Nick Clegg’s speech shows we’re still a party of the liberal centre (just don’t call us anchors)

Clegg Speech 7The Lib Dems have a new slogan, judging from Nick Clegg’s Bloomberg speech today: ‘Opportunity for Everyone’. That, at least, was the title. The mantra ‘Stronger economy, fairer society’ (a slogan unloved by Lib Dem activists as smacking of split-the-difference centrism) was mentioned, but very much in the past tense:

We’ve talked a lot about building a stronger economy. We’ve talked a lot about creating a fairer society. But maybe we haven’t talked enough about why those things matter. They matter because they are the only way we can enable everyone to get on in life – or as I’m calling it today, quite simply, Opportunity for Everyone.

It’s an optimistic and inclusive pitch, albeit one that will be utterly indistinguishable in the slogan line-up at the next election. But, then again, they always are. Another new feature was Nick’s emphasis on the party’s distinctive liberal identity, rather than the Lib Dems as a party of government. Gone was the talk of Lib Dems “anchoring the government in the centre ground”, a key message at the party’s autumn conference – instead we had lines like:

I have never been interested in power for power’s sake. I have never been interested in coalition at any cost. What I am interested in is Liberal Democrats in government to build a more liberal Britain.

To my mind, too much has been made of this alleged distinction. Yes, the Lib Dems should campaign as a liberal party with liberal policies: it’s what we’re here for and it’s what the voters have the right to expect of us.

However, none of us should be under the illusion we’ll win an outright majority. Which means we won’t get to implement any of those liberal policies unless we cooperate with either Labour or the Tories in government after 2015. And in that circumstance we’ll have to accept some of their illiberal policies we don’t much like, they’ll accept some of our liberal policies they don’t much like, and on the rest we’ll work out some kind of compromise. Sound familiar?

As I’ve argued many times before, if Lib Dem members really want to remain in government after May 2015 then we will have to do a deal next time with either the right-leaning Tories or left-leaning Labour. We may not place ourselves in the centre, but our circumstances do.

So I’m sorry to break the news to you, but the Lib Dems will continue to anchor the government in the centre if there’s another Coalition: anyone who expects much more of a junior Coalition party than that is kidding themselves. In some areas we’ll move things in a liberal direction; in most others, the best we can do is restrain the most illiberal instincts of the senior partner. Nick Clegg’s speech doesn’t alter that reality, though his words were clearly designed to pacify party activists after the past fortnight’s tumult.

In terms of policies, there wasn’t much that was new. Nick reaffirmed the to get the current structural deficit in balance by 2017/18 through a mix of tax rises and spending cuts: whoever’s in power after 2015 will have to do that, even the Tories, whether they advertise it up-front or prefer to renege after the election.

The still-to-be-approved-by-conference proposal from Danny Alexander to usher in a Mansion Tax by the back-door of higher Council Tax bands was repeated.

Nick also re-invented the promise of Gordon Brown’s Golden Rule: that government “will be able to borrow in order to fix our creaking national infrastructure”, something the Coalition chose not to do when interest rates were at their lowest.

All sensible-enough policies – and all (whisper it) sit happily within the liberal centre, albeit much closer to Labour than the Tories’ post-2015 vision. The form may have changed to make Lib Dem members feel better, but the substance remains the same. And it remains the same for a very simple reason: fighting from the liberal centre is still the party’s only credible choice in 2015.

* 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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36 Comments

  • Joshua Dixon 9th Jun '14 - 8:55pm

    Never felt so uninspired, to be honest.

  • Paul Pettinger 9th Jun '14 - 9:09pm

    I don’t really believe much of what he says and I’m a Party member

  • Tony Greaves 9th Jun '14 - 11:14pm

    What on earth by meant by “the liberal centre”? We are the Liberal party of British politics not a wishy-washy liberal party. There is an important difference and dropping the capital L has been a deliberate tactic of people who want to drag us to the right.

