Opinion: For the Lib Dems to challenge in 2015, the party must be forcefully centrist

You’ve got to give him credit. Nick Clegg stands strong as the party leader in the face of some truly dreadful polling. He has shrugged off a leadership challenge, and remains upbeat in spite of relentless media criticism.

This resilience must, in part, come from a belief that taking the Lib Dems to the centre ground was right for the party. Going into coalition with the Tories, the leadership knew votes would be haemorrhaged to Labour. But it was the correct decision, and one that was backed by all quarters. The question, therefore, is whether we should reverse field in 2015 in the hope of regaining those voters we have lost.

Clegg’s intentions are clear. His conference speech was striking in its commitment to centrism, with right and left attacked in equal measure. And receiving criticism from both Ed Balls and Liam Fox was worn as a badge of pride. The ‘inbetweeners’ label will gain more currency post-Brighton.

But Clegg’s centrism is not rootless populism. It grows from a liberal philosophy that has been lost in the battle between red and blue. The groundwork for Clegg’s speech was established by Richard Reeve’s excellent piece in The New Statesman. Reeves argued that if the Lib Dems want to be a third party of government, we cannot remain a protest vote for the left. A distinct vision of government must be formulated, one that is not merely couched in terms of who we are not. It is a robust liberalism that can fill this void.

Many in our party will continue to resist this move. The Orange Book was not the traditional mood music for the Lib Dem base, but its authors have taken us into government. Ironically, it is Vince Cable, an Orange Booker himself, who poses the biggest threat to this drift to the centre. Vince’s backers foresee Clegg stepping down sometime in 2014, with the Business Secretary riding in to salvage what remains of the party’s left.

But some health warnings should be attached to this plan. The voters who have deserted us over the course of this parliament are unlikely to be won back. These Lib/Lab undecideds will not return to the party on account of a leadership change. Going into a coalition with the Tories, let alone presiding over a period of austerity, was enough to alienate this section of support.

And vacating the centre ground would set back a decade’s worth of attempts to create a distinctive image for the party. Returning to the left, we will once more become Labour’s little brother, a party that can only ever pick up votes when others stumble.

Sticking with the centre therefore seems correct in both the short and long-term. While we will almost certainly lose votes on the left, fighting 2015 on a platform of centrism will attract moderates of all stripes. And if we hold onto the liberalism Clegg is espousing, the party will achieve what we have desperately lacked in the past — a coherent vision of government that is distinct from either Labour or Tory.

* William is currently working as a Research Intern at Survation while completing his MSc at the London School of Economics.

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66 Comments

  • Scott Walker 1st Oct '12 - 10:45am

    I wholeheartedly agree with Dave. Why do we need to continue to define ourselves on the other parties’ terms? We should be selling to people concept of ‘liberalism’ and not branding it a move to the left or the right. If we truly want to differentiate ourselves from the other parties, liberalism is the vehicle to carry us there!

  • Erlend Watson 1st Oct '12 - 10:45am

    Your first paragraph says he has shrugged off a leadership challenge. There hasn’t been any sign of one. The only Lib Dem of any standing to have called for Clegg to go so far has been Linda Jack as far as I have noticed. Not even the usual awkward squad. No John Hemming, no backdoors briefings for Charles Kennedy. So you posit a paper tiger.

    IMPO if there were to be a challenge it would not be in 2012 or 2013 but 2 years from now in Autumn 2014. And I am not convinced that one will happen but that would be logical timing for someone who wanted to be less covered in excreta than if they went now. And put up to it by MPs thinking that would change the outcome in their seats. Also there will be talk about it when UKIP beat at least us and possibly one or both of the other parties in June. Which will actually be meaningless but cause the chatterato to chatter.

  • Richard Dean 1st Oct '12 - 11:00am

    The centre is an awfully small place, and its surrounded and so very difficult to defend. Why not be everywhere instead? Life is not a zero-sum game. It ought to be possible to develop approaches that attract people from a wide range of points of view. That’s what democracy is about really – inclusion not exclusion.

    One of the problems of coalition is that we don’t have a full set of shadow (?) ministes. So we don’t look like a party for government. Shadow is perhaps the wrong word, but why can’t we have, for example, a shadow Chancellor, a shadow Health Secretary, etc? Or do we already have these? WIthout visible shadows, how can we climb into the light?

  • Tony Dawson 1st Oct '12 - 11:02am

    “Going into coalition with the Tories, the leadership knew votes would be haemorrhaged to Labour.”

    Really?????? Can you recall when this ‘leadership view’ was ever shared with anyone?

    My recollection is that the official view was that the Coalition was likely to give us a dip in our fortunes but then the economy was going to be put back on track with private sector growth and we would somehow reap the benefits.

    “He has shrugged off a leadership challenge,”

    Quoi? I recall a little idle media speculation, hardly a ‘challenge’.

    “The Orange Book was not the traditional mood music for the Lib Dem base, but its authors have taken us into government.”

    Not true at all. We were ‘taken into government’ by the efforts of hundreds of Lib Dem activists in target seats who won their seats ‘against the trend’ of a rather lacklustre national campaign in 2010.

