iraq. In other words, on the defining issue of this Parliament, belief in our principles was far more important than any late 1990s scheme between the Lib Dems' former leader and an increasingly out-of-touch PM.

Nevertheless, with an election expected in the early part of next year, the party's campaigning strategy will no doubt be discussed at conference in September. The results of next week's by-elections in Birmingham and Leicester will also be followed closely to try and make sense of the electorate's feelings, just as happened in Brent East last year.

What already seems clear is that the party certainly won't be re-visiting the idea of 'The Project' anytime soon. What will replace it, I really don't know. But what I do know is that my copy of The Progressive Century, rather than heralding a golden new era for left-of-centre politics, seems like a last hurrah; indeed, a hubristic call to arms, for a purpose which now only gathers dust on the bookshelf.

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