    Tony

  • Stephen Tall
    You say — ” The form may have changed to make Lib Dem members feel better, but the substance remains the same. ”

    The form has not changed that much at all. What substance there is boils down to “more of the same”.
    So the “fantastic” leadership of Clegg will continue unless the membership continue with those local party EGMs and demand a leadership election.
    Anyone who thinks “more of the same” will deliver a great result from the 2015 general election ignores the reality of election results under Nick Clegg since the beginning of 2008.
    Will seven years of repeated failure suddenly turn to success over the next seven months?
    Will the most unpopular political leader of any party since records began suddenly become popular?

    This speech was met with an almighty yawn by the media.
    Most voters, indeed most party members will not even be aware that this speech was delivered.
    It was just another wasted opportunity by a leader who has made wasting opportunities his stock in trade.

  • Sorry I just don’t buy ” fighting from the liberal centre is still the party’s only credible choice in 2015.”
    What does this mean in English? Do we wait to see where Tory and Labour are and do a sort of ‘pick n’ mix’ of policies that will annoy the like of Peter Bone and Dennis Skinner, but which we hope others in the other two parties might be able to live with?

    I also think being in government has gone to the heads of too many MPs. The hard reality is that ‘no overall control’ is quite common in local government, but a rarity at national level. Its only happened twice in my lifetime, the first election I voted in (February 1974) and 2010. The Euro results and the opinion polls suggest that our support is way below what it was in either election, down to 1970 levels – and in 1970 we returned 6 MPs. Even after the Feb ’74 election, the 14 Liberal MPs could not have formed a coalition with an overall majority.

    We need to get back to promoting our own distinctive Liberal policies, stop worrying about where other are positioned, and stop dreaming of a long tenure in government.

  • It is a sad but true that, as Steve Comer points out, being in government has gone to the heads of some MPs.

    A small group of them now seem to think that the purpose of the entire party is to keep them in government jobs.

    To achieve that end they are happy to retreat from over 600 constituencies and “target” fewer than 37 seats. Although it would be wildly optimistic to believe that we will get anywhere near 37 MPs next year.

    They advertise a job, which it seems to be an open secret is lined up for Mr Coetzee amd nobody else, which assumes that the purpose of the next General Election campaign is solely aimed at keeping a handful of MPs in ministerial jobs.

    This would be sufficient reason for change at the top of the party even without the electoral disasters that come with Clegg, the most unpopular political leader of any party since records began.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jun '14 - 2:50am

    I’m now almost certain the economy is going to crash and it’s too late to stop it. The recovery is built on an asset bubble.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jun '14 - 3:24am

    We have two bubbles that need two different solutions: 1. Housing bubble (build more houses) and 2. Pensions bubble (increase interest rates).

    I know it is a bit off topic, but this is important. 🙂

  • Jonathan Pile 10th Jun '14 - 7:12am

    Eddie are you based in London because the housing bubble is a London centric issue . The north of England doesn’t need or want interest rate hikes to choke off recovery just to calm don’t a south east property bubble (again) – we need to use local taxation and the cancellation of help to buy in London to calm things down. London is not the uk.

  • Bill le Breton 10th Jun '14 - 7:29am

    Stephen, if you look carefully at the wording of the tax, spend and borrowing policy set out in the speech – the two Platinum Rules – I think you will see that it is a major change from the Leader and Danny Alexander’s position and statements at the time of the Autumn Statement when (within Whitehall) it was believed that they had agreed a fiscal compact with their Conservative partners into the 2015/2020 Parliament.

    That would have been very different from his promise yesterday of ‘a plan to get the current structural deficit in balance by 2017/18’ which he reinforced by speaking not of a balanced budget but of a very different animal one in ‘which we run a cyclically adjusted balanced total budget’.

    He has now joined Ed Balls in speaking of ‘a new debt rule in which we will significantly reduce national debt as a percentage of GDP’.