    “vacating the centre ground would set back a decade’s worth of attempts to create a distinctive image for the party”

    In the words of that great political commentator,John Patrick McEnroe: “You Cannot Be Serious!” I am not saying that we should ‘vacate the centre ground’ because the progressive ‘centre’ is where we have always been, regardless of Labour’s occasional attempts to outflank us on the ‘Right’. But having only been in the Party (and predecessor) for a mere 40 years, I see no attempt worthy of the name to create any ‘distinctive image’ except perhaps in ‘distinctive images’ in some highly-creative (sic) minds.

    “the party will achieve what we have desperately lacked in the past — a coherent vision of government that is distinct from either Labour or Tory”

    You may have this problem. Who else has? Political commentariat members who see the world through the bottom of a brandy glass? Might I suggest that the reason that you lack this coherent vision might be that your blurred standpoint is actually far too close to that of both Tory and Labour so you cannot see the difference that is the Lib Dem ideology which has evolved over a rather longer time than the present leadership.

  • Russell Lambert 1st Oct '12 - 11:33am

    Nothing the Lib Dems have done since entering into coalition is going to attract new voters on either side of the spectrum.

    I can’t help but think that this discussion is a bit like discussing how to save the itanic AFTER it has hit the iceberg.

    Labour voters won’t change to Lib Dem after the coalition. Tory voters are more likely to swing to UKIP. And Lib Dem supporters, I suspect, have on mass ignored “the apology” and won’t turn out to vote. For me, only by leaving the coalition NOW do the Lib Dems have a realistic chance of not being embarassed at the next election. And as that is not happening…it’s all doom and gloom for the yellows.

  • I think Clegg *has* squarely aimed for popularism with the way he has made various tax proposals. Polling demonstrates that he has failed. I agree with Caratacus. Osborne got cornered early on with his politically naive “no plan B” response and ever since then this government has been hemmed in by global economic circumstances – a self inflicted state of affairs. Clegg’s “a different kind of politics” theme also didn’t sit well with the reality that coalition involves horse trading. So far we seem to have been poor at horse trading. Clegg’s attempts at constitutional reform have come to naught, or potentially worse, left open the door for partial reform that helps the Tories at huge expense to us. My concern is that with every new Clegg speech, everyone forgets what we stand for.

  • paul barker 1st Oct '12 - 12:30pm

    While agreeing with the broad thrust of the article the whole tone is way too pessimistic.
    Both labour & tories are being dragged to their extremes – opening a space in the centre where most voters live.
    We have lost real votes to labour but only in elections most voters dont take seriously. Labours polling is puffed up with protest votes, barely half of those labour “supporters” want to see Ed as PM or blame the coalition for the crisis.

    We dont know what will hppen in 2015 but our opportunities are vast.

  • Geoffrey Payne 1st Oct '12 - 1:11pm

    It seems to me that Nick Clegg’s supporters have become very good at specifying who they do not want as supporters for what they are trying to achieve – about half of those who voted for us at the last general election – but rather hopeless at appealing to who they want to replace them instead.
    I also find it rather odd that someone who works for a far right think tank that does not take seriously global warming claims that he is a centrist.

  • Apparently Mr Clegg is indeed solely responsible for “taking the Lib Dems to the centre ground”. Actually this is what many LIbDem voters witnessed in May 2010, but I haven’t seen it admitted before. How could this be possible in a democratic political party that one person can decide to shift the entire moverment (in this case the LIberal Democrat Party) in a particular political direction – of his choosing. The people remaining in your party really need not wonder why you have lost so much support.

  • Can you give me an example of a centrist policy? I’d bet my bottom dollar that no member of the public could. Left and right wing (like authoritarian and liberal) are political concepts with substantial if contested meaning but ‘centrist’ is just marketing-speak, a bit of artfully vapid rhetoric. Ah, you say but when we ask voters many of them describe themselves as being in the centre. Yes but the reason they do that is precisely because it is more or less meaningless politically. The ‘centre ground’ has warm fuzzy connotations of being moderate and reasonable and naturally people don’t think of themselves as being immoderate and unreasonable. Dig deeper and you will find all these ‘centrists’ have wildly divergent political beliefs. So when someone tells you they are on the centre ground of politics they have told you nothing. Try and pitch your tent there and you are likely to find it is a rather lonely and windswept place.

  • mark fairclough 1st Oct '12 - 3:30pm

    And if we run to prop Labour up automatically straight away we will lose some people

  • Simon Titley 1st Oct '12 - 4:24pm

    I’ve been racking my brains trying to work out what is most ridiculous about this opinion piece.

    Is it that the author is extolling the virtues of ‘centrism’ even though he works for the distinctly right-wing IEA?

    Is it that the author praises Richard Reeves, the former adviser who came up with the idea of ‘Alarm Clock Britain’?

    Is it that the author seriously believes that, without the Orange Book, the Liberal Democrats would never have entered government?

    Is it that, despite the fact that all the mainstream parties have been converging on the same ‘centre ground’ for over twenty years, the author nevertheless believes that centrism would supply the Liberal Democrats with a ‘distinctive image’?

    Is it that the notion of ‘centrism’ is itself absurd, since it implies allowing your opponents to define you?

    No. It’s the idea that we must be “forcefully centrist”. This is an oxymoron, rather like a ‘hard sponge’, a ‘sharp jelly’ or a ‘fierce coward’.

    What would make a suitable rallying cry for ‘forceful centrism’?

    What do we want?
    Centrism!
    When do we want it?
    Er, when would suit you?

