Opinion: Filling the gulf in British politics – making the centre ground our own

On May 8th Nick Clegg told us that fear won the election. He was right. But hope played just as important a part.

It was hope that took votes from the Lib Dems: Ed Miliband’s hope that shackling business would help the poor; the Green hope that uncoupling ourselves from our addiction to economic growth would deliver social justice; the SNP hope that a fiscally empowered Scotland could abandon austerity.

Each of these visions is as misleading as it is inspirational.

The general election amounted to a choice between firm Tory hands on the reins and the whip alike, and four loose notions of where we ought to be heading – but never how to get there.

That gap represents a gulf in British politics. There is no serious, inspirational, practical-minded party of principle in Britain’s opposition. There is no party that makes voters feel listened to, trusts its instincts, and speaks honestly and bravely about how to deliver equality, liberty and prosperity to Britain.

This is natural territory for the Lib Dems.

It was the Lib Dems in government that softened austerity, and by so doing eased the brakes off the economy. It was the Lib Dems that defended civil liberties, championed employees’ rights, protected children from routine detention, and spared the UK’s three million lowest earning workers from paying income tax. It’s a record to be proud of, and the reason why I decided to become a member.

But no matter how strong those achievements, we are out of government because – just like today’s insurgent parties – we offered hopes that we couldn’t deliver.

The election result may seem bitterly unfair. But when seen through the lens of the anger, the disillusionment, the sense of betrayal – perhaps in one sense we deserved it. After all, we lost the most important thing we had: the trust of our supporters.

It is only by facing up to this hard truth that we can seize the opportunity in front of us. Some might be tempted to tack left, and compete once more for those protest votes. But let’s learn a different lesson from the insurgent parties instead. They won votes because they challenged the orthodoxies, and achieved that double victory of appearing both brave and honest: decent people who dared to say what they think.

The same words could describe the Lib Dems in 2010. And there is no reason why they shouldn’t describe the Lib Dems again.

So, let’s not step back from the frightening opportunity ahead. Let’s stake out a distinctive position that claims the centre ground on our own terms. Not as halfway between the Tories and Labour – not as cutting less than them and more than them (or what was it again?) – but as a clear third way. A Liberal way that no other party can claim for their own.

Easier said than done? Absolutely. But here are some ideas, for what they’re worth.

First, the party’s new leader should unambiguously signal to former supporters that we know how deeply they feel betrayed. While defending our record of delivery in government, we must acknowledge that anger. Without showing that we see it and understand it, we can’t even begin to win them back.

Then, campaign relentlessly on two fronts. Campaign for practical, liberal and distinctive solutions to the issues that matter to most people: like housing, like wage recovery, like tax evasion.

And campaign for the causes that we’ve been afraid to back but that only a truly Liberal party would embrace. Both candidates’ support for the full legalisation of cannabis is a perfect example. What else? Perhaps assisted dying; perhaps doing our part to take in refugees from Syria and Libya.

Select no more than three or four issues across these two categories, and campaign with a positive and practical message: this can be done.

If we spend five years showing that we mean every word, and that we’ve learnt the lesson of the drubbing we received, then such a position could win back votes from Labour, Tories and Greens alike – maybe even from the SNP.

* Jim Williams is the founder of Your Liberal Britain

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  • Eddie Sammon 24th Jun '15 - 4:58pm

    This is a good article. I can’t say much right now, but there are some areas that I see ripe for radical policies, and other areas where the electorate is stuck in kind of a gridlock and anyone who ventures outside of the box gets punished.

    Economic policy is gridlocked, but foreign policy is chaos. Why are we snubbing the US Democrats for the Chinese Communist Party?

    I know the fear, but really, we seem cowed into silence when it comes to criticising powerful illiberal regimes.

  • Glynn Quelch 24th Jun '15 - 5:23pm

    Great article, one thing I’d like to see the party do is help the 1000s of small home-based business. Encourage large warehouses owners to create small, short lease units and sharing business rates evenly. Allowing those growing businesses to have small areas to not store stock & process orders, but also have shared showroom space for direct sales to customers. Finding suitable space is difficult and while there are huge distribution warehouses sitting empty. Shops are great but once you add rates on to the (often) obscene rents it’s unachievable by most.

    This could have a knock on and encourage others to really consider taking the plunge at self employment. Many around the country have the skills but need affordable options which don’t require loans or grants. Through working with hack spaces and shared workshops (which we need more of) we can kick start an artisan movement in the UK and bring people back to local town markets.

  • The Lib Dems fought and lost on an ill defined notion of the middle ground. This is because the Labour party not really a party of the Left and you can’t really put a cigarette paper between them and the Conservatives. In short the middle ground is wafer thin and judging by the missives coming from Labour is going to get even thinner. The idea the Lib Dems occupy the middle ground resulted in 8 seats, the los of nearly all Scottish MPs, the decimation of local councillors and a pro European party with one MEP! There is no middle ground and liberalism would not occupy it even if there was. It is basically a radical philosophy, not a form of moderation. There is no point whatsoever in signalling anything to the lost voters if you defend the record in government because it was the record in government that lost the votes in the first place.