    The target is not to reduce the National Debt per see, but to reduce the ratio of debt to GDP. As GDP is set to grow at around 2.5% per annum over the life of the next Parliament, it would be feasible for a Lib/Lab pact or indeed a Liberal Democrat majority Government to run a 2% deficit each and every year of that Parliament and still meet that rule. Hurrah!

    I just hope that Clegg himself realises what he has signed up to. It would be very embarrassing if, under questioning, he continued to speak of reducing the ‘debt we hand on to our grandchildren’, because he or his advisers are not now advocating that.

    We are now trying to leave our grandchildren a modern country in terms of infrastructure, a bundle of financial assets that they can use for their pensions and other savings and an economy that has enough ‘lubrication’ to sustain growth – the growth necessary to underpin an assault on poverty and an attack on the forces of intra-community strife and division.

    This, you understand, is without looking at the capital budget and the revenue impacts of the much needed capital programme.

    Whoever changed this policy should receive our warmest thanks.

    If we can persuade a Governor of the Bank of England to allow this ‘fiscal’ stimulus without off-setting it by tightening monetary policy (in comparison with the Tory policy) then we should see a faster growth rate than under a Tory majority in 2015/20. That is a big ‘if’.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jun '14 - 7:41am

    Jonathan, I’ve got an answer to that, but I’m going to write an article about it instead over the next few weeks. I’d only want a small increase. Sensible stuff.

  • How depressing to see the usual whingeing on here with no sensible alternative offered. We are in a difficult situation, Clegg and co are pursuing the best approach open to us in the circumstances and we should be getting out there making the positive case for what we have achieved and want to achieve in future.

  • Mark, whingeing, you really appear to have no idea of the extent of despair there is in the constituencies.
    Facing reality can be very hard to accept, but accept we all must. We turn the average voters off, coalition has been good for the country but awful for the party. We are where we are, we need to listen to the voters, we are still preaching and telling, not listening. We are after all to many the party of “betrayal”.

  • peter tyzack 10th Jun '14 - 8:51am

    where can we see the FULL video.. all I can find is the short bit, is somebody trying to bury it.? I can’t decide to support or oppose until I have seen him deliver it… true to say he is looking incredibly tired, but then wouldn’t anybody trying to lead this great party, many of whom who don’t want to be led..?

  • Peter: depends on who is leading it!!!!

  • Jonathan Pile 10th Jun '14 - 9:12am

    When Iain Duncan smith and William Hague led the conservatives as leaders they couldn’t connect with the public , just a nick Clegg can’t connect now. The content of his speeches are not the only issue it is how he fails to communicate. Too many words not enough connection. Both Hague and Ids did the decent thing. They went on to have careers and play an important part. This is what I wish for Nick and the Party. And if it takes a summer of constant wingeing to get him out so be it.

  • Phil Rimmer 10th Jun '14 - 9:35am

    Two problems that I can see.

    1) The ‘liberal centre’ is meaningless. It never has and probably never will exist.

    2) This reads like a last, desperate attempt to convince the undertaker that the corpse is, in point of fact, not dead yet. Leave that sort of gag to Monty Python Mr Clegg.

  • Stephen Hesketh 10th Jun '14 - 10:31am

    peter tyzack10th Jun ’14 – 8:51am
    “true to say he is looking incredibly tired, but then wouldn’t anybody trying to lead this great party, many of whom who don’t want to be led..? ”

    Peter, may I be so bold as to finish your sentence?

    … to the new position the leader had never pre-stated nor engaged the membership on and that a only a minority of members and voters were ever interested in.

    With respect to finding the full speach I also searched in vain as I wished to hear the delivery and not simply read the words. Sadly for Nick Clegg and our party, none of the media outlets clearly thought it worthy of full distribution. This is a great pity but shows the impossible task we have while he leads us.

