BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 23.09.01

Film: LIBERAL DEMOCRAT FILM. Terry Dignan reports on the debate inside the Liberal Democrats about whether to move to the Left or the Right after the Party's success at the General Election.

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 direction. 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 Live." 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 go. 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 way. 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, sir." 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 overlooked: 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 more robust? 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.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.