TERRY DIGNAN: The Liberal Democrats begin
their annual conference today... overshadowed by the terrible events in
the United States but buoyed up to some extent by their successes at the
last election. The problem for them is what strategy do they adopt from
here if they are to achieve the ambition many have for them and that is
to become the main party of opposition? As Terry Dignan reports, they
are divided on whether to move to the left... or to the right.
In a quiet Surrey suburb, a group of Liberal Democrats attend a Tandoori
night. Following the horrifying events of September the eleventh, the atmosphere
is, understandably, sombre. But, on the domestic front, tonight's special
guest feels supremely optimistic.
EDWARD DAVEY MP: "Because I think we will be in
Government in Westminster within the next ten years."
DIGNAN: Although the Liberal Democrats
have tasted electoral success, they say the 2001 campaign was just for
starters. They want the top table at Westminster which means overtaking
Labour and the Conservatives. But to achieve that aim they may face painful
decisions about where they really stand on the big domestic issues, like
taxation and the management of public services.
DAVEY: "Seven seats saw....."
DIGNAN: Liberal Democrat MP Ed
Davey says simply continuing to target Conservative seats won't be enough
to win power. Instead Liberal Democrats should make their goal Labour's
urban heartlands where, it's argued, dissatisfaction over public services
has lowered turnouts. Their positioning to Labour's left on tax and spending
is seen as a strength in this regard.
DAVEY: When people use those terms,
they're talking about the tax and spend debate. Now I'm very comfortable
with the Liberal Democrats' current position, which in those old-fashioned
terms of left and right, does put us to the left of Labour. Therein lies
an opportunity for us. Because a lot of those abstainers were people who
didn't like Labour. They couldn't ever bring themselves to vote Conservative.
But they didn't like the fact that New Labour was, in many ways, aping
the Conservatives and adopting a very centre-right position.
DIGNAN: Yet on election night,
the Liberal Democrats under their new leader celebrated gains made, yet
again, mainly at the expense of the Conservatives.
CHARLES KENNEDY MP: "We are very much the party
of the future."
DIGNAN: But are they? If the new
Tory leader alienates some Conservatives by moving rightwards, it could
be a lost opportunity for Charles Kennedy if his party goes in the opposite
MARK OATEN MP: I think that would be wrong,
that would be dangerous, and this current climate where we have an enormous
opportunity to benefit from a, a right-wing Conservative Party, we'd be
foolish to position ourselves in the left, in that sense.
VOICE OVER: "From the BBC. This is Five
DIGNAN: In the broadcasting studios,
with military conflict looming, the politicians respond to voters' anxieties.
But normal politics still intrude. The voters want to know where the Liberal
Democrats are heading. Because what they stand for now is higher taxes
and higher public spending.
EVAN HARRIS MP: People actually trust more
a party that has a menu with prices rather than one, as we've seen Labour
do, saying, everything'll be fine, and no-one will have to pay any more
tax. It doesn't add up, and I think the mass abstentions at the last election
showed that people realised it didn't add up.
LORD CLEMENT-JONES: I think to his enormous credit
Charles Kennedy went for the fifty per cent above the hundred thousand
disposable income taxation bracket in order to pay for education and health,
to improve our public services, and I think that was a very popular policy.
After all, we were the only party that significantly increased our representation
at the last election.
DIGNAN: The Winchester MP Mark
Oaten first came to prominence after beating the Conservatives in a by-election
landslide. Now chairman of Liberal Democrat MPs, he worries about the party
having a left wing image and says the pledge to raise taxes may have to
OATEN: One of the political dangers
is that the commentators will increasingly see us as a populist party which
is to the left of the political spectrum, that wants to constantly put
taxes up and hasn't got any creative thinking. Now I don't think that's
where we are. I think that we've been honest in the past about saying that
we do need extra funds, but now it's a time to question that, and to say,
well, if we want to improve our public services, maybe there's a different
HARRIS: I don't think it's a question
of left or right but if to the left of Labour means we are in favour of
the NHS as the best way of providing fair, good quality care, then, yes,
and we'll certainly take our chances being identified as the party for
decent public services.
OATEN: "Ingrid, do you want to
look at the diary."
DIGNAN: But Mark Oaten fears that
at its next appointment with the electorate the party will have become
too attached to higher spending and taxes, even though the idea may be
popular with Labour voters.
OATEN: "Good. Alright."
DIGNAN: He wants the party to consider
using the private sector to improve services.
OATEN: Critically this Party has
to make its mind up. Do we want to put the consumers at the heart of the
debate? Do we want to come up with a form of delivery which means we have
the best hospitals and schools for our constituents? Or are we going to
just purely say, no, it must always be the public service which does this
because we believe in public services and local authorities. I argue that
the consumer should come first, and our own beliefs about how it should
be delivered should come second.