  • mark fairclough 1st Oct '12 - 4:25pm

    sorry it should have read ‘lose some people’

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Oct '12 - 4:38pm

    What you write here is essentially agreeing with our critics. They say the current coalition was a conscious move of the Liberal Democrats to the right. That destroys what ought to have been the argument – and was the reason party members were prepared to give it backing – that it was the only stable government that could come from the 2010 Parliament. A minority Tory government or a Labour-LibDem coalition would be unstable as unable to guarantee its policy could be passed. The default position if no coalition agreed was Cameron appointed as Prime Minister, and it was obvious under that situation he would call another general election arguing “Give me a majority so I can govern properly” – he would ensure that by cutting taxes but not spending, confident that any market worries could be put down to “see, the markets don’t like the uncertainty”. The biggest losers of an early general election would be the LibDems.

    OK, but now you are using this chance event to support a permanent move to the right. Suppose the balance had worked out so that a Labour-LibDem coalition was the only stable possibility. Would you be arguing that meant we had to shift permanently to the left? If so, you are in effect arguing that coalitions cannot work because they must mean the junior partner permanently changes its profile. If not, you are suggesting the original argument was a sham, and there always was a conspiracy to pull the Liberal Democrats to the right, and the coalition was just an excuse to fool the wider party into accepting it. Well, sorry, but if that is the case, it is despicable behaviour. As someone who has publicly expressed my support for the formation of the coalition on the lines I have written above, despite being very unhappy with many of its policies, you are now saying to me “Hah, hah, mug, you’ve been fooled – now get out of the party, we don’t need people like you any more”. Sorry, your argument that the formation of the coalition was ” was backed by all quarters” should not be used to argue that “all quarters” support what you and Nick Clegg and Nick Reeves are arguing. This undemocratic way of behaving, this gaining what you want by trickery, this contempt for democracy is NOT what I would expect from anyone who is a true liberal.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Oct '12 - 4:54pm


    Reeves argued that if the Lib Dems want to be a third party of government, we cannot remain a protest vote for the left. A distinct vision of government must be formulated, one that is not merely couched in terms of who we are not. It is a robust liberalism that can fill this void.

    So here we go, what you and Reeves are in effect saying is “We are superior people – our view of politics is a ‘distinct vision’, but yours is not”. Well, sorry, but yes I do have a distinct vision of what the Liberal Democrats could be, and it is very different from yours. You are no better than those arrogant socialists I dealt with when I was younger, so stuck up and convinced of their own superiority, because being a socialist was then the fashion, either you were one and that made you one of the enlightened people, or you were not one and could just be dismissed with insults rather than rational argument – socialism then was “progressive”, so anyone who oppose it was just a backwards person stupidly resisting the inevitable.

    Now we find the fashion is for extreme market theories, and the more these idea turn out to have big problems in practice, the more the impressionistic young who want to look clever take them up and ape the propaganda lines used by their elders to promote them, their only response to any critics being that if it went wrong in the past it was because it was not implemented in an extreme enough manner.

    Well, I became a left Liberal rather than a socialist because I couldn’t stand that sort of superiority complex, particularly its contempt for democracy and its wish to push it through by force rather than argument. But you and Reeves think anyone to the left of them is just part of an indistinguishable mess, so we should all join the Labour Party. Just like the Trots of old felt anyone to their right was an indistinguishable capitalist running dog, just another form of Tory.

    Have I expressed my contempt for what you are saying deeply enough, or do you want more? I have tackled Reeves’ article in more detail elsewhere – it was dreadful, essentially a suicide note for the Liberal Democrats.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Oct '12 - 5:15pm

    This man will end up very soon as one of the Number 10 advisers and gatekeepers preventing the voice of the party reaching the ear of the leader. This is no laughing matter.

    The great paradox is that it is at the centre that the totalitarian resides . The totalitarian never for a monent asks him or heself, ‘what if I am wrong’.

    The Reeves line is illiberal as it seeks to place a label on aother human beings.

    He says in effect “Because you do not believe in austerity you must be a social democrat, because you are a social democrat you are in the wrong party and should “return” to the Labour Party. Because you are not one of us you are not serious about government, you are in fact an opportunist who is wedded to oppostion and too timid to accept the responsibility of power.”

    That is the argument of the totalitarian.

    I learnt early how difficult it is to be a Liberal. I have not yet perfected it. I work each day on it, because illiberality is what we are socialized towards and it is what I try each day to unlearn.

    Liberalism is as hard to reach as a spiritual goal. Those who think they are Liberals and need no further work to achieve it are far from their goal.

  • Nigel Quinton 1st Oct '12 - 5:31pm

    Once again, what Matthew said.

    FFS, I came away from conference broadly optimistic that the party was beginning to behave more like Liberals again, but articles like this only confirm the worst thoughts I had about the leadership’s advisers prior to conference. I’m seriously in danger of making an ageist comment (about callow youth).

    We don’t need to be resiliently centrist, we need to be resiliently Liberal.

  • A quote sometimes attributed to Chuchill is “Any man who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age 40 has no head.”

    It takes time and experience of the wider world to get to grips with the harsh realities of grassroot politics. Every young person should be allowed the space to undergo that journey in their own time.

