“A shitty time to be a liberal”: The Economist’s must-read piece on the Clegg paradox (and 2 reasons why it’s wrong)

There’s a must-read column by The Economist’s Bagehot this week focusing on the Lib Dems’ dilemmas, titled The Clegg paradox. It’s a serious and weighty analysis, which asks some uncomfortable questions of the party’s strategy. Here’s it’s conclusion:

At a recent meeting of the Lib Dem parliamentary party, Tim Farron, an ambitious left-winger and party president, reportedly cheered this anti-Tory success, but bemoaned the fact that unelected peers had led the charge against the NHS reforms and got the credit for it, rather than Lib Dem MPs who need votes. That drew a rebuke from Jeremy Browne, a foreign office minister on the party’s free-market wing. Success should not be measured by how many Conservative initiatives the Lib Dems frustrate, said Mr Browne: we should not try to be a better opposition party than Labour, but a better governing party than the Tories.

Mr Clegg’s inner circle agree. The party can never go back to its previous easy existence, they say. Mr Clegg himself accepts that some of his views on immigration, law and order or Europe are on the wrong side of public opinion, especially in an age of austerity. It is a “shitty time to be a liberal”, he tells colleagues.

Actually, Britain is a tough place to be a liberal at any time, with a winner-takes-all voting system that punishes leaders like Mr Clegg, a minority within a minority party. The bet for Mr Clegg is that he does not need mass appeal: he just has to earn (or win back) the respect of enough voters to hold a balance of power in the next parliament.

As I say, it’s well worth reading, and even more worth thinking about seriosuly… But I don’t agree 100% with Bagehot’s analysis because of the credence he gives to two hoary old cliches much-loved by our opponents:

That Lib Dem votes are “borrowed” from Labour and the Tories

“The party has held Sheffield Hallam since 1997 with votes “borrowed” from Labour supporters. … To date, fewer Lib Dem seats have been won by borrowing the votes of centrist Conservatives.”

For all that Bagehot places “speech marks” round the word borrowed it feeds into the Labour and Tory rhetoric that British politics is essentially a class-based duopoly — a claim which was probably true for about 15 years after World War II, and never since. The ‘core votes’ for all three parties combined are now well below 50% of the population. In reality, most voters are (to one degree or another) ‘floating’, a mix of those who are entirely non-ideological and will vote for whichever party appears most competent and to care most for ‘people like us’, and those whose ideologies are more ‘pick n mix’ (eg, ‘right-wing’ socially, but ‘left-wing’ economically, or vice versa).

And in my canvassing experience, voters are generally at least as likely to vote against a party as they are to vote for one. Many Labour voters vote Labour to keep the Tories out; many Tory voters vote Tory to keep Labour out. In that sense, most voting in most seats is ‘tactical’. When those such as Bagehot argue the party has been reliant on ‘tactical voting’ in the past, in that sense he is right — but no more so than if he said Labour and the Tories are also reliant on it.

In those seats where the Lib Dems have won, it is not because we have suddenly worked out a sneaky new way to snaffle votes ‘tactically’ — it is because we offer voters an alternative choice to register their preference not to have a Labour/Conservative MP. The same phenomenon can be seen at work particularly in Scotland (with the rise of the SNP), where it has been accentuated by devolved power and a fairer system of votes. Political parties do not ‘borrow’ votes; the public ‘lends’ them: it’s a crucial distinction.

Lib Dems say different things in different parts of the country

[Here’s] my favourite Lib Dem campaigning story, tucked away in a biography of Nick Clegg by Chris Bowers. It involves Vince Cable addressing party activists on the south coast in Eastbourne. Great to be here, the business secretary tells them, though I always have to remember that Lib Dems are in favour of bypasses in Eastbourne, but against them in Lewes (19 miles away).

It’s a good story, and probably true. But the notion this is an wholly Lib Dem trope is nonsense. I could easily roll out stories from the last parliament of Labour MPs who opposed hospital and post office closures in their constituencies even as their government was pushing through the policies which they had voted for which was the cause of those closures. And what about Tory MPs, split asunder between Euro-pragmatists and Europhobes — an issue, I’d suggest, of rather more importance than a new trunk road in Sussex. All parties are coalitions. And all parties have MPs whose local campaigns are sometimes at odds with their national policies. There is no Lib Dem exceptionalism at play here — it’s simply that, having not been in national government for a few decades we’ve never previously had the power of a final say.


