6 British Pathé video clips of ex-Liberal leaders from 1931 to 1967

by Stephen Tall on April 17, 2014

Sir John Simon speaks to the Nation. “Let us give to the Prime Minister a firm mandate in the name of the whole nation” (1931)

General Election Aka Pathe Election Forum: “It was to make Britons free that the Liberal Party came into being” (Sir Archibald Sinclair, 1945)

Election Address – Liberal Party: “The people want a party that serves all classes” (Sir Archibald Sinclair, 1946)

The Liberal Message: “As long as there is breath in my body I will fight for freedom and for liberalism” (Clement Davies, 1951)

Liberal Leader Jo Grimond Votes AKA Jo Grimond Votes (MUTE, 1964)

Jeremy Thorpe New Liberal Leader: “Good luck to him in his new job!” (1967)

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

New LDV members’ survey now live: your views on Scotland, drugs, Nick v Nigel, the economy, the Coalition, and much more!

by Stephen Tall on April 16, 2014

The new LDV members’ survey is now live. So if you are one of the c.1,500 registered members of the Liberal Democrat Voice forum — and any paid-up party member is welcome to join — then you now have the opportunity to make your views known.

Questions we’re asking this month include:

  • do you support or oppose Scotland becoming independent?
  • should we decriminalise/legalise ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs?
  • hot-topics such as Heathrow expansion, opt-in organ donation, e-cigarettes, 50p top-rate of tax, pension annuities, and Nick v Nigel
  • your views on Nick Clegg’s leadership and of leading figures within the Lib Dems;
  • and what you think of the Coalition’s performance to date.

It should take no longer than 10 minutes minutes to fill in. All registered members of the Forum should have today been e-mailed with a unique link to take you to the survey. If you haven’t received yours, or if you are signing up to the Forum now, please drop Ryan Cullen a line at ryan@libdemvoice.org. Please do check your spam folder first, though, in case it’s ended up there!

We’ll publish the results in a few days’ time. You can access the results from our previous LDV members surveys by clicking here — and you can access a Google spreadsheet of our ‘Coalition tracker’ and ‘leading Lib Dems’ ratings here.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

Daily Mail attacks Nick Clegg for Cyril Smith RIP tribute. Why?

by Stephen Tall on April 16, 2014

mail cyril smith lib dems‘Squirming of the Lib Dems’ is the Daily Mail’s front page splash today. It’s the second successive day the paper has tried, a bit desperately, to pin blame on Nick Clegg for the extensive abuse allegedly committed by former Liberal MP Sir Cyril Smith in the 1960s and ’70s.

The basis for the paper’s accusations is that Nick Clegg issued a tribute on his 80th birthday and when Cyril Smith died. As Nick has pointed out, “I would never have dreamed of saying the things that I said about Cyril Smith on his 80th birthday and when he died if I was aware of the truly horrific nature of the actions which he is alleged to have undertaken over a long period of time.”

Disagree with Nick Clegg’s politics all you like, but the idea he’d have covered up allegations of paedophile abuse is nothing but offensive. I’ve no idea if he’d heard any rumours about Cyril Smith. They were reported in Private Eye in 1979 (when Nick was 12), but not picked up elsewhere.

It’s easy to view these things through a post-Savile mirror and assume he must have both heard them and believed them to be true – but BBC Newsnight’s airing of false allegations against Lord (Alistair) McAlpine show the dangers of believing every story that circulates of prominent people who are alleged to have a liking for boys.

Of course, the party and all its politicians still alive who knew Cyril Smith should cooperate fully with any and all enquiries. It may well be that some knew more than just rumours and have questions to answer about what they did with that knowledge. If so, that should all be properly investigated and made public. The Mail’s focus on Nick Clegg is an unjust distraction.

And as for issuing tributes of public figures when they die — well, Nick Clegg is by no means alone. Here’s the Daily Mail’s eulogistic coverage of Jimmy Savile’s death on 31 October 2010…

mail jimmy savile death

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

The verdict of Philip Collins, chief speech writer for Tony Blair, on Nick Clegg: “the Deputy Prime Minister should be applauded by all liberal voters”

by Stephen Tall on April 15, 2014

Nick Clegg Q&A 19Philip Collins uses his column in today’s Times to write something not often written on that paper’s pages (or anywhere else for that matter): praise for the Lib Dems in Coalition. Here’s the paywalled link, and here’s a glimpse behind the paywall of what he has to say:

It is therefore a serious defence of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats to commend them for things that would have happened had they not been there. It is in the nature of things that have not happened that we often do not know what they are. The siren voices of the Tory Right though, tell the tale. They complain, as if the electorate had granted them a full victory, that the Lib Dems have prevented them from doing what Tories are born to do.