  • Peter Tyzack
    It may be that party HQ is trying to bury it.
    The BBC had cameras there because the Daily Politics had a bit on it.
    My guess though is that few media organisations could find anything of news value in it that had not already been covered in the preceding hype which found its way onto the pages of a couple of newspapers Monday morning.

    “Nick Clegg says more of the same” is not a gripping headline.
    90% of people would prefer a week of influenza to listening to Nick Clegg saying anything.

  • Elizabeth Patterson.

    Really? You can’t see why signing a Pledge promising that you will vote AGAINST any increase in tuition fees to win votes and then voting FOR an increase in tuition fees to TREBLE their original figure will ensure that voters will never trust anything you say in future? Especially as you promised ‘an end to broken promises’ .

  • John Dunn : ) 10th Jun '14 - 11:17am

    I suppose as a last gasp attempt, you could try installing ‘rough sleeper spikes’ into the floor of Nick Clegg’s office?

  • Peter T

    I don’t think the media is interested in a leader who is on a losing streak but the full video should surely be on the main Lib Dem website?

  • Such speeches are rarely, if ever, broadcast in full or placed online by am outlet such as the BBC – regradless of who is giving them.

    In regard to the Liberal-Centre. Yes, I agree it is a bit of a fudge – though it may be a fair term to use (Roy Jenkins talked of the radical centre after all and named his memoir a Life at the Centre). My thinking towards it is that it does, to an extent, convey that Liberalism doesn’t in first instance look to either government (left) or business (right) but instead to people (centre), their needs and how to provide Liberty.

    The deeper you get into the issue the less those terms make any sense, and make Liberalism sound like a something middling between Lab and Tory rather than the Radical alternative it truly is, but maybe – just maybe – it is a quick, easy way of trying to begin a conversation. It may mean little to us, but who knows – it might help some who aren’t already in the Liberal fold.

    As far as the speech is concerned, it is one of the most Liberal-sounding speeches I’ve read of Nick’s in quite a while and you can sense the balance shifting against the Tories. Whilst there are many who would want him to go much further, it is a start and a welcome one. A Liberal Democrat leader speech, rather than a DPM one and it hints at some stong, Liberal policy as Bill le Breton has neatly outlined.

  • Elizabeth Patterson.
    The Tuition fees fiasco was the result of a publicly signed pledge. It was pretty much the only red line issue. The promise was to not support or implement a rise in tuition fees. In fact it went further by including a commitment to vote against any such rise. The result of not sticking to this pledge was civil unrest and a collapse in trust. For what? To look brave and realistic to a Tory Right who view students in pretty much the same way they view any unionised body,

  • @Elizabeth Patterson

    >in walking the tight rope of coalition and holding his party together at the same

    He didn’t achieve this – that’s why so many members have left the party. According to LDV just under half of all current members want him gone. Is that what you mean by holding the party together? If what you say were true we wouldn’t be discussing it.

    >I am a happy Libdem, ex-councillor and though I expect we might have a lot of lost deposits
    >in 2015, it is only parliamentary seats that matter if we are to have any influence in reforming
    >the antique Establishment and Constitution of this country

    The parliamentary party is due for a bit of a wipeout next year, soon being a Liberal Democrat won’t entail representation because we’ll have next to no councillors, MEPS or MPs . When your aligned party is at 6% in the polls happiness is an odd retort, You can enjoy the process of converting Lib Dems in UKIP representation as much as you like, but we’ll all have to live in this country long after your mistaken loyalty leads us to the inevitable rise of the right.

  • @Glenn

    It also said “and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”. Having gone through University under the old system, an alternative at which I pay back at a lower rate at a higher wage would have been much more preferable – least we forget there are more students from poorer backgrounds not at University than when I was a student. The current system is a graduate tax in all but name.

