Perils of Equidistance

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 was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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  • I agree with your basic point, but “hard left”? Don’t be silly.

  • Peter Davies 23rd Sep '13 - 11:19am

    It is rather more believable that the Tories will choose to fight then next election head-to-head with UKIP on the hard right.

  • Peter Davies – if by hard right you mean playing to the gallery on immigration, then Miliband is as guilty as the usual suspects.

  • so Tory then?

    Glad to know where you stand – seems like you will not be troubling the landlords of Brussels and Strasbourg which, I for one, will not fill me with any sadness.

    Cameron is doing nothing from the centre, he is doing it from the right but you seem to equate the right with centre and your laughable assertion that Labour is hard-left has left me wondering where the LD are going as a party.

  • David Pollard 23rd Sep '13 - 11:31am

    This is an interesting take. Being in the centre ground does not mean being eqi-distant between the two other parties, because being eqi-distant depends which way the other parties move. I do agree very strongly that LibDems are not on the centre ground when it comes to Liberal values like human rights, internationalism, devolution of power and fairness in immigration. I hope that does not change.

  • Matt (Bristol) 23rd Sep '13 - 12:41pm

    Socialism is a very mobile term; don’t forget the ‘municipal socialism’ of the 1870s, touted by that Liberal politican and future darling of the Tory party, Joseph Chamberlain.

    Pragmatic politics requires the ability to deal with either party on the merits of their programmes at any one time. None should be regarded as anathema (not even UKIP; don’t forget they are one of the few English parties prepared to discuss voting reform right now) and not dealing with people because of their vocabulary is a bit silly.

    But, yes, ‘equidistance’ is just as much of a rhetorical chimera as ‘socialism’ is; it is not something you can build a workable platform (or an ideology) on.

  • Matt (Bristol) 23rd Sep '13 - 12:45pm

    I am reconsidering the ‘anathema’ statement just made; I guess I mean, the only parties the LDs should not do deals with are criminal or hate-mongering parties. UKIP verges on the latter, but so far it seems to aspire to being borderline racist about only about as much as the Tories were in the 80s.

  • I think many people, including myself, have used “equidistance” incorrectly / sloppily. For my part I want to see that a coalition with either of the main two parties is possible (unless either make a charge towards the extremes) prior to the election. I would not expect the Lib Dem position to move in relation to movement from either party just to be able to say they are equidistant.

    The reality is that the three parties can form a Venn diagram where all agree on some things, and any two have other areas where they agree. The key to me is not getting the agreed points implemented – there is no victory there for any one party – but in how many policies from the Lib Dem only section are implemented…

    The other key point to me is to change the rules of collective responsibility to allow either party to be clear on those policy areas they disagree on, but will vote for.

  • I didn’t join the Liberal Democrats to be “right in the centre, bang in the middle”. I joined because I agreed with Lib Dem policies at that time, and believed in principles of liberal democracy. We should not be defining what we stand for against the positions of the other two main parties anyway, but developing distinctive policies that give the electorate a reason to vote for us.
    Before the election the focus should be on our own policies and solutions, which would provide a position to be negotiated from in any coalition discussions. And try and avoid breaking any pledges perhaps ?

  • Matt (Bristol) 23rd Sep '13 - 1:22pm

    @Tom Snowdon:
    I agree with you largely, but the curse of third-party politics in a 2-party system up to this point has been, how can you be a ‘distinctive’ third voice in a culture that deals in dichotomy and contrast between 2 established players?
    That is where the need to refer to what the others are doing creeps in, which it needs to to an extent in terms of presentation. It should however never never never drive policy development.

  • “We’re not trying to get back into Government . . . . . ”

    Some might say that was sufficient to express the truth. 🙁

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Sep '13 - 2:34pm

    Since the coalition was formed, Nick Clegg and the party’s publicity machine has been sending out a message which has been widely interpreted as the party being closer to the Conservatives than to Labour. The impression has been given that our differences with the Conservatives are just minor aspects of emphasis, but that our difference with Labour are major. Those of us in the party who think this country’s problems go back to Thatcherism, with Labour making a mess in part because of its enthusiastic adoption of these policies even when their failings were becoming evident, are treated as pariahs. Clegg is continuously denouncing us, suggesting we are old-fashioned people who aren’t able to cope with the reality of power, telling us it must all change now we are “in government”. The result has been the loss of a huge proportion of our supporters, perhaps most damagingly in the long run, many who were once keen activists.

    There is no place for the sort of party Clegg and the Cleggies seemed to be trying to build – one which has right-wing economics without the emotional conservatism of conservative parties or the social aspect which in the rest of Europe tends to get called “Christian”, and which wants its role to be a permanent junior coalition partner pushing this line. How very unfortunate that Clegg seemed to be wanting us to become the British FDP at a time when the German version was, well look at its results in yesterday’s general election.