  • Joe Bourke. Yes, as the years go by (it seems to me) that the easy route for an individual is to drift “to the right” It is much much more difficult to hang on to the “Leftist” principles through life. I regard myself as fortunate; the political views that I formed at age 20 (in the 1960s), I have not for one second felt the need to doubt. And I have spent a working life very much in the “real” world of realism and hard work. For those who drift towards the Tory philosophy, I judge that they have given up on the “goodness” in human beings.

  • Tony Dawson 1st Oct '12 - 6:57pm

    @Jedibeeftrix :

    “the lib-dems have been an irrelevance to the binary poles of British politics ever since the rise of the labour movement made social liberalism the ‘lite’ version of lefty politics.”

    You show your ignorance of the reality of British politics for the past 25 years or so. In about half of the UK, politics is defined between poles of Labour and Tory. In about 25 percent of the country between Lib Dem and Tory (with Labour pretty irrelevant) and in about 10 per cent between Labour and LibDem. In part of the final 15 per cent, only one out of the ‘big three’ parties has a fight with nationalists. In a smaller part, not a single mainstream Party has any influence at all.

    Of course, all this may change post-coalition. I f it soes, it will not be an achievement to brag about.

  • Bigdave,

    a quote that can be rightly attributed to Churchill is “No part of the education of a politician is more indispensable than the fighting of elections.” It is this process of direct engagement and public discourse that both forces the translation of cherished principles into workable solutions , attuned to the needs of the electorate, and cements our faith in the inherent “goodness” of human beings

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Oct '12 - 10:43pm

    Nigel Quinton

    FFS, I came away from conference broadly optimistic that the party was beginning to behave more like Liberals again, but articles like this only confirm the worst thoughts I had about the leadership’s advisers prior to conference.

    Yup, same here. I even started feeling a bit positive about Clegg when he raised the idea of wealth taxes, having a bit of a fight with Bill le Breton and others when I thought they were being unfair in kicking Clegg though he had for once come out with something distinctly leftist. I was only able to stay at the conference for the weekend, so that’s when I “came away”, but certainly from the sort of things I heard members saying there, I felt I was in the right party, they were things that chimed with what I believe, they were very different from what you would find Tories saying.

    However, reading Richard Reeves’ New Statesman article coming down on the train had angered me, it was just SO insulting to those of us who have worked so hard for the party for many years, essentially “get lost, you aren’t wanted”. Here I am, having played a major part as leader of the council group while it happened, in the Liberal Democrats changing the London Borough of Lewisham from a LibDem black hole to one where all three Parliamentary seats were reaching our grasp, and Mr Reeves – the outgoing Director of Strategy for our Leader – tells me I should consider the many years hard work involved in that to be a complete waste of time, the support carefully won over through two decades of community action thrown away casually on the grounds it was just “borrowed from Labour”, in fact I should just go off and join Labour given that I disagree with his line that “liberalism” means extreme free market policies, and I uphold to that outdated idea that perhaps it means “none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity”. Either that, or I should stop thinking for myself, as my thoughts are just meaningless “protest” – instead I should listen to the words of my Dear Leader, a supremely enlightened person, the best leader of the Liberalism for all time, so perfect in his wisdom and understanding that I should just accept whatever he – and his Director of Strategy _ tells me I must do, I must Obey the Party Line, even if that party line is somewhat different to what used to be the party line.

    And Mr Mosseri-Marlio thinks it to be “excellent”.

    I’m afraid the Leader’s speech at conference, when I looked at it closely, suggested to me that Mr Reeves’ article was not an aberration, rather that this sort of thinking very much has influenced his position. I’m sorry, but being a very junior partner in a coalition with others who are mostly frightful people with frightful ideas, is NOT to me to have reached our goals, the end position of all the work we have put in over the decades, as Mr Clegg claimed it was. Being a very junior partner in a coalition is something that could easily have happened at any time since the Liberal Party began its revival in the 1960s and 1970s. Jeremy Thorpe could have gone for it in 1974. It has not happened due to any special genius of Mr Clegg and his advisers. The idea that a coalition we are in through happenstance, and happenstance that makes us rather weak in it because there was no alternative we could bargain with, means we must now permanently change and become more like our coalition partners is illiberal and undemocratic – though it was at the heart of Clegg’s speech. Painting us as just the “third party of government” rather than a radical force which is out to break the two-party duopoly and change fundamentally the nature of politics in this country is SUCH a defeatist message. Dismissing almost all we have done in the past as being just a silly protest movement we must now forget is a deep insult to those who put Mr Clegg where he is.

    I know I can’t really be bothered any more. So I suppose I am just handing the party in to the likes of Mr Mosseri-Marlio. From what I read Liberal Democrat Voice, it seems his type are the only new members we are recruiting now. So, here you go sonny (yes, I too am worked up to the point of wanting to make offensive ageist comments), it’s yours now. Let’s see how it flourishes (or not) under your type.

  • David Allen 1st Oct '12 - 11:20pm

    “I’ve been racking my brains trying to work out what is most ridiculous about this opinion piece.

    Is it that the author is extolling the virtues of ‘centrism’ even though he works for the distinctly right-wing IEA?”

    Yes, I think that’s the key point. Reality, of course, is that the Clegg Coup has shifted the party hard to the Right. So, let’s do politics the modern way, the Karl Rove way, the Tea Party way, the Big Lie way. First, let’s ceaselessly redefine Orange Bookery as centrism. Then, let’s call the social liberals who have formed the bedrock of our party “refugees from Labour”. Hey presto, “Cleggism” rules, the bandits wear the crown, reality has been spun out of existence.

