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.


I'm not sure I agree, Stephen (or rather I am not sure I share your interpretation of what Jeremy said). The difficulty is what we mean by "centrism". If a political party defines itself by reference purely to two other parties at either extreme, taking the "middle" position between the two, then one can call that centrism. But it is not the form of centrism that we should be aiming for. My liberalism (as I suspect is yours and Jeremy's) is, I would say, inherently centrist: equality of opportunity delivered through free market mechanisms with state intervention to the extent needed to achieve that end. But I don't think we achieve that sort of centrism by "splitting the difference" between the other two parties, who often look at things in the same way but from opposite ends. We have to view things from a different angle.

I hope that makes some sense…

by Nick Thornsby on February 17, 2014 at 7:29 pm. Reply #

You can slightly refine our position as the “Liberal Centre” – that then defines it in terms of an ideology rather than just something which moves depending on the other parties.

But what’s missing from all this is “Radical”. If we end up with a manifesto which is “continue the coalition” with a few bits thrown in (Mansion tax, scrapping a few welfare changes) then it will score very poorly on that front.

The danger is we draw up a manifesto with a view to agreeing a coalition – and leave out anything that is unlikely to be supported by the other parties. That leaves us with very little to negotiate with.

by Hywel on February 17, 2014 at 8:51 pm. Reply #

There is no economic liberal "right" in the party. You know that. There are a few who, for electoral purposes, sometimes pretend but zero real economic liberals. You are, without exception, social fascists.

by Neil Craig on February 18, 2014 at 3:03 am. Reply #

[…] Jeremy Browne achieves the impossible: unites Lib Dem left and right. But he’s wrong by Stephen Tall on Stephen Tall. We have no choice but to fight election from centre ground, says […]

by Top of the Blogs: The Lib Dem Golden Dozen #366 on February 23, 2014 at 7:00 pm. Reply #

Its not the centrism that bothers me but the fact is this: in any situation, if you put something along with a similar looking but slightly less attractive version of something in front of someone as well as something completely different to the other two, the majority of people will choose the first option.
The thing with Clegg's strategy is he is painting us as the more economic competent version of Labour but if you really want social justice, vote Labour. We are more socially just than Conservatives but if its economic competence you really want, vote Tory.
Clegg is making us look like the less attractive version of both the Tories and Labour which means we just push people towards those two parties.
The leadership have no grasp of human cognition and that will be its downfall.

by Nicola Prigg on February 24, 2014 at 3:14 pm. Reply #

[…] 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: […]

by What Jeremy Browne did – and DIDN’T – tell The Times about the Lib Dems on April 12, 2014 at 8:05 am. Reply #

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