Despite those major caveats, though, Bagehot’s piece is an excellent, if awkwardly acute, analysis. So let’s finish on a positive: what Lib Dem strategists hope will be the party’s pitch at the next election (I’ll gloss the fact that Bagehot thinks it “too comforting”):

Its members think that under Ed Miliband Labour has foolishly surrendered the centre ground by heading leftwards, while at the same time recently accepting the case for some spending cuts—which the Cleggites think will force Labour to fight on the two coalition parties’ home turf of deficit reduction. As for their Tory allies, the Lib Dems look at their positions on everything from Europe to crime, immigration and the environment, and sense the Tories moving rightwards, away from the modernising centre ground once claimed by Mr Cameron. They also note that Conservatives have proved themselves capable of losing elections in the past, despite offering policies in line with majority opinion on things like Europe.

Labour to the left, Tories to the right: the ‘radical centre’ remains territory the Lib Dems have every chance of claiming.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • “And in my canvassing experience, voters are generally at least as likely to vote against a party as they are to vote for one.”

    Absolutely true, but over the last year and a half we have given and are still giving so many voters reasons to vote against us. Do we think a few minor quibbles about the meaning of borrowed really changes the mess we are in?

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Feb '12 - 11:59am

    I’m not sure in what sense Miliband is moving the Labour Party leftwards.
    To be sure, I’m not sure in what sense Miliband is doing anything whatsoever…

  • typo ‘seriosuly’ after first quote

  • Brenda Lana Smith R. af D. 19th Feb '12 - 1:00pm

    FWIW… left-of-centre paid-up Lib Dem member BLS 2012-02-18 cast her 2012-03-01 Bodmin town council postal vote for eighteen-year-old Lib Dem candidate Jake Lyne—long may he enjoy promoting and 2012-03-01 be empowered to successfully enact Lib Dem policies…

  • Tony Dawson 19th Feb '12 - 2:31pm

    A good analysis, Stephen.

    I would also add the fallacy of:

    “Success should not be measured by how many Conservative initiatives the Lib Dems frustrate, said Mr Browne: we should not try to be a better opposition party than Labour, but a better governing party than the Tories.”

    Surely, being a better governing party involves making sure poor initiatives (especially Conservative ones!) which might somehow emerge from Whitehall do not make the light of day and, if they do, are withdrawn? That is not ‘opposition’. That is plain common sense.

  • Stephen Donnelly 19th Feb '12 - 4:16pm

    @Tony Dawson : “Surely, being a better governing party involves making sure poor initiatives (especially Conservative ones!) which might somehow emerge from Whitehall do not make the light of day and, if they do, are withdrawn? That is not ‘opposition”.

    If that is the only thing we do it clearly is just ‘opposition’. We need to explain what we would do, and why it is better. It means showing that we take responsibility fort the long term outcome, and have given up the luxury of opposing something just because it is unpopular at the time. The failure to do that, will mean that we waste the opportunity that this period in government has given to us to establish ourselves as something more than a protest vote.

  • Tony Dawson 19th Feb '12 - 5:51pm

    @Stephen Donnelly

    “If that is the only thing we do it clearly is just ‘opposition”

    But then, nobody said that was all we should do, did they? There is plenty of room for putting forward sensibly-thought through ideas from government when you’ve got them. But sometimes good government involves less government.. Let us hope that no Lib Dems would rush forward with the juvenile back-of-an-envelope twaddle that formed the nascent NHS Bill.’

  • paul barker 19th Feb '12 - 6:28pm

    I recently totted up all The Local Byelection results for the last 3 Months. Thats 45 contests across The UK, involving about 75,000 Voters.The Vote shares were as follows
    Con 33%
    Lab 22%
    Libdem 26%
    Thats more pretty than shitty surely ? The figures suggest that among the sort of Voters who always Vote we have made a substantial recovery. We will see in May.

    PS I wouldnt expect to see the recovery reflected in “The Polls” anytime soon as most Voters only think about Politics seriously when faced with an immenent choice, ie April 2015 for most of them.

  • Speaking as someone who likes the idea of a truly centrist party (as I am a massive flip flopper I guess), surely it does not do any good, as those on the right consider them too far left, and those on the left consider them too far right, and both major parties will remain centre left/right and so nnot fully abandon that area either

  • “As the previous UK Polling Report (January 2011) said: “Given the public themselves inevitably place themselves in the centre, this should in theory be good for the Liberal Democrats.””

    You neatly edited out the “but”, which explains why something that should be good in theory translates to such an awful poll rating (currently 7% according to YouGov):
    “In fact the Liberal Democrats have managed to secure the worst of all worlds. People who consider themselves as being left-wing tend to view the Liberal Democrats as being right wing. People who consider themselves as being right-wing tend to view the Liberal Democrats as being left wing. ”

  • Brenda Lana Smith R. af D. 2nd Mar '12 - 12:35am

    Greetings, all…

    I am most pleased to report that our Liberal Democrat party’s 18-year-old candidate Jacob Lyne was 2012-03-01 duly elected a Bodmin Town Councillor…

    Well done, Jake …

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