BY BILL KIRKMAN
People who really care about politics, and who are likely to vote in a general election, will increasingly return to judging all the parties by the realism of policies, not just the personality of leaders.
IF anyone doubted that in politics personalities and policies are inextricably intertwined, the events of recent weeks in the United Kingdom would have removed those doubts. The main focus, clearly, has been on the resignation of Charles Kennedy from the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. The resignation was dramatic - and earned praise from many people for his courage in admitting that he had a drink problem.
Though dramatic, however, it was not completely unexpected by those in the know. Several weeks before it happened, for example, I was at a party where a fellow guest was an experienced Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate. When I asked her whether Kennedy would survive as leader, she unhesitatingly replied, to my surprise, that he would not. He had lost the confidence of his colleagues.The leadership change - and it will be March before the identity of the new leader is known - inevitably provokes much comment about the ability of the Lib Dems to perform credibly in putting across their policies in the country. They are, it is pointed out, obviously at a disadvantage by comparison with the Conservatives, who are feeling buoyant under their new, young, leader, David Cameron.As a fairly well informed and involved elector - as a matter of principle I have voted in every election when I have been entitled to do so - I do not think it is quite as simple as it looks. Many of my fellow citizens, particularly younger ones, do not bother to exercise their votes. This is partly no doubt because of apathy, but also partly because of deep-rooted cynicism about politicians. We live in an age of sound bytes and spin, and, quite bluntly, what the politicians say is often simply not believed.That is a problem currently faced by Prime Minister Tony Blair. Having announced that he will not remain in office after the next election, he is manifestly anxious to build up a legacy of success. Given his continuing unpopularity over Iraq, this is not easy, and many of the efforts are rebounding on him.
Radical new policies for education have been roundly condemned not only by the education professionals, but also by a large number of Labour politicians, including the former leader of the party, Neil Kinnock. To add to this problem, the Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, is under fierce attack because of recent revelations that her department has permitted people convicted of sex offences to teach in schools. Equally radical plans to reform the police, by the merger of smaller forces, have been rejected by local police authorities, and senior police officers. Plans to introduce identity cards - always a controversial question in Britain, which tends to see them as an obnoxious continental aberration - have been widely criticised on grounds of cost and efficiency, as well as purpose.All this raises questions about whether the Prime Minister, charismatic as his personality undoubtedly is, can persuade people to accept his policies, and incidentally whether Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, his expected successor, would be more persuasive.
On the other side of the political fence, David Cameron, having been elected Conservative leader by a large majority, is enjoying a honeymoon period with party members. He is proclaiming his belief in change, his wish to move his party away from the policies, which led them to major defeats in recent general elections. The aim - to achieve victory in the next election - is of course accepted by all Conservatives. Their concern must be whether Cameron's confident calls for change can realistically be reflected in viable policies.It is understandable that commentators have concentrated on personalities. A prime minister whose popularity seems to be waning but who retains a formidable style; a young and similarly charismatic Conservative leader, very different from his recent predecessors (to whom the adjective charismatic certainly did not apply) - with these as the principal players in the political drama it is not surprising that the questions are about the cast list rather than about the content of the play. Against this background, the sudden and dramatic fall of Charles Kennedy, a generally likeable and generally liked man, has not surprisingly led to speculation and discussion about the Liberal Democrat cast list.When the leadership election is over, however, my expectation is that the people who really care about politics, and who are likely to vote in a general election, will increasingly return to judging all the parties by the realism of policies, not just the personality of leaders.The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org