“A shitty time to be a liberal”: The Economist’s must-read piece on the Clegg paradox (and 2 reasons why it’s wrong)

by Stephen Tall on February 19, 2012

There’s a must-read column by The Economist’s Bagehot this week focusing on the Lib Dems’ dilemmas, titled The Clegg paradox. It’s a serious and weighty analysis, which asks some uncomfortable questions of the party’s strategy. Here’s it’s conclusion:

At a recent meeting of the Lib Dem parliamentary party, Tim Farron, an ambitious left-winger and party president, reportedly cheered this anti-Tory success, but bemoaned the fact that unelected peers had led the charge against the NHS reforms and got the credit for it, rather than Lib Dem MPs who need votes. That drew a rebuke from Jeremy Browne, a foreign office minister on the party’s free-market wing. Success should not be measured by how many Conservative initiatives the Lib Dems frustrate, said Mr Browne: we should not try to be a better opposition party than Labour, but a better governing party than the Tories.

Mr Clegg’s inner circle agree. The party can never go back to its previous easy existence, they say. Mr Clegg himself accepts that some of his views on immigration, law and order or Europe are on the wrong side of public opinion, especially in an age of austerity. It is a “shitty time to be a liberal”, he tells colleagues.

Actually, Britain is a tough place to be a liberal at any time, with a winner-takes-all voting system that punishes leaders like Mr Clegg, a minority within a minority party. The bet for Mr Clegg is that he does not need mass appeal: he just has to earn (or win back) the respect of enough voters to hold a balance of power in the next parliament.

As I say, it’s well worth reading, and even more worth thinking about seriosuly… But I don’t agree 100% with Bagehot’s analysis because of the credence he gives to two hoary old cliches much-loved by our opponents:

That Lib Dem votes are “borrowed” from Labour and the Tories

“The party has held Sheffield Hallam since 1997 with votes “borrowed” from Labour supporters. … To date, fewer Lib Dem seats have been won by borrowing the votes of centrist Conservatives.”

For all that Bagehot places “speech marks” round the word borrowed it feeds into the Labour and Tory rhetoric that British politics is essentially a class-based duopoly — a claim which was probably true for about 15 years after World War II, and never since. The ‘core votes’ for all three parties combined are now well below 50% of the population. In reality, most voters are (to one degree or another) ‘floating’, a mix of those who are entirely non-ideological and will vote for whichever party appears most competent and to care most for ‘people like us’, and those whose ideologies are more ‘pick n mix’ (eg, ‘right-wing’ socially, but ‘left-wing’ economically, or vice versa).

And in my canvassing experience, voters are generally at least as likely to vote against a party as they are to vote for one. Many Labour voters vote Labour to keep the Tories out; many Tory voters vote Tory to keep Labour out. In that sense, most voting in most seats is ‘tactical’. When those such as Bagehot argue the party has been reliant on ‘tactical voting’ in the past, in that sense he is right — but no more so than if he said Labour and the Tories are also reliant on it.

In those seats where the Lib Dems have won, it is not because we have suddenly worked out a sneaky new way to snaffle votes ‘tactically’ — it is because we offer voters an alternative choice to register their preference not to have a Labour/Conservative MP. The same phenomenon can be seen at work particularly in Scotland (with the rise of the SNP), where it has been accentuated by devolved power and a fairer system of votes. Political parties do not ‘borrow’ votes; the public ‘lends’ them: it’s a crucial distinction.

Lib Dems say different things in different parts of the country

[Here's] my favourite Lib Dem campaigning story, tucked away in a biography of Nick Clegg by Chris Bowers. It involves Vince Cable addressing party activists on the south coast in Eastbourne. Great to be here, the business secretary tells them, though I always have to remember that Lib Dems are in favour of bypasses in Eastbourne, but against them in Lewes (19 miles away).

It’s a good story, and probably true. But the notion this is an wholly Lib Dem trope is nonsense. I could easily roll out stories from the last parliament of Labour MPs who opposed hospital and post office closures in their constituencies even as their government was pushing through the policies which they had voted for which was the cause of those closures. And what about Tory MPs, split asunder between Euro-pragmatists and Europhobes — an issue, I’d suggest, of rather more importance than a new trunk road in Sussex. All parties are coalitions. And all parties have MPs whose local campaigns are sometimes at odds with their national policies. There is no Lib Dem exceptionalism at play here — it’s simply that, having not been in national government for a few decades we’ve never previously had the power of a final say.

Conclusion

Despite those major caveats, though, Bagehot’s piece is an excellent, if awkwardly acute, analysis. So let’s finish on a positive: what Lib Dem strategists hope will be the party’s pitch at the next election (I’ll gloss the fact that Bagehot thinks it “too comforting”):

Its members think that under Ed Miliband Labour has foolishly surrendered the centre ground by heading leftwards, while at the same time recently accepting the case for some spending cuts—which the Cleggites think will force Labour to fight on the two coalition parties’ home turf of deficit reduction. As for their Tory allies, the Lib Dems look at their positions on everything from Europe to crime, immigration and the environment, and sense the Tories moving rightwards, away from the modernising centre ground once claimed by Mr Cameron. They also note that Conservatives have proved themselves capable of losing elections in the past, despite offering policies in line with majority opinion on things like Europe.

Labour to the left, Tories to the right: the ‘radical centre’ remains territory the Lib Dems have every chance of claiming.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

2 comments

New post: “A shitty time to be a liberal”: The Economist’s must-read piece on the Clegg paradox (and 2 reason… http://t.co/sytMos46

by Stephen Tall on February 19, 2012 at 10:52 am. Reply #

“A shitty time to be a liberal”: The Economist’s must-read piece on the Clegg paradox (and 2 reasons why it’s wrong) http://t.co/gGeZx6hQ

by Steph Ashley on February 19, 2012 at 12:31 pm. Reply #

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