    That Labour broke two student fee pledges, when they had a large majority, makes clear one thing – you can break a pledge aslong it is not the main policy people associate with you. Heck, they started the war on Iraq and still won a large majority…

    Also, and sometimes this is lost to history, only a minority of our MPs actually voted for the increase. To say the LibDems went back on the pledge is therefore technically incorrect. Yes, this is indeed nitpicking.

  • It’s interesting that almost everybody here says “it’s just more of the same”, whereas Bill le Breton, who is an economics expert, says “actually, it’s quite a big change, I just hope that Clegg himself realises what he has signed up to.”

    I have two observations. First, Cleggie telegraphed before the weekend that he would be doing one of his periodic oscillations leftward. He does this whenever he feels under threat. Once people have got bored with telling him he ought to go, he oscillates back to the right again.

    Secondly, I’m sure Bill is technically right on this one. But everybody else is not wrong. They can see that Clegg didn’t actually mean what he said. Clegg never does mean what he says. He just says something that sounds good, appeals to whoever he is talking to at the time, and gets him blandly through the interview.

    These days, Clegg could shout “Fire” in a crowded cinema, and get away with it. People know what Clegg is like. People would yawn “You’re kidding, you’re just trying to seek attention, as usual!”

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jun '14 - 5:23pm

    Hi Elizabeth, I agree some of us post too much and lack loyalty at times, but I don’t think it is fair to compare us to dogs.

    Best wishes

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jun '14 - 9:51pm

    I got angry about the economy last night, but I don’t want that to lower morale, just to strengthen scrutiny.

  • Gordon Lishman 11th Jun '14 - 12:32pm

    The central flaw in Stephen’s logic is his apparent belief that all political belief can be positioned on a two- dimensional, linear scale from left to right with the poles defined by current Labourism and current conservatism and that every set of political beliefs can only exist by being positioned on that scale.

    That belief is both intellectually lazy and fundamentally wrong.

    The “radical centre ” is an oxymoron. Either one is in the centre – that is, one’s views are defined by the positions of the extremes – or they are radical – that is, they are defined by our own beliefs which are about getting to the root of problems (Latin: radix, root) and devising responses which may well lead to substantial root and branch change.

    The point of course is that, even with this analysis, you need at least a triangle to represent a range of views in which liberalism is at a different pole from Labourism or conservatism – who then is in the centre depends on which way up you position the triangle. If you want a simple linear presentation, a much more convincing one to me puts the liberal position – open, optimistic, rational, individualistic, enabling, encouraging, mobile, democratic – in opposition to an essentially conservative one – defensive of entrenched privilege, emotional about national and class identity, distrustful of openness and democracy. That leaves Labourism in a position which is mainly conservative with occasional flashes of incompetent egalitarianism.

    The challenge is to know our own identity, its roots and its unchanging core. Short-term electoral packaging is the means not the end.

  • Whenever the terms “centre” or “middle ground” are used in politics, people should ask, “centre of what, on what issues?” Unless those who love these terms are clear on that, they’re meaningless. Clearly on many issues we’re not in the centre at all, though the current leadership has worked hard to pull us to the centre on issues where we might have been distinctive, such as Trident.

    As for “opportunity for all”, it seems to continue the failed tactic of positioning us where we think our target demographic would like us to be, while defining ourselves purely in terms of individual advancement.People don’t always vote for what they think will benefit them personally.

  • jedibeeftrix 22nd Jun '14 - 10:37am

    @ Stephen – “I don’t think that for a moment. But the media and voters do. We can regret that all we like, and I do, but not starting from where the voters are doesn’t much help us.”

    Exactly. Gordon, Labour and Tories [define] the political geography in Britain therefore the Lib-Dem’s are stuck somewhere along the axis that separates their positions.

    You might think the lib-dem’s are terribly different, but until the party comes to define the political geography in opposition to an incumbent it really doesn’t matter.

    We have adversarial politics, and an electorate that is quite comfortable with that, it’s just tough.

    My advice, seek to unseat an incumbent and define a pole of british politics. Labour are looking pretty shakey…

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