  • Malcolm Todd 24th Jun '15 - 6:02pm

    Huh. I read the first three-quarters of this article feeling, to be honest, distinctly unimpressed – it sounded like soggy centrism of exactly the sort that sank the GE campaign. Only to be hit at the end by profoundly right (in the good way!) ideas: principled and pragmatic. I think that’s exactly the right way to go.

  • Jim Williams 24th Jun '15 - 6:30pm

    Thanks everyone. Very nice of you all.

    Alex – Cheers!

    Eddie – it’s absolutely about picking the issues that we can get traction on. However important, some of the more abstract causes the Lib Dems have fought won’t help us rebuild trust. That’s not to say we shouldn’t fight them, but that we shouldn’t expect too much of them.

    Glynn – I’m interested in exploring how the Lib Dems can partner with business to find ways of helping progressive enterprises become profitable, and vice versa. I’ve been thinking about it from a big business perspective mostly though – interesting to think about it for small businesses too.

    Malcolm. Thanks for the honesty, both on the good and the bad. I’m glad you agree with my closing points. I suppose you could some up my position as “owning the centre doesn’t need to be soggy and uninspiring”.

  • I ‘m afraid I now react almost allergically to anything that calls for us to stake out the “centre ground”. The problem is that it explicitly accepts the established parameters of political debate even when that’s not actually the intention as I think is the case here.

    The big problem we face is that the ‘Overton Window’ (look it up on Wikipedia) has been dragged so far away from what was once considered normal and is so divorced from anything that is decent or moral or sustainable that many essentially good policies actually amount to little more than putting lipstick on a pig. If we want to make a difference we must challenge the foundational assumptions of the current order and that is difficult because it means breaking a firmly established paradigm.

    The evidence of mounting problems with the existing order is everywhere – wealth is becoming obscenely unequal, proper jobs are hard to come by, international financial policy has degenerated to kicking the can down the road and wars are breaking out all over. All these are the result of deep tectonic shifts in power; none will be solved by anything remotely centrist although we do indeed need emergency sticking-plaster measures to alleviate the worst problems.

    So what caused these tectonic shifts? The answer is that it was the politically successful introduction by Thatcher of what is now called neoliberalism – namely that the principal objective of government should be to cater to the demands of footloose capital. The entirely specious propaganda is that this will somehow benefit people. Well, it doesn’t – it benefits capital and the people who control it. The way to change things is to have policies that benefit people and to treat capital as a necessary tool, not as the master. Capital when freed of rules and restraints turns out to be predatory and destructive, greed without limit that eventually consumes itself – which is at root what the financial crisis is all about.

    The Lib Dems can indeed change their fortunes – and rather quickly I suspect – but first they will have to ditch their support for some extremist neoliberal policies, learn to think collectively and to challenge the existing order on behalf of the people. That will sound to many (egged on by the Tories no doubt) as extreme left but really it’s just reasserting decency and humanity as things a healthy society should concern itself with.

  • Jim Williams 24th Jun '15 - 8:17pm

    Glenn – I’m sorry, I’ve only just seen your comment. Thanks for posting.

    It probably won’t come as a much of a surprise that I disagree across the board. There’s lots we could talk about, but here’s what I think’s most important: I’m not proposing moderation. I’m not proposing that we try and squeeze between the two parties. I’m proposing that we forge an unmistakably distinct third way. One built on clear objectives and liberal methods: to bring about a tolerant, fair and prosperous society, by trusting individuals to make good decisions for themselves (to choose a dignified death, to take drugs less harmful than alcohol), but limiting the ability of individuals to profit at the expense of others (by rolling back right to buy, for example). By intervening in markets while also building common ground with business, and by using stable economic growth to fund the welfare state. By welcoming immigrants and refugees and by training our existing workforce to stay competitive. I call that the centre. It’s probably to the right of where you stand, but is that what matters here? Isn’t it about having a form of politics that can hold its head up high by never resorting to scapegoating, and by having the moral fibre to promise only what can be delivered – unlike both the Tories and Labour. That’s what I think matters.

    I should add that I can’t yet say that I know a way to deliver one of those above: how to partner with business to deliver a progressive private sector. It won’t be easy: I’m sure the odd one or two people have given it a little thought up to now. But this is the challenge I’m setting myself, and that I’d like to share it with anyone in the party who’s interested to help.

  • Jim Williams 24th Jun '15 - 8:36pm

    Gordon – hi. I appreciate your honesty: thank you for letting me know what you think.

