Jeremy Browne achieves impossible: unites both Lib Dem left and right. But he’s wrong.

by Stephen Tall on February 17, 2014

Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne – the Orange Booker’s Orange Booker – has achieved something he’s not normally known for: uniting both the economic liberal (‘right’) and social liberal (‘left’) of the party.

How has he done this? By criticising Nick Clegg’s strategy of pitching the Lib Dems in the centre of British politics. Here’s what he’ll say in tonight’s BBC Radio 4 documentary, Nick Clegg — the Liberal who came to power:

Jeremy Browne, who was sacked by Mr Clegg as Home Affairs Minister, said: “I have some unease that we are trying to pitch ourselves as a party that splits the difference between the other two . . . That’s not the same as liberalism.”

It’s a critique levelled by both the party’s left and its right. I’m not unsympathetic to it. 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.

The best of it so far is summed up by the party slogan, ‘A stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling every person in Britain to get on in life.’ Plenty of folk in the party deprecate its all-things-to-all-people-motherhood-and-apple-pie sentiment. Fair enough. But it’s a slogan aimed at the voters, not us.

However much I might like to fight an election proclaiming a liberal tomorrow – Land Value Tax! Proportional Representation! A Single Currency Now! (sorry, we’ve dropped that one now, haven’t we?) – those policies ain’t going to happen. The public knows that. I think even most of us Lib Dems know that.

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.