    So if Clegg was coming across as more equidistant at this conference, I see this as a necessary balance to the impression he was giving before. If this means he has learnt something from his critics, well, about time.

  • I didn’t join the Lib Dems to be “bang in the middle” either and discussion of whether this should refer to the other parties’ current positions or those they might adopt in their next manifestos misses the point. That is about short-term manoeuvring while what really matters are the once-in-a-generation shifts in political thinking.

    I am just old enough to vaguely remember the very end of the long period of socialist intellectual hegemony that lasted until the late 1970s. Then it was Labour that ‘knew’ how to run the economy and the Conservatives who were on the back foot. Now that situation is so thoroughly reversed that anyone under about 50 will have no memory it was ever different. ‘New Labour’ had to be invented to keep the old nag alive and accommodate the career aspirations of a bunch of career politicians with no big idea of their own.

    Look about you; Conservative thinking has failed as badly as did Labour’s in the 1970s and basic symmetry suggests it is now the liberals’ turn but there is a problem. The Lib Dems have never developed an alternative paradigm of government or even shown any interest in doing so (a few individuals excepted). Leadership is seen more as finding a parade and getting in front of it with a megaphone and/or getting lucky and holding the balance of power in a hung parliament. However you say it, this is a plan for career development, not one for the betterment of the country. Opinion polls suggest that the public understands this and isn’t impressed.

  • “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.”

    I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. Liberalism, in the non-party sense, depends on personality and experience more than party membership or ideological attachments. There are small-l liberals (on some issues) in the Conservative, Labour, and other parties, as well as Liberal Democrats who are *not* particularly liberal. Were it not the case that parties routinely whipped their members to vote for short-term party interests, it might well be possible to find a liberal majority on many issues regardless of the party composition of Parliament. Of course, the Liberal Democrat leadership would have to take a lead in trying to craft that majority; not something they currently seem particularly inclined to attempt.

  • “one reason I have little time for Plan B type arguments is that they are almost entirely about positioning and presentation.”

    Is the Leadership’s present position ANYTHING other than this?

  • I think “equidistance” is a very unhelpful term because inevitably people understand it to mean “half way between…”

    This should never be our aim as a party because ultimately it depends on Labour and the Conservatives and where they choose to position themselves – with the Lib Dems finding a centre ground between them.

    Far better – as most have said – to set out our own stall and then hold both Labour and Tories at arms length, making clear that we’re our own party with our own ideas which others may or may not agree with.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Sep '13 - 11:13pm


    I am just old enough to vaguely remember the very end of the long period of socialist intellectual hegemony that lasted until the late 1970s. Then it was Labour that ‘knew’ how to run the economy and the Conservatives who were on the back foot.

    No, I don’t think it was about Labour “knowing” how to run the economy. I think it was more that politics was defined by to what extent you were “socialist”, and socialism was the dominant ideology amongst intellectuals. The politics shelves in university bookshops used to groan with works on Marxism and socialism, probably more of them than on all other ideologies put together. If you wanted to seem clever, you called yourself a “socialist”, and if you wanted to seem very clever you learnt and spouted out socialist jargon and adopted a particularly extreme variety of it. I certainly recall it still being like that in the mid 1980s.

    The funny thing is, the situation is almost exactly the same now, except for “socialism” put “free marketism” – where there has been a determined effort to steal the word liberalism and get it to refer to this new ideology in order to make it seem more respectable and less something that was invented by the super-rich to protect themselves.

    Some things haven’t changed. The left-right spectrum still tends to be seen in terms of how socialist you are, except for the clever trick the socialists used in getting fascism thought of as “extreme right” whereas on that scale its is really a centrist ideology – clever trick because it did so well in disguising the socialist origin of fascism. The socialists also left us with the Leninist model of political party being so dominant that it is now just assumed that’s how a political party must be i.e. an organisation which has a rigid centrally controlled policy-making mechanism, and a culture in which members are expected to be automatons who always obey the party line, whatever it is this week.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Sep '13 - 11:46pm

    Joe Otten

    And one reason I have little time for Plan B type arguments is that they are almost entirely about positioning and presentation.

    Well my Plan B isn’t. I would come out straight and say we are in this bad deficit position, that means policies which some will find painful – but I’d like the pain to be felt mostly at the top end of the wealth spectrum, rather than as this current government has it, at the bottom.

