Insipid centrism

That’s what the Liberal Democrats are risking. That, at least, is the view Jeremy Browne expressed on last night’s Radio 4 programme about Nick Clegg. Chris Huhne wasn’t much more complimentary about the current strategy of trying to situate the party between the two major parties. Huhne felt that defining the party negatively – at least we’re not as bad as Labour on the economy or the Conservatives on just about everything else – isn’t really a very appetizing message. A more positive case for what the party stands for needs to be made.

We could dismiss these views as sour grapes from the rejected and discarded. There might be something to that. But Browne and Huhne are hardly alone. While there are high profile defenders of what we might call the “non-specific centrism” strategy, there are plenty of activists who feel that just parroting “stronger economy, fairer society” all the time hardly adds up to a compelling political offer. And I’m not even thinking of those who would have preferred it to be “fairer economy, stronger society”.

The leadership’s non-specific centrism strategy is now seemingly accompanied by an attempted rapprochement with Labour, presumably in the expectation that a coalition with Labour is viewed as more likely than another coalition with the Conservatives.

It seems to me that pursuing the strategy of publicly courting Labour may make the coalition outcome less likely.

Labour are clearly sticking to the line that they are aiming to governing with an outright majority, even though you can find well-informed party members who are arguing that behind the scenes they are planning for coalition. And it appears they are going to target Nick Clegg’s constituency directly in an attempt to unseat him. There may, of course, not be a contradiction there. If Labour manage to unseat Clegg then that would have removed one potential sticking point if it looks like we’re heading towards coalition again.

But, more importantly, the question is how the voters will react. There is a big risk that people view Clegg’s overtures to the Labour party not as indicating a commendable even-handedness and a commitment to govern in the national interest, however the cards may fall, but as indicating that the Liberal Democrats – or at least Nick Clegg – will do just about anything to stay in power. The leadership is trying to differentiate from the worst excesses of the Conservative austerity agenda, while at the same time claiming that all along the Treasury has been captured by the Liberal Democrats and George Osborne is dancing to Danny Alexander’s tune. The party said it would deliver all sorts of things in Coalition and has failed to deliver quite a number of them. Never mind the fact that the Tories blocked or undermined many of the key proposals, clearly the party has ‘reneged’ on its promises to deliver the undeliverable. The party has no principles or clear values. Or, if they do, then they’re just as nasty as the Tories. This isn’t the new politics we were promised. Type of thing.

I can imagine that Clegg in courting mode could drive the undecided into the arms of Labour, or the Conservatives, in order to reduce the likelihood that we end up in coalition territory. Or it may move more people into the ranks of the disengaged and disaffected.

There is also something a little presumptuous about the Liberal Democrats starting to lay out publicly what they might demand from a future coalition partner. There are plenty of people predicting, or at least wishing, for a Liberal Democrat wipeout. The whole issue of coalition would then be rendered rather academic.

We might argue that the polling numbers don’t point in that direction at the moment. But that isn’t really the point. And if you were guided by the polls then you might take the view that a Labour majority was the most likely outcome, in which case Clegg’s positioning is going to look a bit silly.

What the parties might discuss in private is an entirely different story. Sounding out the parameters of a coalition would seem to be eminently sensible.

Politicians, particularly in the Liberal Democrats, face a difficult dilemma in a context where coalition is a real possibility. They are clearly reluctant to set out a policy platform for governing alone because they know that isn’t likely to happen. And the consequence of doing so will be that it allows others to point to all the concrete things they said they’d do but then failed to deliver. Too many hostages to fortune.

But if you don’t say very specifically what you would do, given the chance, then the voters have no idea what you stand for and no obvious reason to vote for you.

So you are left with an appeal to ethos. Asking people to vote for you because they have faith in what you stand for. You have to set out your values in a “these are the principles and values we will apply to decision-making in government, but we don’t know in advance what we are applying them to because we don’t know what we’ll actually be discussing because that depends on who we’re in coalition with” type of way.

But even here you have a choice.

You could take a negative approach: “Vote for us and we’ll try to rein in the worst excess of the others”. All we stand for is being “sensible” or, it appears from recent pronouncements, “not ideological”. As if liberalism weren’t an ideology. This is clearly the dominant “strategy” among the Liberal Democrat leadership.

Or you can make a positive case for a set of values that you stand by. You might have to try to exemplify them in practice, but you might have to do that at some distance from the leadership so there are fewer hostages to fortune offered. The only real sign that this is happening for the Liberal Democrats is on Europe. This is a positive move, although in some quarters it is being read as a sign of resignation – the party is going to get a beating come what may, so there is nothing to lose by being pro-European. Personally, I feel that this approach would be better adopted across a broader range of policy areas. But then you run up against the fact that you’d soon unearth significant internal disagreements – privatising public services anyone? And you’d run up hard against the fact that for many of the things that the party would be close to united on – for example civil liberties, security, equalities, rule of law – the leadership is hopelessly compromised by the Coalition’s track record.

I think Browne and Huhne are probably right. And that isn’t a sentence I was ever expecting to write. I don’t think the strategy of relying on defining the party’s position in opposition to the other parties is sufficient. There has to be a positive component to the message if it is going to have any chance of inspiring. That may run the risk of more voters and activists peeling off because the positive case isn’t one they are comfortable with, but that may well be a risk worth running. At least those who remain would have a better idea what they were buying into.
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