    As with my response to Glenn, it probably won’t surprise you that I don’t agree. I’m sure you won’t mind. That said, I think we can agree about something fairly fundamental. The point of politics is to deliver fairness, and to achieve the best for the most. I imagine we disagree only in terms of how to get there.

    The trouble with Overton Windows is that they’re real. There’s no getting around them. The margin of acceptable views can be influenced, but only from inside: you have to push it outwards, not try to pull it from the edges. By trying to challenge the neoliberal order, as you put it, we’d make sure no-one listened to us: and would, I’d argue, have even less effect.

    I’d like us to challenge a different order instead. I’d like to challenge the order that says politicians have to choose between demonising the vulnerable or demonising business. I’d like us to challenge the idea that businesses can’t be incentivised to be progressive. Or that we have to choose between an economic recovery and a welfare state that deserves the name.

    In my mind, there is room for politics that has both progressive objectives and the moral courage to promise policies that can deliver them, whatever end of the spectrum they come from. That’s what I mean by re-defining the centre. And if that’s within the established parameters of political debate, as you say , then I honestly have no problem with that.

  • Mark Blackburn 24th Jun '15 - 9:40pm

    It absolutely is time to challenge the neoliberal order, especially in our own party, where some seem to be taking every opportunity (including in Lib Dem Voice ) to attempt to re-brand us as a rampart free market party. Tories encourage neoliberalism, Labour turned a blind eye to it in the failed belief light touch regulation would provide wealth for all, and our current woes owe as much to our drift rightward a in coalition as they do to coalition itself. With Labour still struggling to find its own identity and the Greens yet to reach critical mass, despite our best efforts at self-destruction we still have a chance to establish ourselves as THE centre-left progressive party in theUK. There’s plenty of demand for one.

  • Dr Michael Taylor 24th Jun '15 - 10:30pm

    Throughout my political life the so-called centre ground has been the soggy centre, an amorphous mass, not a place to do politics. I haven’t changed my mind!
    We must stop talking about the centre ground and simply state our radical policies and the aims we have for improving our country and democracy for the better.
    Campaigning on our beliefs and on issues that matter to people, not trying to position ourselves on the political spectrum is how we will start to rebuild our shattered party.

  • Overton windows can most certainly be moved. The remarkable success of the gay lobby over recent years is just one of many examples as is the rise of neoliberalism itself. These were campaigns planned and executed by those who opposed the existing order and decided to change it.

  • Jim,
    I am afraid it does not really matter where you or I think the “centre ground” is, the media, the commentators and the voters all think it is equidistant between Labour and the Tories. And I agree with Gordon that very soon that is not going to be a gulf at all but a slightly soggy patch of ground between two unappealing sandbars occupied by Labour and the Tories.
    So I agree with your final statements saying we should carve out distinctive positions on Liberal issues, but please don’t call that the “centre ground”! We are off in a different direction from the Left-Right line and can legitimately pick individual policies from any part of that line with inconsistency.

    Again though, I do agree with Gordon that it is absolutely amazing that the Thatcherite orthodoxy has survived the banking crisis (it just shows how much the vested interests in our society support it). When I talk to people in the real world they absolutely reject that orthodoxy but they just don’t know what should take its place. If we put ourselves on the side of people rather than vested interest and test policies against our own preamble we will do a lot better.

  • I meant “without inconsistency”!

  • Jim Williams 25th Jun '15 - 7:28am

    Hello all – thanks for taking the time. I can’t reply in detail to each of you, but would like to thank you all for putting a clear message across. In this piece I’ve been talking about redefining the centre ground as a radical, third way in politics. It seems that there’s no much of the old centre ground in that phrase, no matter how much it’s redefined as something different.

    Perhaps I should have been talking instead simply about a distinctive third way in politics.

    I’ve mentioned in a few comments above that it’s not the centre ground itself that matters to me (despite my mentioning it in the title…), but a brave and honest form of politics that seeks to achieve progressive objectives without resorting to methods and promises that sound appealing but fail to deliver.

    That doesn’t need to be called ‘the centre’ to be what I want to see the Lib Dems strive for. And I absolutely agree that talking in terms of centrism helps make the cause less distinctive, not more.

    So – lesson learned. Thank you!

  • Jim Williams 25th Jun '15 - 7:31am

    Ah – I mean “too much of the old centre ground”.

  • Jim Williams 25th Jun '15 - 7:32am

    I will quickly reply to Gordon to point out that I didn’t say you couldn’t move an Overton Window. I simply said, perhaps obtusely, that you need to push it out from the inside, not to try to pull it from the edges. By that I mean that if your views fall outside the window, you can best expand it to include them by establishing common ground with people on the inside.

    This is precisely what happened with gay marriage: the argument wasn’t that society is fundamentally homophobic and should be ashamed. It was that we all believe in equal rights for everyone, so why should someone’s sexuality matter?