The list of complaints looks to me like a prospectus of liberal triumph and a record of negative capability to be proud of. Without the Lib Dems, say the malcontents, the government would have slashed green taxes harder. It would have made more progress towards abolishing human rights legislation. It would have had an even tougher stance on immigration, and the welfare cuts would have been even more severe. Tax cuts for the wealthy would, finally, have been more generous. In which case, all hail the Liberal Democrats. …

[Nick Clegg's] liberal conviction is evident in what the coalition has done as well as what it has not. It was notable that, in his Budget speech, George Osborne made a lot of the Liberal Democrat policy of raising the threshold at which people pay income tax to £12,500. The instinct behind this policy is the liberal desire that people should keep more of the money they earn. More money has been channelled to poorer children via the premium offered to schools in disadvantaged areas. The Green Investment Bank awaits a chancellor who believes in it but it could yet become a significant reform. The welfare state in Britain used to depart with the health visitor and not come back into view until primary school. The Liberal Democrat emphasis on childcare has come out of Mr Clegg’s politically inexpedient but intellectually admirable emphasis on making social mobility an index of coalition success.

There you have it – a quick summary from Philip Collins of what I’m going to term the Lib Dems’ Two Concepts of Coalition:

Negative Coalition: Coalition in the negative sense involves stopping the larger partner from doing those things you believe to be harmful and which are in your power to stop.

Positive Coalition: Coalition in the positive sense involves promoting those policies you campaigned for at the election and which only being in government enables you to deliver.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

Latest ICM poll: Lib Dems at 12% for Westminster, but just 6% in the Euros

by Stephen Tall on April 15, 2014

As I’ve mentioned before, The Guardian’s ICM poll is the one I wait for each month. The latest figures are now up, and the figures are… well, I’m not sure what to make of them really.

icm april 2014

In the snapshot of Westminster voting intentions, the Lib Dems are unchanged from last month on 12%, ahead of Ukip on 11% (+2%). Labour lead the Conservatives by 37% (-1%) to 32% (-3%). All the figures are within the margin of error. The party will be relieved to see that there’s no sign of ICM putting us anywhere near the 7% recorded by one pollster, ComRes, a couple of days ago.

Until, that is, you turn to the Euro voting intentions for the 22 May election in 5 weeks’ time. This time the Lib Dems are down to just 6% (-3% compared with February), level with the Greens, with Ukip in third place on 20%. Labour lead the Conservatives by 36% (+1%) to 25% (no change). All the figures are, again, within the margin of error.

Taken at face value, this Euro finding is deeply disappointing for the Lib Dems. Polling 6% in the actual election would likely see the Lib Dems entirely wiped out of the European parliament. It really does highlight, as I pointed out here, that every percentage point makes a major difference for the Lib Dems.

There are, though two oddities about the ICM Euro poll. First, it shows very little movement at all: Tories and Ukip unchanged, Labour up 1%. Maybe that points to its reliability, but considering all the debate there’s been in the two months since ICM last published a Euro poll that’s surprising.

But not as surprising as Ukip being in third, so far behind both the Tories and Labour. ICM is the only one of the six polling companies who’ve asked about Euro voting intentions in April which has produced this result. Ukip’s 20% with ICM is 8% lower than the average of the other five polls, while Labour’s 36% is 5% higher. They’re either going to look exceptionally accurate on 22 May, or have egg on their faces.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

“The Lib Dems are a Goldilocks party or they are nothing”

by Stephen Tall on April 14, 2014

That’s the title of my column in today’s Times. The link’s here, but sorry, it’s paywalled. However, there’s a snippet below…

2014-04-14 10.48.41


The argument will be familiar to those who’ve read my review of Jeremy Browne’s new book, Race Plan.

While I’m sympathetic to his freedom-loving liberal outlook, he hasn’t yet persuaded me either of the specific free market reforms he proposes, nor that his ideological purity is a viable election-winning strategy:

Team Clegg’s strategy is clear: for the Lib Dems to be seen as a “well-defined moderating centrist party”. It doesn’t excite party activists, who would like nothing better than to campaign as radical liberals. But in reality it’s because we are reckoned to be the fair-minded, Goldilocks party (not too hot, not too cold) that people vote for us.

