Monday 20 October 2008

What on earth is the matter with us?

I have to admit to a teeny bit of frustration when I saw the latest poll that puts the Lib Dems down to 14 per cent. The side effects of the crash, no doubt, but even so…

It is true that we have Vince Cable, who has launched an excellent initiative on tax havens, at precisely the right moment. He also seems to have the preternatural ability to be about 48 hours ahead of the mainstream, which was C. P. Snow’s definition of somebody with a reputation for being far-sighted in their own lifetime.

But that isn’t enough to grab the attention of opinion-formers, which is what we need to do, with a distinctively Liberal approach to the crisis.

It may be, of course, that our spokespeople get ignored even more at times of international crisis, especially when Cameron’s Tories are wriggling on the end of a stick. But when we had a captive radio audience in recent weeks on Any Questions, our answers on the financial crisis were absolutely vacuous – international co-operation, told you so, pinch me please to stay awake.

This is actually one of those unique moments when nobody really knows what to do, where radicalism is not just acceptable but is actually demanded. Where thoughtful party leaders could be heard, especially from parties that used to be known and loved for their quality of thought.

I’ve been wondering why we are failing so badly here, and have come up with two reasons:

1. We haven’t had an economic policy since Keynes breathed his last in 1946. Worse, we don’t think economics is very important, and have developed nothing to say on the subject in recent decades apart from bleating on about sound money occasionally.

2. We have no clear idea who our core voters are. If we had, we would realise immediately what needed to be said – because the challenge now for small business, thriving local economies and the voluntary sector are pretty clear. But we don’t say it. Worse, we let the Tories get into the media about small business before we did.

But somehow those two reasons still don’t seem an adequate explanation. So I’m left pleading with fate like a Greek tragedy – what on earth is the matter with us?