    Except, of course, amongst millions of voters, who may not spend a lot of time thinking deep thoughts about politics, but who do seem to know liars and charlatans when they see them. Those voters aren’t coming back, ever.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Oct '12 - 11:23pm

    Further to Alex who writes, “One is forced towards the conclusion that the grand game plan here is to use coalition as a pretext for a political repositioning, what I have previously termed the Reeves Realignment.”

    How do Liberal Democrats respond to the allegations here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/only-the-tories-can-keep-the-future-orange-8191052.html

    Perhaps those claimed to be involved should deny or explain. Certainly the Party President as Chair of FE should seek an explanation on behalf of the Party.

  • Martin Pierce 2nd Oct '12 - 7:45am

    I was about to despair of just about every facile assertion in this article (how do you get so much into a short space?) and was bracing myself for a lengthy response to each and every one but my faith in the party generally has been restored by the responses which have done all that for me and better than I could. I wonder if the article was really just a ploy by the IEA though to get us to waste our time on replying to ridiculous articles like this instead of going out campaigning ?

  • Helen Flynn 2nd Oct '12 - 7:56am

    Two questions you need to ask the ordinary voter::

    1. What does liberalism mean?

    2. What does centralism mean?

    In my experience no-one, unless politically active, has got a single clue about (1). There is a chance of building a platform that ordinary voters understand about (2), and that does not mean giving up on Liberal values. It is just how you sell it.

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Oct '12 - 8:33am

    @Jedibeeftrix :

    “This is an adversarial fptp electoral system, do you want power or not?”

    Because it is an adversarial fptp there is nothing that representatives of an honest centre ground philosophy can do other than find candidates with integrity and teams of talent in certain constituencies who can retain the trust of a majority of their electorate even when national factors are pulling them down.

    Anyone at the ‘centre’ who thinks they can ‘plan for continued power’ when the national outturns of an fptp system are so utterly random, reminds one of the Berlin bunker inhabitants under fire planning how they will re-paint the streets of Moscow. Any serious intention to make a ‘pitch’ for a electorally-relevant ideologically-‘pure’ minority “conscience neoliberal” position would have required absolute prioritisation of a competent (and winning) Alternative Vote campaign from June 2010 onwards.

  • Simon Titley 2nd Oct '12 - 8:51am

    @Helen Flynn – No, no, no! ‘Centralism’ as you call it (I assume you mean ‘centrism’) is about splitting the difference; it’s about waiting to see what the other parties say then trying to insert yourself between them. It’s about ignoring your own values and allowing your opponents to define you – which will ensure that fewer people understand what liberalism is. Centrism isn’t a ‘platform’; it’s a death wish.

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Oct '12 - 10:51am

    The talks mean that, should another hung parliament arise, Labour would be at a huge disadvantage going into coalition negotiations even if it had the most seats, because “shadow negotiations” would have been taking place for more than two years.
    The intriguing factor about this article is how any sensible journalist could give house room to the idea that representatives of a secret faction who will, by that time, have have managed to reduce the number of Lib Dem MPs in Parliament over two successive elections, would even be given house room within the Party in a post-2015 General Election when it comes to serious decision-making.

  • I think Clegg essentially wants to espouse Liberalism but I think his advisors don’t think it’s something people understand so they’re using the word centrist as a way of defining the party with other parties. I think left, right, centre are completely redundant terms but until our media wake up to that I can see why coming up with a simplistic mantra may be attractive. If he starts losing the word liberal then we should be worried but I get the impression Clegg very much defines himself instinctively in the traditional liberal mould.

  • Helen Flynn – you are right but don’t you think it terribly depressing that people don’t actually understand the definition of the word Liberal? You would think it was completely self explanatory

  • We don’t ‘want to be the third party’, actually we want to be the first party, though ‘one of three parties of government’ is probably the best way to describe our position for the moment.
    We haven’t ‘shifted to the right’ we have moved forward on Liberal ground. It is others who are trying to define us in their terms and we are fools if we fall for it by using their words. We need to be strong and radically define ourselves in our own terms, in terms of what we believe in and want to achieve. We should not be defined by the particular views of individuals, whoever they are or were.
    Clegg is not taking us in any direction, other than forward. Members set the direction by our decisions, and if he tries to take us where we don’t want to go that is when he will lose the mandate.
    We don’t want to ‘attract back’ those we have lost to ‘left’ (or the ‘right’), there are plenty of voters out there who are just waiting for the moment when we inspire them to get out of their armcahirs and join with our vision of a Liberal future. We won’t do that by pandering to the ways of the two old parties, or the bullies in the media. Trying to stand in the middle of the see-saw achieves nothing. We must define ourselves and where we are going in our own terms, in our own language, Clegg is human so he has faults, but I cannot see a better person to take us forward on the next stage of our journey.