If the Lib Dems are to continue as a party of government, there will be no alternative but to do a deal next year either with the right-leaning Tories or left-leaning Labour. We’ll fight 2015 from the moderate centre because there’s no other position from which we can credibly fight it.



Peter Kellner’s 5 reasons why the fundamentals favour the Tories in 2015

by Stephen Tall on April 14, 2014

Peter Kellner today assesses the lie of the polling land – and concludes it’s looking good for the Conservatives. This in spite of the fact they still trail Labour by around 5% in most polls. Why? He lists 5 fundamentals which favour David Cameron:

1) The economy is improving – and voters are noticing. A year ago, 74% said economy was in a bad state; just 4% said it was good. Today, just 43% say ‘bad’, while 22% say ‘good’. Add in the 32% who say ‘neither good nor bad’ (up from 19% a year ago) and 54% think Britain is no longer in the mire – a sharp contrast from 23% a year ago.
2) This time last year, the verdict on the coalition’s handling of the economy was a terrible minus 35 (28% said ‘well’, 63% ‘badly’). Now, the gap has closed to just minus six – 42% well, 48% badly.
3) A year ago, Labour and Conservative were running neck-and-neck on which of them would be better at running the economy. The Tories have now opened up an 11-point lead.
4) Although Cameron’s personal rating has slipped in the past few days, from minus nine to minus 16 (38% say he is doing well, 54% badly), he is still ahead of where he was a year ago – and well ahead of both Ed Miliband (minus 26) and Nick Clegg (minus 51).
5) Cameron also leads Miliband head-to-head when people are asked who would make the best Prime Minister; our latest figures put the Tory leader 16 points ahead, 36-20%.

These findings lead him to a stark conclusion:

I can find no example of a party losing an election when it is ahead on both leadership and economic competence. If Britain’s recovery is sustained (especially if living standards start to improve) and Cameron is able to maintain his lead over Miliband, then we are likely to see a swing back from Labour to Conservative over the next 12 months – as we have every time in the past half century that a Conservative Prime Minister has led his or her party into a general election.

At which point I wheel out my not-at-all-scientific polynomial polling trendline suggesting the Tories are on course for a 6% lead by May 2015. When I first published it last year, I said it was just a bit of fun. It’s starting to look serious…


My recommended reading for today April 13, 2014

by Stephen Tall on April 13, 2014

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention in the past couple of days…

Jeremy Browne’s ‘Race Plan’. I’ve read it, so here’s my review…

by Stephen Tall on April 13, 2014

Jeremy Browne bookThree points to make right from the start about Jeremy Browne’s new book, Race Plan.

First, it’s a wholly Good Thing that a Lib Dem MP is choosing to think aloud, to set out clearly his views. Nick Clegg having decided that he did, after all, like one of the Beecroft recommendations and decided to fire-at-will his home office minister, Jeremy could have slunk away, tail between his legs, to nurse his bitterness. He’s chosen a rather more constructive outlet for his disappointment. By which I mean this book, rather than his short-lived, C.19th-throwback, gap year beard.

Secondly, there is a fundamental problem with the central conceit of this book: that Britain is in a global race, and that if we don’t get fitter, we’ll be overtaken by or competitors in the coming Asian Century, fall behind, and become poorer. This notion has been debunked by many – Ryan Bourne makes the point very well here:

A race implies having winners and losers: if China is doing better, then we must be doing worse. In trade terms this is a thoroughly mercantilist outlook, which was of course thoroughly debunked by David Hume and Adam Smith 250 years ago. They recognised, rightly, that trading through comparative advantage increases prosperity for all. If you can understand that, then it quickly follows that the rise of a large Chinese middle-class is a huge opportunity for us, not a threat. Economic evidence suggests that as people’s incomes increase, their demand for services increase much more quickly than their demand for manufactured goods. In many of these services, high-valued added manufacturing and creative industries, the UK has potential strengths.

In his (very good) LDV review here Nick Thornsby I think over-generously exculpates Jeremy of this charge, quoting one line from the Race Plan: “The comforting truth is that, just because one country gets richer, it does not follow that another country gets poorer. Global economic growth is not a zero-sum game: we can all get richer.” But this is just one line – the rest of the book is underpinned by an assumption that, in the ‘Global Race’, if Britain’s not winning then we’re losing.

