MANY PEOPLE who voted for the winning Liberal Democrat in the Brent by-election last week were motivated by good reasons. Brent saw traditional Labour voters turn away from Blair in disgust at his government's record on the war, privatisation and public services. Many voted Lib Dem believing this was, on the day, the way to give Blair a bloody nose.
An opinion poll in the Times on Monday confirmed that most people now see the Lib Dems as to the left of New Labour. Certainly Blair is so right wing that on many issues the Lib Dems can appear more left wing. Much of the Lib Dems' current success reflects the perception that the party's leader, Charles Kennedy, opposed the war on Iraq. The party also opposes New Labour's plan for top-up tuition fees in higher education, criticises the rabid outbursts of home secretary David Blunkett over refugees, and makes noises against privatisation.
The Lib Dems even make mild suggestions for very slightly increasing the top rate of tax on those grabbing over £100,000 a year. On any close inspection the differences between Lib Dem and New Labour policies are not that great, and the Lib Dem policies are hardly left wing or radical. That such timid proposals can seem any good says more about how rotten New Labour has become.
The Lib Dems have undoubtedly ridden the opposition to the war on Iraq to gain support. Charles Kennedy did, very cautiously, criticise Blair over the war. But he was careful not to throw the party fully behind the anti-war movement, or to consistently urge people to protest and demonstrate to stop the war.
And his opposition lasted only until the war actually started. He then quickly swung into line to back the war and the killing in Iraq. Now that things are going badly for Blair over Iraq, Kennedy has once again started making critical noises.
There is little of principle in Kennedy's stance, and a lot of manoeuvring to try to capitalise on what he judges to be the public mood. And if on many issues the Lib Dems appear to the left of New Labour, they can also line up to the right of Blair on key issues. So, for example, the Lib Dems oppose the increase in the minimum wage to £4.85 an hour.
The increase is way short of what is needed, but for the Lib Dems it is 'a dangerous precedent'. No doubt such talk helps them with one of their key support bases, among small businessmen. The Lib Dem manifesto hardly sounds like a radical alternative to either New Labour or the Tories.
It declares, 'We are committed to a free market economy in which enterprise thrives. Competition and open markets are by far the best guarantee of wealth creation.'
And the criticisms the Lib Dems made of Blair over Iraq should be set against their support for Britain's Trident nuclear missile system, and every other war of the last 20 years from the Falklands to the first Gulf War and the Balkans.
Trade unionists tempted by the Lib Dems should ponder the party's record of supporting all the anti-union laws, and in the 1980s backing Thatcher against the miners and Rupert Murdoch against the print unions.
Over recent years the Lib Dems have tried to feed off disillusion with New Labour among working class voters in inner cities by appearing to be against public service cuts and privatisation. But the reality of Liberal Democrat councils in office is that they pursue both with all the enthusiasm of the most rabid New Labour authority.
A few years ago the Lib Dems won office in Sheffield on the back of disillusion with a New Labour council that was pushing cuts and privatisation.
The Lib Dem council then pursued an agenda of slashing services and accelerated privatisation. In Kirklees the Lib Dem council last year pushed through a scandalous Private Finance Initiative scheme for schools, a deal involving the Jarvis private rail maintenance company infamous from the Potters Bar crash. In London the new Lib Dem council in Islington has closed community centres and pensioners' clubs. Its attitude to its workforce was summed up by calling its caretakers who it has threatened with redundancy 'skivers'.
The truth about the Lib Dems is that they are arch-opportunists, taking any which way in an unprincipled chase for votes. So in Brent, a solidly working class constituency with large numbers of people angry with Blair over the war, privatisation and public services, the Lib Dems put on a left face.
But most of the key seats the Lib Dems hope to target at the next general election are Tory seats. They are likely to draw much more on the sections of their manifesto which talk of how 'Labour has over regulated', of 'cuts in business rates', of 'enterprise' and the virtues of 'the market economy'.
It would be a historic tragedy if people like this, and politicians with the spinelessness of Charles Kennedy, were allowed to reap the political benefit from the greatest wave of radicalisation most of us have ever seen. To ensure that this doesn't happen is the challenge for all on the left-and above all those who chase the mirage of 'reclaiming' Labour, a doomed journey from which only the Lib Dems will gain.