DIGNAN: Bill Newton-Dunn was a
Tory Euro-MP before defecting to the Liberal Democrats.
BILL NEWTON DUNN MEP: "Getting cold?"
POLICEMAN: "Very much so. Good evening,
DIGNAN; Looking favourably on private
sector involvement in schools and hospitals might encourage other pro-European
Conservatives to regard the Liberal Democrats as their kind of party.
NEWTON DUNN: The idea of bringing in private
finance would be attractive to the, the floating voters and even professional
Tory MPs who are disaffected. Yes, they see that as a sensible way forward.
DIGNAN: But moving rightwards just
to accommodate the views of Conservatives uncomfortable with their new
leader Iain Duncan-Smith would be unpalatable to many Liberal Democrats.
And especially if it meant downgrading the pledge to raise taxes in favour
of a bigger role for the private sector in managing public services.
HARRIS: Even if the analysis was
right that we could compete for right-wing votes with an increasingly right-wing
Labour Party and an extremist Conservative Party, then I don't think that
can be done by Liberal Democrats with conviction.
DIGNAN: Liberal Democrat officials
may struggle to attract the media to Bournemouth this week when most eyes
will be on another part of the world. Yet domestic politics won't be completely
UNNAMED WOMAN: We do have quite a lot of photo-ops
arranged as you know, but .....
DIGNAN: Liberal Democrats calculate
that tensions in the Labour Party over public services will worsen. Having
ended co-operation with Labour, they're well-placed to exploit them. Here
at Liberal Democrat HQ, the party will undoubtedly be looking for ways
of trying to win over disaffected Labour supporters. Indeed, some argue
the Liberal Democrats now have a golden opportunity to try to weaken Labour
decisively by, for example, co-operating with Labour-supporting trade unions
who oppose private sector involvement in public services.
LORD CLEMENT-JONES: I do see it as quite historic,
because I do not see that certainly the New Labour ethos is pro-union in
any sense of the word. If anything, they're much closer to business. That's
why we are, you know, having discussions with the unions because, quite
frankly, we agree with them and we're much closer, they're much closer
to us, on these sort of policies than they are with the Government.
DIGNAN: Tony Blair is accused of
moving rightwards because he wants hospitals like this one to embrace the
Private Finance Initiative. PFI allows companies to build and manage hospitals
in return for a fee. Liberal Democrats say they don't rule out private
sector involvement in public services. Yet their criticisms of the idea
echo those made by trade unions and Labour backbenchers.
HARRIS: It is effectively at the
price of no more efficiencies, taking money out of health care and into
profit for shareholders and we wouldn't blame the private sector for that
- that's the job of the private sector. So, the case for the private sector
in health care, particularly PFI, is unproven and, at worse, the evidence
is that it's counterproductive.
DIGNAN: Party policy documents
call for evidence that PFI gives value for money. But some want this week's
conference to back tougher opposition to PFI.
LORD CLEMENT-JONES: PFI needs to be properly evaluated
for all the hospital building projects so far. Until that evaluation takes
place, then we shouldn't proceed with any more.
DIGNAN: So the party should be
LORD CLEMENT-JONES: Yes, I think they should. I
don't think that the party will be hostile to that amendment at all. I
think it goes with the grain of the way that they see the controversy going
over their local hospitals.
DIGNAN: In seats like Winchester,
where many Conservative voters have switched to the Liberal Democrats,
there's a fear of the party being typecast as a pale version of old Labour.
The last thing the Liberal Democrat MP here wants is a set of policies
which might well appeal to some disillusioned Labour voters but at the
expense of deterring potential Conservative defectors.
OATEN: I accept that we would be
turning away some of those individuals if they saw us as being purely a
party of the left, a party which supported trade unions, and said the only
solution to difficulties was putting taxes up. I don't think that's where
we want to be in the next year.
UNNAMED WOMAN: Yes, we do take payment by credit
card. I'll put you through to somebody. One moment.
DIGNAN: Others argue that even
losing some votes to the Conservatives would be a price worth paying if
large numbers of Labour voters switched to the Liberal Democrats.
HARRIS: I think that would be more
than compensated for by the vast majority of people who recognise the potential
that the health service and our state school system have to deliver high
quality public services.
OATEN: Charles Kennedy described
our Party, if it were to go down to the left, as moving into the biggest
cul-de-sac in British politics, and I think he's right there.
DIGNAN: When these Liberal Democrats
re-assemble at the Claygate Tandoori in just a few weeks, it's likely the
talk will again be of events far from home. But the dilemma over which
direction they should take on the big domestic issues won't have gone away.
Until it does, the prospect of there being a Liberal Democrat Prime Minister
will remain little more than a dream.