Thirdly, the title’s a bad title. I don’t just mean ‘Race Plan’ (though the casual readers could be forgiven for inferring the book’s about eugenics rather than economic and political reform), I mean the sub-title: ‘An authentic liberal plan to get Britain fit for ‘The Global Race’’. It’s hard to see that word ‘authentic’ as anything other than a provocation to folk like my co-editor Caron Lindsay, as she punchily but fairly noted here: “Browne’s claim to the “authentic liberalism” mantle is a bit like sticking two fingers up to all the lefties and telling them to all bog off and join Labour if they don’t like it.”

It’s perfectly possible to think that every idea in Jeremy’s book can be termed ‘liberal’ (and I do) and yet not necessarily agree with them all (and I don’t – as you’ll see below). As a classical liberal, Jeremy should be a little less monopolistic of the term; just as those who condemn his views as illiberal should aim to be a little less enslaved by conformity.

Enough of the Preamble. Race Plan itself is what I think many people who never read it assume The Orange Book was, but actually wasn’t: an unabashed prescription for free market economic liberalism in Britain.

The anti-Statist who admires the state and State of China

The first two chapters are a breathless paean to the “multi-dimensional shift in the global order” – not simply the emergence of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) but of many other fast-rising countries in Asia and Latin America, too. He is right that the advances are staggering: “By 2060, it is estimated that 57 per cent of global GDP will be generated by countries outside the OECD.”

And Jeremy is full of admiration for the leaps and bounds China’s achieved in the last couple of decades. Not just the increased life expectancy or reduced infant mortality or the 500 million people lifted out of extreme poverty, but their vision: “… it is not just the statistics that inspire awe. Chinese airports are cathedrals of modernity. Even the train stations feel like airports.”

Not that Jeremy is blind to China’s faults, explicitly recognising its human rights abuses and undemocratic authoritarianism. Indeed, one of the book’s strongest points is the dilution of liberal, democratic values that is taking place as the West’s economic might is challenged:

The liberal values I treasure include living in a country where people are free from oppression and enforced conformity. … These values are not accepted in large parts of the world. … There are many hundreds of millions of people, right around the world, who live in fear and without freedom, and they look to us for the reassurance of knowing that they are not forgotten and are not alone.

There is, though, an odd disconnect within Race Plan. The first section of the book is a eulogy to the vision of China and its fast-paced transformation; yet, paradoxically, the rest of the book is unrepentantly state-sceptic.

Jeremy on Education: must try harder

The first topic Jeremy gets to grips with is education, or more precisely schools. His diagnosis is accurate: the schools’ budget has soared since 1997, yet our children’s attainment has flat-lined when compared internationally. But his prognosis is dubious. He starts from an assertion uncluttered by evidence: independent schools are the best in the world because wealthy parents are able to exercise choice, therefore the only way for all schools to be outstanding is to extend that choice to all parents. There’s a certain seductive logic to this claim, but its causal chain needs to be challenged.

Most independent schools are very good schools, for sure – but because they select their pupils from among the wealthy (in the main) and because those parents are highly engaged (in the main). Here’s what you find when you compare apples with apples, rather than oranges: “OECD data shows that the average achievement in private schools in the UK is the same as that in state schools, once social class is taken into account, even though the average class size is 13 in the private sector and 25 in the state sector” Yes, you did read that right. And if you don’t start from the assumption that independent schools are inherently superior because they operate within a market, the argument Jeremy makes that the only way to improve state schools is through a voucher funding system falls away.

(I’ll note in passing that I’ve no particular objection to school vouchers, nor to for-profit schools. I think Jeremy makes a fair point when he notes that “many aspects of state-funded education are already provided by suppliers that make a profit [exam boards, text book publishers, building contractors etc] … so there is no great principle at stake about profits being made when education providers are paid using public money … so long as they are delivering a high quality service free at the point of use.” But it’s not the priority for improving pupils’ outcomes, and the time and energy wasted arguing about it distracts us from the things that are far more likely to make a real difference: improving teaching and learning in the classroom.)

Hey, Big Spender!

In his chapter on ‘physical capital’ the China-loving, Victorian Age-loving, State-loving Jeremy re-emerges: a new six-runway hub airport in North Kent, HS2, new motorways, housing, flood defences, superfast broadband, nuclear power, renewable energy infrastructure. It’s a dizzying combination of state intervention requiring huge taxpayer investment, and of deregulation, relaxing restrictions put in place by the state to protect the interests of residents in affected areas.