  • Charles Beaumont 2nd Oct '12 - 1:15pm

    Wow. Talk about vitriolic. When I wrote an op-ed back in June (http://www.libdemvoice.org/2015-election-campaign-28874.html) trying to make the case for a new and distinctive platform for the party, it was just this outpouring of anger and division that I thought we’d be better avoiding. Imagine how little the average voter gives a damn about the difference between ‘Centrism’ and ‘Liberalism’…

  • Steve Griffiths 2nd Oct '12 - 2:48pm

    “The voters who have deserted us over the course of this parliament are unlikely to be won back. These Lib/Lab undecideds will not return to the party on account of a leadership change”

    You still have not got it. What you say may be true about some voters, but you have lost many of your ground troops like myself, who put decades of work in to get the party where it is. We were notLib/Lab undecides, we were convinced members of the libertarian left. We haven’t gone to Labour, we’ve just gone; unable to recognise the party that we believed in and fought for so long. You have many wards now where you have little organisation left; without us you will not have success, centrism or not.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Oct '12 - 3:30pm

    Martin Pierce

    I wonder if the article was really just a ploy by the IEA though to get us to waste our time on replying to ridiculous articles like this instead of going out campaigning ?

    I’ve already stopped campaigning for the party. It’s terrible when right now there’s a key council by-election in the London Borough where I worked so hard to build up the party (I now live in the neighbouring borough,but still very close by) and I’m having to say to people I know well there “Sorry, I’m not going to help out”. However,I just can’t do it when we have a leader and his advisors who seem just intent on destroying our party, who keep saying things that I know will damage our case and make it harder for me as an (ex) activist to win over support to the party.

    Right now, being a Liberal Democrat activist is, as Geoffrey Howe put it in his resignation speech, like going out to the crease only to find your team captain has broken your bats.

    I’ve accepted that we had to join the coalition, I’ve argued vigorously in Liberal Democrat Voice against those who have abused us for doing so. I can see we are doing valuable things at the fringes of this Tory-dominated government to stop the worst of it, I am frustrated that outside our party almost no-one seems able to appreciate this, and we are hampered by the way the Labour Party backs the political right when we try to move the government a little leftwards rather than joins us in the call for reform.

    However, our leader, and those who advise him, just keep throwing out these lines which support the very arguments being used to attack us. The whole “Rose Garden” “isn’t it wonderful we are in power?” line seems designed to make it seem we have moved far to the political right, or are in it just for jobs for Mr Clegg and a few of his followers in Parliament. As I have been arguing since 2010, what we should have done is admit we are in a situation where we can do little, and make clear if people don’t like having a government which is 85% Tory despite the Tories having only 35% of the vote, they should back electoral reform. Instead, by making out we have half the power – or insanely 75% in a line we were urged by Mr Tim Farron to use (he didn’t actually say that, but that is how most people interpreted what he did say) – we are putting ourselves in the position to take the blame for policies which are mostly just not our own. By making out we are so powerful as we are, we (I mean our leaders who claim to speak in our name) are suggesting we don’t need more votes or electoral reform, rather we are very happy with what we have. By suggesting what we have now is the promised land we have been marching towards for decades – the central theme of Mr Clegg’s conference speech – we are making ourselves look so lacking in ambition, and making our past voters feel like mugs as they think “Really? Is what we have now, which looks to me like a thoroughly right-wing Tory government, what that lot wanted all the time? Well, I’m sorry they fooled me, but I won’t be fooled again”.

    On top of this, having been told last year by Mr Pete Dollimore, the party’s London Campaign Manager that I was not welcome in the party for my suggestions it was being complacent and incompetent, and having been told by its Leader’s outgoing Director of Strategy that I should just go off and join the Labour Party and that all my past work for the party is useless because it has just attracted “protest” votes which rightly belong to the Labour Party, well, why should I bother? So I won’t.

  • Peter. When you claim that “We haven’t ‘shifted to the right’”, I suspect that a majority of your party members and certainly a majority of voters don’t agree. From the General Election onwards, a small number of senior LibDems have been eager to jettison “leftist” policies, members and voters. It has happened openly, for all to see; to suggest otherwise is, in my opinion, to deny of the obvious.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Oct '12 - 9:03pm

    peter

    Clegg is not taking us in any direction, other than forward

    How do we know whether it is forwards or backwards? Why is it that Clegg defines what is “forwards”? Anyone who argues for what they want in the grounds it is moving “forwards” is usually doing so because they have no real arguments. It is a favourite trick of those in power who have no democratic feeling – they argue that what they want is “forwards” and therefore has to be accepted as the inevitable in order to silence without serious debate any objectors to it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Oct '12 - 9:07pm

    peter

    We don’t want to ‘attract back’ those we have lost to ‘left’ (or the ‘right’), there are plenty of voters out there who are just waiting for the moment when we inspire them to get out of their armcahirs and join with our vision of a Liberal future.

    So where are they? For years and years we have been told by right-wing commentators that if only we dropped all that lefty stuff and became what they call a “pure liberal” party i.e. fanatical on free market cash economics and not much else, voters would come flocking to us because there’s millions out there who want that sort of thing. Well, most people now seem to think we have beome just that. So where’s those voters?

  • @bigdave
    what your suspicions may or may not be are unwanted and unhelpful, so please keep them to yourself.

    The premise that there has been any shift relative to the right or left is a false premise for LibDems, because we don’t define ourselves according to the dogmas and doctrines of others, rather we prefer to define ourselves by our liberalism according to the practical measures we can take to enhance our liberty.

    Whichever way you try to look at it the result of the 2010 GE was a shift: Labour lost their overall majority.

    You can try to translate or spin this shift in any which way you want, but you can’t blame LibDems for being bound by the decision of the electorate. In fact we are pround to more accurately represent the overall view of the country more accurately than any other party.

