What is the point of the Liberal Democrats?

How can you have a political party where half the members would be regarded as on the right of the Conservative Party and the other half on the left of the Labour Party? Margaret Thatcher would have regarded people like Mark Oaten, David Laws and Vince Cable as being a right wing fringe. John Major would have called them 'bastards'. Michael Foot would have thought Simon Hughes unacceptably left wing, and Neil Kinnock would have kicked him out of the Party. How can these people be in a single party?

The answer is that they don't care about the same things as Thatcher or Kinnock. The dividing line between Labour and the Conservatives has always been economic issues. Libertarians like Oliver Letwin and Peter Lilley can work with traditionalists like Anne Widdecombe and Norman Tebbit because they share, broadly, the same economic agenda. David Blunkett can be in the same party as Ken Livingstone for the same reason. But what defines the Liberal Democrats is different. They care about personal freedom most of all, and work with others who have the same passions, even though they fundamentally disagree about other things.

In an opposition party, this is viable. Hughes and Cable can both vote against Brown's budget. Even though Hughes wants higher taxes and Cable wants lower taxes, they can unite in being against the same thing. But is it even possible to imagine them voting FOR the same budget?

Differences over personal freedom issues are easier to manage than differences over the economy - at least in government. The most divisive issues of conscience - abortion, homosexuality, etc - can be left to a free vote. If tensions between the libertarian and authoritarian wings of either of the major parties were to increase, they could make greater use of the free vote. (Though it is hard to see that applying to something as fundamental as a national ID card). But divisions over the economy and managing the state apparatus cannot be so easily papered over.

If LibDem wet dreams come true - if the next Parliament contains 280 Labour MPs, 280 Conservatives, and 60 LibDems - the party will have to make choices, not just about what it is against, but what it is for. Then what?

Electing Ming Campbell is a way of saying that the party would rather not decide for the moment. The real choice is between Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes. Postponing the decision for four years will not make it any easier, or the outcome any less explosive.

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