Something is happening on the centre ground of British politics. An exodus. The Conservative leadership is being lured to the right. Ed Miliband is pulling his party to the left. Only the Liberal Democrats are holding firm.
That creates an opportunity for our party. Over the last twenty years the centre has become a crowded place. First New Labour pitched up, determined to demonstrate a new found credibility on the economy. Then followed a detoxified Conservative Party, hugging hoodies and frolicking with huskies. Yet now – in what, in time, may prove to be a highly significant political shift – the land is clearing. Our opponents are heading back to their respective homes. And it is time for the Liberal Democrats to reclaim this space.
The language of centrism can be misleading. It is not – as it can sound – splitting the difference between competing views; nor is it sitting on the fence. On the contrary, the centre ground rests on a radical, liberal view of the world, unencumbered by the traditional ideologies of left and right.
In the centre, we bridle at dog-eat-dog individualism, but we also reject the bloated and intrusive state. We believe, instead, that the key to lasting prosperity is unleashing the potential that exists in each and every person. And we understand that in the 21st Century a strong, competitive and open economy will be fuelled by a fair and mobile society, where opportunity is dispersed and everyone can get on in life.
It is an unapologetically modern mindset: restive about the future rather than nostalgic for the past; and adamant about the need to reform our clapped out political institutions, no matter how great the vested interests against change.
Labour and the Conservatives are, however, finding it increasingly difficult to stay put in the centre. The Tories are pulling to the right in an attempt to appease their base. Compassionate conservatism has been sidelined. So-called benefits scroungers have been back in the firing line, along with the European Convention on Human Rights. The blue team used to claim to have gone green, yet have now publicly denounced the importance of environmental protections. Despite millions of ordinary families feeling the pinch, the Conservatives resist making the tax and welfare systems fairer still – ruling out introducing a Mansion Tax or looking again at the benefits paid to very wealthy, even multi-millionaire, pensioners.
To the other side, Labour has also shifted. It was startling to see party grandees, led by Tony Blair, pile in on Ed Milband for abandoning the centre. They, rightly, fear that in opposing everything Labour will stand for nothing. And it is true that by offering anger rather than hope, Labour are steadily becoming a party of protest. They are making the classic mistake of opposition, talking only to themselves rather than setting out a positive vision for the nation. Their absence of ideas only confirms that they cannot be trusted on the biggest challenge of our time: fixing the mess in the economy they helped create.
The irony is that, while Labour and the Conservatives are pulling opposite ways, they are headed in the same direction: backwards, simultaneously setting their parties’ modernisation projects into reverse. In doing so they are walking away from the millions of people who gave them their support on the basis that they had become more inclusive in the centre ground.
The Liberal Democrats are different. We will not be dragged one way or another. And as the country continues to navigate the most profound economic storm in living memory, we will be the anchor Britain needs: a strong and pragmatic check on both extremes.
Our task now is to reach out to the millions of people who also shun the extremes. The country is on a difficult journey, making its way through a period of anxiety and unpredictability and the Liberal Democrats must be a reassuring voice.
So as we head towards the local elections, tell the people you meet: if you agree we need responsible action taken on the deficit, but you believe the burden should be spread fairly, there is still a party that speaks for you.
If you want the Government to get a grip on welfare, but to ensure we still help those in need. If you think we should support business by cutting red tape, but not at the expense of workers’ rights. If you value the benefits immigration has bought to Britain, but you think it’s wrong when the rules can be easily abused. If you know that membership of the EU matters to British jobs, but you want the UK leading reform of a streamlined, more efficient EU. If you back greater choice in our public services, but could never support privatising the NHS or profit-making in schools.
On these and so many other issues, we will not be swayed. In these uncertain times the Liberal Democrats will continue to deliver a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life. Of that you can be sure.
* Nick Clegg is the MP for Sheffield Hallam