Scramble for centre ground

Emily Bransom comments on the resignation of Charles Kennedy

Sit on the fence long enough and one day you'll fall off. In his determination to unite the different wings of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy failed to satisfy either and has resigned as leader of the party. The mission for the new leader will be to reassert control over the centre ground in British politics.

Things have moved on from the good old nights of late drinking in the bars of Westminster. Where once boozing was something many a red-nosed MP took pride in, now it is something to keep quiet about, an embarrassing secret, and if it gets really bad your trusted colleagues can describe you as "a dead man walking" to the newspapers. Alcoholism has been described as "the only disease you can get yelled at for having" and certainly has not helped Kennedy's political career or reputation.

To narrow his resignation down to simply a drink problem, however, is to miss the point. Nor was his popularity with the public undergoing a nosedive. His personal poll ratings have been pretty good. Not only that - the Lib Dems won more votes at the last general election than they, or the Liberal Party before them, had seen in over 80 years. The party has made substantial political gains over the last 10 years, without actually having to do that much. The Liberal Democrats have had their place in politics and have made good use of it. So why get rid of Kennedy now?

The party harbours unresolved differences over its future direction - differences that Kennedy dealt with it by downplaying their significance. In simple terms, the Lib Dems are split between left and right, between 'social' and pro-market liberalism. Kennedy failed to bridge the gap, emphasising unity at all costs. To avoid rocking the boat this is also what the prospective candidates are doing at the moment.

Politics is not what it used to be. The Liberal Democrats have been floundering around blurry principles for too long and have woken up to find themselves playing a different game with different rules. It is just not as simple as it used to be. Previously, in the days when right was right and left was left, the Liberal Democrats could walk the middle line and still make themselves heard. Between what passed as the party of labour and what was the bourgeois party of big business, they were still able to call some part of politics their own. Rather than alcohol then, it was Kennedy's fate that success inflated ambitions and fed dreams of minesterial portfolios, undermining his ability to give his party a unified message.

The Liberal Democrats have, at least since the 1950s, been the party of the reasonable middle classes, and therefore inhabited a centre ground which was created not by them, but by the struggle and temporary balance established between the main classes in society. The problem for the Lib Dems now is that the centre ground has shifted. But in the centre is where they want to be. That is their territory. To re-establish their position the Liberal Democrats must first make a choice. Do they want to align themselves closer to New Labour or closer to the New Tories? Even equidistance requires change.

Their decision will no doubt be influenced by the remote possibility that the next general election will result in a hung parliament. If this happens the ball will be in centre court, as eyes look to the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners.

The different wings of the party will use the leadership contest as an opportunity to position themselves as kingmakers. Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown believes that David Cameron's arrival on the political scene means an "interesting" contest for the centre ground. Under Thatcher, the Tories shifted distinctly to the right and were followed at a distance by Blairism and New Labour. The trade unions were defeated. The neoliberal agenda of privatisation and 'marketisation' is now part of the mainstream consensus, therefore. Whilst remaining firmly within this consensus, Cameron's recent public repudiation of previous Tory policy for the financing of a middle class opt-out from the NHS suggests a move away from Thatcherism and towards a more traditional one-nation Conservatism.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown looks set to be the next Labour leader, and though there are hopes that he will bring a more social democratic face back to the party, without a concerted outbreak of class struggle nothing of the like will happen. In any case social democracy as a form can no longer deliver either sustained reforms or guarantee class peace.

Where establishment Britain is at in 2006 can be seen in miniature within the Liberal Democrat Party. Standing in the leadership contest, in the left corner, we have a popular but (at time of writing) not yet confirmed candidate, Simon Hughes. The party president is known as the 'tax and spend' man and is on the 'social liberal' wing. Electing him would make the Liberal Democrats deeply unattractive to the City, the CBI and the rightwing press. To the right is home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten. From the economic liberal side of the party, he has reportedly said that the "market is not the answer to everything". So he is a soft Thatcherite. Between the two is the current favourite, Sir Menzies Campbell. He aims to "restore a sense of purpose and unity". In other words he is committed to repeating the mistakes of his political predecessor.