  • @Matthew,
    forwards means making progress on legislation, rather than being a block and hindrance.

    The economic storms can be described as a headwind, so tacking is a necessary political tool to take advantage of without which we couldn’t tackle the challenges the country faces.

    And the fact we’re still facing criticism is a perfect indicator that we’ve not changed direction and we are still going forwards, we’re still headed into the eye of the storm – I’d be more worried if our opponents started complementing us!

  • Peter Watson 2nd Oct '12 - 10:38pm

    @Oranjepan “In fact we are pround to more accurately represent the overall view of the country more accurately than any other party.”
    Hmmm. It would be great if this were so. I guess that mathematically speaking if you average out the left and the right you end up in the middle, or since in some parts of the country we are seen as an alternative to labour and in others we are an alternative to conservative, then perhaps that makes us somehow representative of the country as a whole.
    In the real world though, I think that if we “represented the overall view of the country more accurately than any other party” then we would be the number one party in government and the opinion polls, not the 3rd, or 4th.
    Unfortunately, oposing some tory policies and some labour policies does not mean we appeal to everyone since whilst there might be very few who accept that either of the two main parties is right about everything, we all have a different list of things we like and things we dislike about them. That is why Lib Dems need a distinct voice and a clear vision of the principles they stand for. Being a centrist none-of-the-above party, defined solely by not being labour or tory, might be the way to be a permanent coalition partner but what would be the point?

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Oct '12 - 10:47pm

    @jedibeeftrix

    “@ Tony – “Because it is an adversarial fptp there is nothing that representatives of an honest centre ground philosophy can do””

    That is thoroughly dishonest ‘quote’, deliberately misrepresenting my position by removing the thing which I said Liberal Democrats can do. Why am I not surprised?

  • Oranjepan
    Had we been concerned about the opinions of the electorate, we would have allowed / enforced a Tory / Labour administration. To use the tired old formula, no party “won” the election. In fact we didn’t come first…or second… just a distant third. So why didn’t we leave the business of Govt to others? In terms of the momentum at the election, we were losing out, Labour were gaining, and the Tories were (just about) hanging on

  • I have just noticed that the two Peters here, peter and Peter Watson, have both talked about “not being defined by others”. So you can be opposite ends of the spectrum, and still agree with that!

    Incidentally, peter, it strikes me that what is being done in the Lib Dems’ name at present has definite echoes of “pandering to the two old parties and the bullies in the media”. Many of us see what has happened as an example of the “old politics” in action rather than the new which we were promised. I make these comments, irrespective of whether you see it as right left or centre, on a seesaw, forward, or liberal.

  • Oranjepan. “The premise that there has been any shift relative to the right or left is a false premise for LibDems,” The ‘shift’ (to the Right) may well be a false premise for those still in the LibDem Party, but to the people who have left the Party – and to ex-voters – the shift was very evident and very real. Might I also comment on your advice to me to, in effect, ‘keep my unhelpful views to myself’. I voted enthusiastically for the LibDems at the last election, but the views I have formed since then appear to make you feel uncomfortable. And your reaction to this discomfort is to demand that I keep quiet. Your reaction reveals (a) a lack of confidence in you and in your Party, and (b) a lack of democratic will.

  • @Tim13
    I don’t think a ‘distant’ third is quite accurate – LibDems won about 6.8m, or 23%, of the votes in 2010, whereas the fourth-placed party got just 3% and compared to 29% and 36% for 2nd and 1st-placed respectively.

    “So why didn’t we leave the business of Govt to others?” because almost 1-in-4 people said they did want us to have a say in government, and representatives for 2-of-the-remaining-3 couldn’t agree to exclude us.

    @Peter Watson,
    sorry, no. Axiomatic interpretations may help media posturing for the consumption of the masses but they’re far from academic.

    No two people are of one mind, nor is any party or any nation – we are the only party which acknowledges this democratic nature in our politics.

    We are a diverse group of individuals, and this creates a balance. That we are the only party to value the balance democratically means we are the only party to be even capable of representing and articulating the national balance with any accuracy.

    I’m philosophical about the swings and roundabouts of opinion, however you wish to describe it good politics always comes back to the fundamental principles of freedom which are the backbone of the tradition of liberalism. It’s a restless dynamic, but it’s also our national heritage.

    It simply makes no sense to offer definitions according to the terms of other parties, so any potential overlap with others is beside the point.

    Democratic liberalism is quite simply of another order of political philosophy: it’s not an ideology, it’s a methodology. It is a practical system by which we put our ideas into place, not a dogmatic mess of somebody imposing somebody else’s flawed doctrine of perfection onto a cowed mass.

    That’s how we’re different, but that’s also why it’s difficult to express definitively except through active dialogue.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Oct '12 - 12:55pm

    Oranjepan

    @Matthew,
    forwards means making progress on legislation, rather than being a block and hindrance.

    But that’s meaningless. Are you really suggesting making ANY legislation is “moving forwards”? Suppose we were to introduce legislation banning homosexual practices – would you call that “forwards”? By the line you have used above, yes you would, and you would call those who try to block such legislation “backwards”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Oct '12 - 1:06pm

    Tim13

    I have just noticed that the two Peters here, peter and Peter Watson, have both talked about “not being defined by others”. So you can be opposite ends of the spectrum, and still agree with that!

