by Stephen Tall on April 12, 2014
Lib 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.