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.