It’s a little hard to know how to square this Big Spending Jeremy with the chapter which follows, on the economy and the budget, where he urges Britain to be cutting spending further to what he calls the “broad sweet spot for having a globally competitive economy … of between about 35 and 38 per cent of GDP”. I’m not sure quite how he’s divined this “broad sweet spot”. As I pointed out a couple of years ago, when David Laws first floated this target, the tax burden tells us very little about a country’s economic performance: there are low-taxing low-productive countries, and high-taxing high-productive countries.

A little more authentic liberalism, please

What struck me most about Jeremy’s budgetary proposals is how conventional they are: cut the deficit by cutting social security; boost growth by lowering the top-rate of tax. There was little here that read as authentically liberal: in fact, it reads very on-Coalition-message.

There is no mention of switching from taxing earned income to taxing unearned wealth, for example, whether through a Land Value Tax or any other mechanism. The only mention of devolution is to recommend the four separate departments for local government, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland be merged to save money – and though there is one paragraph on decentralising services, on the potential for greater local power to boost growth (for example, as argued by Kirsty Williams in ‘Grassroots Economics’ here) Jeremy is silent.

If you read nothing else, read this

The best chapter by far is on international relations: no matter what you think of Jeremy Browne’s views on domestic policy, ‘Race Plan’ is worth reading for this. He makes a persuasive case of how limited Britain’s global outlook is: “Draw a line from London to Moscow, down to Kabul, across to Rabat in Morocco, and back to London. Apart from an obsession with America (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not), the overwhelming majority of Britain’s foreign policy is within the parameters of this box. … It is concerned with perhaps 15 per cent of the world’s population.” And an equally powerful argument for Britain continuing to be a world power:

In my direct experience as a Minister, what was remarkable was not how much Britain’s global influence has declined but how little. We are a treasured ally and an unwanted foe, not primarily because of the threat we carry, but because of the example we set. We are widely regarded as fair-minded, rigorous, aware of our obligations, non-duplicitous and guided by consistent principles.

We need as a nation, he says, to be more internationally engaged (citing South Korea or Mexico as future reliable allies), not less. That includes being more respectful of other countries: British politicians should not, for instance, always “seek out the most destitute Indian slum for the main photo opportunity”, any more than we Brits would appreciate foreign leaders making straight for our most deprived estates.

He defends Britain’s membership of the European Union, but on a staunchly pragmatic (and conditional) basis: it gives us “collective muscle, in trade negotiations for example, or at climate change summits, that individual member states, even big ones like Britain, would not otherwise possess”. And he is a vigorous advocate for the Government’s decision in 2004 to allow people from the new EU states in eastern Europe, including Poland, to work in Britain:

Britain held the line against the Soviet Union in the Cold War because we believed all people should benefit from liberal freedoms and be spared from communist oppression. That we were able to achieve that objective and share our success with people in countries like Poland is a genuine historical achievement. We did not tear down the Berlin Wall only to erect a new barrier between the people of Western and Eastern Europe.

This is the chapter which convinces me Nick Clegg was wrong about dismissing Jeremy Browne: not so much from the Home Office, but from the Foreign Office, his first ministerial post, and for which he was clearly very well-suited.

I get the ‘Race Plan’. Now show me the electoral plan, Jeremy

I don’t always agree with the policy solutions Jeremy Browne proposes in ‘Race Plan’, but his liberalism shines through. He believes in freedom, he believes in fairness. He thinks both these virtues are best promoted within a low-tax free market nation open to the world, and is prepared to argue for it.

There’s a missing chapter, though. It’s this. How does Jeremy propose to translate this classical liberal vision into a vibrant political party that attracts members, activists, and the public?

It’s often said there’s a liberal diaspora, encompassing members from elements of all three political parties: the Lib Dem Orange Bookers, the Tory Cameroons, and the New Labour Blairites. Yet the best known example of a party standing on this platform is Germany’s FDP, eliminated from the German parliament last year and still struggling to reach 5 per cent in the polls. Let’s assume Jeremy Browne persuades Lib Dems that ‘Race Plan’ is the authentic liberal manifesto (judging from our recent comment threads he’s got a job on his hands, but let’s assume for the sake of argument): how will he turn that into a vote-winning mandate?

