Nick Clegg’s speech to the annual conference struck a firmly equidistant tone with
We’re not trying to get back into Government to fold into one of the other parties – we want to be there to anchor them to the liberal centre ground, right in the centre, bang in the middle. We’re not here to prop up the two party system: we’re here to bring it down.
backed up with a list of Conservative policies blocked, and a promise to block some Labour policies – once we know what they are – and implicitly to prevent Labour being reckless with the economy and public finances again.
To be clear this doesn’t imply that the Liberal Democrat party is bang in between the other two, it is more liberal than either. From opportunities for the least well off and fairer taxes, through crime, immigration, internationalism, to political reform and personal liberty, we have a liberal message which the other parties resist. But it is harder to drag any coalition government in a liberal direction than a centrist one, because the votes in parliament stack up reliably against us.
This speech is clearly looking forward to the potential of working with either of the other parties after the next election, and rebutting the charge that only another coalition with the Conservatives could work. The choice of who we work with, if anyone, will be made by the voters. This is equidistance, as we know it; right down to the policy that the top rate of income tax should be 45p.
But there is a problem on the horizon. How can a third party be equidistant unless the other parties sit still? In the run up to the Labour conference, we hear Ed Miliband promising to bring back socialism, and British apprenticeships in punishment for firms hiring foreign workers. (From a party whose government’s apprenticeship programme was a meagre fraction of the coalition’s.)
We shouldn’t leap to conclusions here – we are talking about an instinctive answer to a question from a member of the public.
In a question-and-answer session, Mr Miliband was asked when he would “bring back socialism”. He replied: “That’s what we are doing, Sir.”
This may just suggest, for now, a strategy of shoring up the core vote, or of spooking the markets in a last-ditch attempt to forestall good news on the economy. But the question remains, if, for example, Miliband plays to the hard left and Cameron were to court the centre, what would become of equidistance?
The answer is that it would be under some strain. We could not and should not change what we believe at the behest of the others. However by being a more distinctively liberal party, we can and will maintain a distance to them both, as they lurch left or right.
* Joe Otten is a councillor in Sheffield, and a prospective European Parliamentary candidate for Yorkshire and the Humber