    Sorry, but lines like “we can’t possibly do inheritance tax / property tax etc because of the hurt it would cause” sound a little hollow when we seem quite happy to cause that sort of hurt to people at the other end e.g. with the abolition of the spare bedroom subsidy. I have little time for the Tory line stop clobbering the rich. Gladstone wanted wealth to fructify in the pockets of the people, but the big problem is that is HASN’T fructified, it’s rotted. It might have fructified if we had the sort of tax system that discouraged it being put into non-productive investments, in particular home ownership, but we don’t, because that’s against all Tories stand for i.e. the aristocratic idea that money that is gained just from owning things is nobler than money that is gained from work. See how cynically (or maybe just stupidly) people like Chris Grayling dress this up as “wealth creators” – this term is used by him to mean ANYONE who is wealthy, regardless of how they became wealthy. The Duke of Westminster became one of the wealthiest people in the country because some remote ancestor of his acquired a cabbage patch in Middlesex which is now worth a bob or two. In what way is this man a “wealth creator”? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call him a “wealth absorber”? And how many more of people who are wealthy would similarly be more accurately described? Are those Qataris buying up London also “wealth creators”? No, what rot. Like that jumped up Grosvenor, they just had the good luck that some ancestor settled on a piece of land now worth a bit, in their case because it happened to have oil underneath it. They didn’t make the oil, they didn’t drill it out, they didn’t do anything except sit there owning it while others did the work.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Sep '13 - 11:48pm

    I understand the perils of equidistance, but inequidistance also has its perils. A more honest approach would be to say that we are an independent political party and have people who would prefer to work with Labour, some who would prefer to work with the Conservatives and others who are indifferent.

    The leader of a political party should represent and guide their party, not tell them and the rest of the country what they now think.

  • Andrew Colman 24th Sep '13 - 10:51am

    3 boys decide to do a dare jumping off a cliff in to the sea below, one Conservative, one labour and one liberal democrat. The conservative says , that as a conservative, he will jump on the right. He jumps , hits his head on the rock below and dies. The labour boy then says , he was to far to the right. He goes to the left end of the cliff, jumps, hits the rocks below and dies. The lib Dem then says, they are both wrong, we need to take the centre ground. He goes to the middle of the cliff, jumps, hits the rocks and dies.

  • @Andrew Colman

    Well, thanks for that?

  • ATF Just Andrew’s moral story about tombstoning…

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Sep '13 - 2:59pm

    Joe Otten

    My objection to Chris Grayling is that he seemed to be using the phrase “wealth creator” to mean anyone who is wealthy. There seems to be quite a push to do this now, it’s not the first time recently I’ve come across this being done. Indeed, the idea seems to be to use this phrase in this way so often that it just becomes the norm, so people just assume anyone who is wealthy is a “wealth creator”, one of those people who gets society running by doing things and inventing things and the like and so provides so much of benefit to everyone else.

    I’m not suggesting there is no such thing as a person who is a “wealth creator”, but I am very much questioning the line that tries to make out everyone who is wealthy is such a person. This line is used to rule out any sort of wealth tax on the basis that it’s a tax on “wealth creators” and hence will be a disincentive to them and stop them creating this wealth. To me this is nonsense, with those whose wealth is inherited over many generations being just the most obvious example. I don’t have figures to hand, but I suspect a great deal of the sort of wealth that would be taxed by the various forms of taxation that the Tories condemn as an attack on “wealth creators” was not at all gained by active work from the person who owns the wealth. The Tories like to use lines like suggesting inheritance tax is a tax on incentive. But come on now, where is the disincentive on taxing the wealth of the landed aristocracy, as an example? For how many generations must we award the initiative of those who joined William of Normandy in landing at Hastings, or got into bed with Charles II, or however else this people made it?

    My feeling is that those who really have something to offer, who really have new ideas, who are the real “entrepreneurs” are those who are fascinated and skilled at those things they have to offer and those ideas. If they make money as a side-effect, that’s good as well, but it’s not the primary motivation. It’s not always the case, but those whose primary motivation is just personal wealth for themselves, and who then seek ways of making it, would be much less likely to be offering something of real value, and much more likely to be selling poor quality things with all the effort going into salesmanship.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Sep '13 - 3:06pm

    Andrew Colman

    3 boys decide to do a dare jumping off a cliff in to the sea below

    This is a poor analogy, because it suggests there’s a sensible option i.e. not jumping off the cliff, which they could have taken but chose not to. This sort of naive thinking is behind much of the anti-politics populism we see these days, the idea that there’s some simple and obvious solution the politicians could have chosen but did not. If you ask the people of this country, of course they would want cuts in taxation, better government services, and no government borrowing. This is the equivalent of your not jumping off the cliff. Unfortunately, it is not a possible option. So condemning politicians because they won’t offer it (oh, yes, and they want politicians to be truthful as well) is just silly, and dangerous because underneath it becomes an attack on democracy itself.

  • Matthew Huntbach,

    “politics was defined by to what extent you were “socialist”, and socialism was the dominant ideology amongst intellectuals. This is what I meant by “socialist intellectual hegemony”. From that world view flows very naturally a certain approach to running the country/economy.