Jeremy was quoted in The Times yesterday saying “Some argue that the Lib Dems should promote socialism plus civil liberties, but that isn’t liberalism.” He’s right. But liberalism isn’t Thatcherism plus internationalism, either.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

What Jeremy Browne did – and DIDN’T – tell The Times about the Lib Dems

by Stephen Tall on April 12, 2014

the times browne pointlessLib Dems ‘are pointless’ – that’s today’s Times front page lead, reporting an interview it carries with Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne.

You might imagine, therefore, that Jeremy Browne had at some point in his interview said the Lib Dems “are pointless”. But if you read the article you’ll be disappointed. He doesn’t say it. That a newspaper with the reputation of The Times should put in quotation marks made-up quotes is quite something.

However, the headline isn’t based on nothing, even if one of the words attributed to Jeremy Browne is an invention. So here is what Jeremy did say to trigger it in his full interview with Rachel Sylvester:

He supported Nick Clegg for the leadership and thinks he was brave to take the Lib Dems into coalition, but he is disappointed by the direction in which Mr Clegg is taking the party now. “He thinks he has to meet his detractors halfway in political no man’s land. As a result of that, he has less clarity and definition as a liberal politician than I think he would otherwise have had, and I think we as a party have less clarity and definition as well. A lot of people who might quite like the Lib Dems they see in their locality have a difficulty getting what the Lib Dems stand for and why they are relevant.”

It’s not enough, in his view, to position the Lib Dems as a moderating influence on the Conservatives and Labour, as the deputy prime minister has tried to do. “Every political party and every politician has to be able to answer the question, ‘If you didn’t exist why would it be necessary to invent you?’ I’m not sure it would be necessary to invent an ill-defined moderating centrist party that believed that its primary purpose was to dilute the policies of other political parties, whereas I do think it would be necessary to invent a bold, ambitious liberal party. Liberalism is emphatically not the equidistant point between conservatism and socialism, it’s an ideology in its own right.”

This is a familiar criticism – that the party’s appeal to centrist voters is a betrayal of its radical liberal roots – albeit one less often advanced from the economic liberal (‘right’) of the Lib Dems, much more often by the social liberal (‘left’).

I’m not unsympathetic to this criticism. But it doesn’t alter the simple fact that the Lib Dems have no choice but to fight the 2015 election as a party of the centre. As I wrote last July:

From that day on, 11 May 2010, the Lib Dem strategy for 2015 was defined. It wasn’t defined by us: it was defined by our situation. We became, instantly, a party of the centre. It’s a phrase few of my fellow Lib Dems like. For years we’ve railed against it, pointing out (justifiably) that liberalism is neither left nor right, but is its own distinct and radical philosophy. To many activists being in ‘the centre’ suggests we’ve become a party that’s content with wishy-washy, please-all-the-people, split-the-difference mushiness.

Yet the reality is it’s precisely because we are perceived to be moderate centrists that many of the electorate vote for us. And if we are to continue as a party of government – which almost three-quarters of Lib Dem members would like us to do – 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. We need to make the best of it. …

By default, therefore, the Lib Dem strategy for the next election is already in place. It was put in place the moment we decided to join the Coalition. We’ll fight 2015 from the centre because there’s no other position from which we can credibly fight it.

None of that means we can’t put forward radical, liberal policies in our manifesto – it’s just that it’s very unlikely if they’re that radical or that liberal they’ll get very far in a coalition agreement (or if they do it will be in exchange for something that we Lib Dems find Highly Objectionable).

That’s what makes the next manifesto especially hard for the party. In the past, our manifestos have been almost an intellectual exercise – “imagine if the Lib Dems formed the next government…” – without any of us really expecting that fantasy would come to pass. This time, we know there’s a pretty reasonable chance we might form the next government, but it won’t be in the Dream World where every Lib Dem manifesto idea makes it into legislation. This is how I described the circle the party is trying to square in LDV’s ‘Lessons of Coalition’ series last summer:

Not only do we need the fully worked through policies which give our manifesto credibility and enthuse party activists, we need also to work up the bite-size policies achievable within the compromise of Coalition that will nevertheless move us in a liberal direction. Because if we don’t claim that space, as we so effectively have on taxation but have generally failed to do on public services, we can be sure the other party we’re in Coalition will do it for us, whether Tory or Labour.

And that’s still the dilemma.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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