I agree with Richard Reeves – but he’s wrong about the word ‘bigot’

by Stephen Tall on September 19, 2012

Nick Clegg’s former director of strategy Richard Reeves has written an interesting article for the New Statesman, The case for a truly liberal party. There’s nothing particularly surprising in it, but it’s none the worse for that. His argument is essentially that the Lib Dems have the chance to occupy the space at the centre ground of British politics as radical liberals: after all, no other party is occupying it, or seemingly wanting to.

Most people are sceptical of the claims of both left and right. In fact, on a left-right scale, most people locate themselves in the same place as the Liberal Democrats. Few people want a party reliant on the financial support of either the unions or the rich. The population is increasingly socially liberal and anti-ideological. There remains a Blair-shaped hole in British politics.

Right now, it is hard to feel much benefit from occupying the centre ground. The Liberal Democrats are still suffering from the aftershocks of coalition, austerity and tuition fees. But it is also because the identity of the party is unclear – because it remains unresolved. There is no easy escape route, but a route must be chosen.

And, even on the narrowest grounds of straightforward party interest, sticking to a truly liberal path is the best option. Those who yearn to pull the party back to the left should think hard about what the campaign message would be in 2015. Any attempt to position the Liberal Democrats as a party of the centre left after five years of austerity government in partnership with the Conservatives will be laughed out of court by the voters – and rightly so. Anybody who wants a centre-left party will find a perfectly acceptable one in Labour. The Liberal Democrats need centrist voters, “soft Tories”, ex-Blairites, greens – and anyone who thinks the Tories are for the rich and Labour can’t be trusted with the economy. There is a new political market for the Liberal Democrats. The party just needs to seek it out, rather than looking wistfully at the old customers who have turned away. The left-wing votes “borrowed” from Labour in 2010 will not be available in 2015. New ones must be found.

I agree with Richard’s assessment — though the slightly glib way he suggests “the party just needs to seek out” an entire new caste of potential voters probably goes some way to explaining why he’s always been treated with suspicion by activists whose gruelling job it will be to try and find this “new political market” door-by-door.

I’ve always found it slightly ironic that within the Lib Dems most of the hostility to Richard Reeves — closely associated with the liberal-left through his directorship of Demos — has come from the more social liberal-leaning side of the party. But above all I suspect it’s his evident lack of doorstep-slog activism which rubs Liberator-people up the wrong way.

There is, however, a glaring inconsistency in Richard’s article. Because on the one hand he urges the party to seek new voters — centrist voters, “soft Tories”, ex-Blairites, greens — yet on the other he says:

Clegg’s office got into trouble earlier in the month for calling opponents of gay marriage “bigots” and then recalling both the press release and the charge. Here’s the thing: they are bigots. … Naturally, using words such as “bigot” will upset some people. People who were never going to vote Liberal Democrat anyway.

I agree with gay marriage. But I don’t like the word ‘bigot’. It’s ugly, unnecessary and more likely to drive away support rather than to persuade. It’s the kind of polarising language almost calculated to put off centrist voters, ex-Blairites and ‘soft Tories’ (not sure where greens would stand on it).

Perhaps this hints at the problem Richard Reeves had with constructing a coherent strategy for Nick Clegg — because it’s hard to see how a leader can establish a reputation as a rational crusader firmly rooted in the liberal centre if his top adviser thinks he can simultaneously indulge agitprop name-calling that will make him look and sound extreme. Liberalism is founded on reason; Nick Clegg’s brand depends upon him being seen as reasonable; Coalition is about finding reasoned solutions even and especially where there’s disagreement.