    Joe Otten,

    One of the biggest perils of equidistance is that it constrains debate tending to exclude anything that doesn’t fall within the conventional political spectrum. This is, of course, precisely where things screw up – in plain view but unremarked by the political classes.

    A case in point is HSBC’s money laundering. Last year they admitted laundering hundreds of billions of dollars for an unsavoury mix of drug dealers and terrorists for which they paid a $1.9 billion penalty – a modest ‘cost-of-business fine’ equal to around 5 weeks’ profit. No-one went to jail. Now a credible whistle blower is alleging that they are back to money laundering on an industrial scale. Financial journalist Ian Fraser has the details.

    If Clegg really wants to make a radial transformation he should forget about trying to triangulate some sort of equidistance and tackle the lawless culture of some banks by demanding a thorough investigation and 20 to 30 year jail sentences for all the executives involved if the allegations are substantiated. If Clegg (or some other politician) doesn’t make such a call the regulators won’t do anything much as the record to date shows (read the article by Matt Taibbi linked by Fraser). Most voters want to see laws enforced so just imagine how this would put the Conservatives on the spot. As the party of ‘law and order’ (or so they claim) how could they possibly respond except by caving in? Sometimes you don’t have to be the majority party to set the agenda as Farage has shown.

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Sep '13 - 5:39pm

    Ian Sanderson, I would say the vast majority of us would prefer a 100% Lib Dem government, but not all of us! I would, but there are many on both sides of the debate who would prefer a re-alignment of the left or the right.

  • A Social Liberal 26th Sep '13 - 1:08pm


    I disagree with your analysis of Andrew Colemans analogy. The do not jump option is not the only unspoken one. For instance, we could have the ‘climb down the cliff at a steady pace’ scenario, or the abseil down the cliff using the rope and anchor of Keynsian economics. Both, if done safely and correctly would have us swimming in the sea of prosperity and not floating face down.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Sep '13 - 10:56pm

    A Social Liberal

    For instance, we could have the ‘climb down the cliff at a steady pace’ scenario, or the abseil down the cliff using the rope and anchor of Keynsian economics.

    No, in Andrew Colman’s analogy, that’s to adopt left-wing policies, but he says that’s jumping off the cliff and getting killed.

  • Michael Cole 27th Sep '13 - 2:08pm

    Talk about ‘equidistance’ is all very well but the reality is that, irrespective of the parliamentary arithmetic after the 2015 GE, it would be difficult to form a coalition with Labour given their gross incompetence in dealing with the economy (and other matters). If anything, Ed Balls is even more incompetent than Brown.

    We would have to jettison many of the principles to which we have tried to adhere in the present coalition. According to Milliband deficit reduction would not be a priority. Labour’s policies appear to be populist short-term measures such as ‘stimulating’ the economy by injecting large sums of money and by uncosted and unspecified government projects. As we know only too well, a recipe for disaster. Do we really want to be associated with this ? Heaven knows, we are unpopular enough as it is.

    It is not just about who is left, right or centre . It’s just that the Tories (we don’t have to love them) are less incompetent than Labour.

  • David Allen 27th Sep '13 - 4:08pm

    Andrew Colman’s analogy is clearly the big thing in this thread that everybody must comment upon.

    OK, here’s my go. It’s like Alan Bennett taking it upon himself to give a sermon on a random piece of Biblical text, and coming up with “Esau was an hairy man, but Jacob was a smooth man”!

  • Matt (Bristol) 27th Sep '13 - 4:24pm

    “the Tories … are less incompetent than Labour”

    Arrrrghh. I’m suddenly a teenager again and its the early 90s. This is the argument I heard from a thousand spotty oiks growing up in the Home Counties – Daddy says we can’t vote for anyone else but the Tories becuase it’s bad for the economy. Never mind that the Tories of the time were asset-stripping the nation with rampant aggressive privatisationa and encouraging risk-taking levels of deregulation and carpet-bagging which threatened the longterm safety of the economy.

    I certainly don’t argue that Brown era Labour was the epitome of competence, but once again, why is the Liberal Deomcrat Party and its support doing the Conservative Party’s work for it by harranguing Labour?

  • Michael Cole 28th Sep '13 - 1:14am

    @Matt (Bristol)

    I understand your anger towards the Tories.

    The result of the 2010 GE is such that it has been the duty of the Lib Dems to form a stable government in the interests of the country. This much is surely obvious. The decision was made in the clear knowledge that the Party would be unpopular – and so it has proved to be. Would either of the other two parties have made such a sacrifice ?

    Don’t forget that we are outnumbered 5:1 by the Conservative MPs, so there is a limit to our influence.

    You are quite right to highlight my view that the Tories are less incompetent than Labour. This is the reason why so many people have voted for them.

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