    So yes, Overton Windows can be moved. But the utility of an Overton Window is to know what people will even listen to in the first place. Ideas too far out of the window won’t be given the time of day.

  • Drugs, assisted dying and refugees are a start. I’d add a big further push on renewable energy, radical policies on housing (ban foreign non-resident ownership and end mortgage interest relief on buy to let) plus parental leave on Swedish lines through to full time childcare from 2. That’s six good priorities.

  • Simon Banks 25th Jun '15 - 9:32am

    OK, that’s one measure of politics on which Liberals are quite naturally between a non-Blairite Labour and the Tories. You’re quite right we should make our point on this – as we did, to little effect, in the election. You’ve helpfully specified the limits of this centrism. But the danger of going on about the centre ground is that it becomes a default position for everything. Abolish or renew Trident? Half-abolish it! We become over-cautious about brave policies, which would be downright silly from where we are now. Moreover, it’s quite possible Labour will now move back right and our claims that they aren’t genuinely in the centre ground will be ignored because we’ve got only eight MPs and hardly any councils.

  • The Centre Ground shifts. A drift to the right pushes the centre ground to the Right. All I see with the talk of the centre ground is a bunch of people who virtually destroyed the Lib Dems arguing for more of the same. I don’t see where the seats are going to come from.. To me it is in fact a recipe for losing the last few seats as people say “well, I might as well take the plunge and vote Conservative or Labour”. Also you don’t know where the country will be post the EU vote or by the next election. It’s like arming for the second to last war .

    So as far as I’m concerned be liberal and fight as liberals.

  • Jim Williams 26th Jun '15 - 10:54am

    Mark – interesting ideas, thank you! Our six are fairly close: I had tax evasion and wage recovery where you have parental leave and renewable energy. I’ll go and educate myself on those areas. Lots to do!

    Simon – I think you’ve hit the challenge bang on. I think it’s about being distinctively liberal, rather than standing for moderation. A wholly liberal position in my case (not everyone’s, as this comment thread underlines) would draw some approaches from both left and right, thus ending up being centrist on average – but that’s fundamentally different from being in the centre as a deliberate ideological and strategic choice. I’d like us to move away from the latter and towards the former.

    And hear hear on Trident. Absolutely.

    Glenn – this time round, I agree with everything you have to say. More common ground than we thought? I’d just say see my response above to Simon. I think it covers the points I’d make in response to you. And yes, entirely agree on “be liberal and fight as liberals”.

  • Really enjoyed reading the article. Loved the characterisation of the hopes of the other parties too.

    What I don’t get is why there is a core of people here who are unwilling to come to terms with the notion that distinctiveness can only be achieved by moving leftwards to attract soft Labour voters. It feeds the Left-Right model, and it might have worked before because of New Labour’s abandonment of its traditional ground. But Labour under Ed Miliband tried to reclaim this ground and they were still left with a sense of loss. There also seems to be a sense that rejection of Clegg is only achieved by disavowing everything that was done in Coalition. I respect the opinions of those who have been on the inside and have been betrayed by the Clegg legacy. But I also think that the public will not see that insider view, and look more favourably on the achievements of the Lib Dem part of of the Coalition (now that it’s gone).

    Going forward, I think the ground that is out there to be captured is ‘The Middle’. This is low to middle income families and households who have some assets or some wealth, but are acutely aware that they are not so far from the brink if an accident or unforeseen circumstance occurs. On the barely adequate Left-Right model, you would mostly likely see them as Right-leaning, because they are suspicious of policies that might affect whatever assets they have managed to accumulate (bearing in mind these are no where near the scale of bankers’ bonuses). This isn’t to say they don’t support social liberalism because none have massive wealth buffers to fall on if they need to. They are protective of what they do have, as they would like to think they have enough of a wealth buffer to rely on for a short while. The reason The Middle keeps turning out for the Conservatives is because of a perceived ‘trickle down’ effect, not of wealth, but of wealth protecting policy. The fallacy is exposed when an accident does occur and there is no social liberal structure to provide support when their own assets run out. If we can reassure The Middle that we aren’t after all wealth when we talk about social justice, I think we would win a lot more support.

  • Neil Sandison 26th Jun '15 - 1:36pm

    The parties that faired worst at the general election were the Liberal Democrats and Labour both because they failed to have a distinctive message or were overtaken by parties that didn’t stick to the Westminster comfort zone of centrism .The conservatives were not centrist but heavily right wing and used fear of instability to undermine their opponents. They did OUTKIP UKIP This drip ,drip agenda did take its toll and they were at the end of the day judged as the most stable and coherent on polling day.

  • For goodness sake please, please stop this ‘centre ground ‘ nonsense. We must define our own ground if it is what we believe in. It is the groundd of Lloyd George, Beveridge, Grimmond, yes and Jenkins.

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