    Yes, but it seems to me that what Clegg is doing, is very much saying we should be defined by others. The whole thesis of his (echoing Richard Reeves) “Now we are in coalition and have had to agree to some compromises we don’t really like, we can’t revert to what we were before” line is that we are to be defined by others. I don’t agree with this idea that because the balance in Parliament put us into a coalition with the Conservative Party we must in future be more like the Conservatives and cheerfully wave away any of our supporters who are unhappy with that.

    In fact the whole of politics in Britain has moved way to the right of where it used to be. I used to be a fairly moderate person, a bit to the left of the centre of the Liberal Party, but not very much so. Now I find I’m dismissed as some sort of extreme left-winger, our party is endorsing policies which once would have been considered as “Thatcherism”, and David Cameron is called a “moderate” even though he endorses policies which would have been considered beyond-the-fringes right-wing extremism back when I first joined the party. So we are very much allowing ourselves to be defined by others if we think that means we have to move to the economic right because doing so is “forwards” i.e. keeping up with current fashions in society, as dictated to us by those who control it.

  • Matthew Huntbach. I entirely agree with what you describe.

  • David Allen 4th Oct '12 - 12:03am

    An interesting question is, why is Alex Marsh right?

    Because of economic circumstances? Doubt it. We have drifted to the Right during boom and bustalike.

    Because rich people have become ever stronger in buying up opinion formers, buying up the media, buying up political parties the way Deripaska dealt with Osborne and Mandelson, and the hedge fund guys did with the Orange Bookers? That’s more like it, I fear.

    Can we rescue this ship? If not, should we scuttle it?

  • Matthew,
    unworkable and unenforcable legislation is no legislation at all, so your example makes no sense.

    Alex,
    I agree that the centre ground is a constantly shifting space, mainly because it is defined relative to others. That’s why it’s important to get up and off it.

    But what you suggest implies no way forward, sometime you have to tack to go round the blockage.

    Frankly I don’t like the definitions used by others, if Labour represents the left then just look at their approach to civil liberties – I’ll happily go the opposite direction. On the other side, if tories represent the right look at their approach to social services – I’ll also go the opposite direction.

    I’m not dogmatic about it, I want effective action.

  • Peter Watson 4th Oct '12 - 7:06pm

    Some of the comments here make me realise just how meaningless (or misguided) the whole left-right thing is.
    I’ve always had a general sense that “left” is defined in terms of the working class and their representation by trade unions, but many of those individuals would hold views on issues such as immigration, gay rights, punishment of criminals, patriotism, etc. that would be considered very right-wing.
    Equally, those with money and influence (industrialists, bankers, etc.) who my instincts would be to call “right-wing”, are probably more liberal, more tolerant of minorities, less patriotic (outsourcing work abroad) and more in favour of immigration (cheap supply of labour).
    Perhaps there is a better way of classifying the key themes of particular parties, e.g. big money (tories), workers (Labour), individual liberty (liberals), regional identity (SNP, PC, etc.), environment (Green), etc. That way individual policies can be justified more rationally rather than trying to explain why a “left-wing” policy is consistent with a “right-wing” party. And that way we can have a coherent set of policies without trying to identify some so-called “middle-ground” which I suspect does not exist once one tries to account for differing views on unrelated issues ranging from equality to foreign policy, education to devolution, health to law and order, etc.
    Anyway, just a few musings from a bored engineer who doesn’t often get to think about this sort of thing.

  • Peter Watson – the main problem is that over the years magpies in the other two have borrowed bits of Liberalism without buying into the whole philosophy. Hence that philosophy has become misguidedly associated with social democracy and conservatism, wrongly and partially.

    Reunification of the liberal tradition should be our aim.

  • Exactly, Conservatives and Labour are not anything more than party election platforms – and they will do whatever they can to con the public into giving them a majority in the attempt to build their power at the expense of anyone who gets in their way. Just look at their party conferences… no debate, no policy formation, no inclusion: exercises designed for the media, not members or the masses!

    They are each unstable coalitions of tribal groups and ideological hangers-on, which is why they’ve both moved so far away from the original policy positions which inspired those movements as they found them unworkable and unpopular.

    LibDems, on the other hand, are derided because we are not primarily self-interested, we act in the public interest.

    Sadly even in debates around electoral reform things gets twisted beyond recognition – apparently LibDems support more proportional representation because it’ll give us more seats, not because that’s what the public actually vote for.

    In 2010 LibDems got 23% of the popular vote, but less than 9% of the seats. The consequence was that LibDems had so few seats in the resulting coalition that bigger compromises were forced on us which gave them a chance to inspire anger from opposite sections of the public. We’re blamed for the systemic failure, and our proposed solution is naturally rejected.

    The two dominant parties obviously always know better than the public what’s good for the public even when they disagree, and this just happens to coincide with what favours them. Meanwhile we’re told what we think is fairest and most proportionate for everyone is therefore unfair and disproportionate for various exceptional groups (not mentioning their parties, of course).

    I find it difficult to console myself that the incoherence of left-vs-right always breaks down, since this inevitably causes massive damage to society and individuals suffer hugely in the meantime, even as the parties begin to moderate their excesses.

    But staying in the centre means we either get crushed or left behind – we’ve got to get ahead of the game and then play the angles better than them. We can’t just be good as ourselves, we must improve to break their cumulative cycle.

  • Quite heartened by many of the comments – as I really could not disagree with this article more .

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