Nick Clegg’s speech shows we’re still a party of the liberal centre (just don’t call us anchors)

by Stephen Tall on June 9, 2014

Clegg Speech 7The Lib Dems have a new slogan, judging from Nick Clegg’s Bloomberg speech today: ‘Opportunity for Everyone’. That, at least, was the title. The mantra ‘Stronger economy, fairer society’ (a slogan unloved by Lib Dem activists as smacking of split-the-difference centrism) was mentioned, but very much in the past tense:

We’ve talked a lot about building a stronger economy. We’ve talked a lot about creating a fairer society. But maybe we haven’t talked enough about why those things matter. They matter because they are the only way we can enable everyone to get on in life – or as I’m calling it today, quite simply, Opportunity for Everyone.

It’s an optimistic and inclusive pitch, albeit one that will be utterly indistinguishable in the slogan line-up at the next election. But, then again, they always are. Another new feature was Nick’s emphasis on the party’s distinctive liberal identity, rather than the Lib Dems as a party of government. Gone was the talk of Lib Dems “anchoring the government in the centre ground”, a key message at the party’s autumn conference – instead we had lines like:

I have never been interested in power for power’s sake. I have never been interested in coalition at any cost. What I am interested in is Liberal Democrats in government to build a more liberal Britain.

To my mind, too much has been made of this alleged distinction. Yes, the Lib Dems should campaign as a liberal party with liberal policies: it’s what we’re here for and it’s what the voters have the right to expect of us.

However, none of us should be under the illusion we’ll win an outright majority. Which means we won’t get to implement any of those liberal policies unless we cooperate with either Labour or the Tories in government after 2015. And in that circumstance we’ll have to accept some of their illiberal policies we don’t much like, they’ll accept some of our liberal policies they don’t much like, and on the rest we’ll work out some kind of compromise. Sound familiar?

As I’ve argued many times before, if Lib Dem members really want to remain in government after May 2015 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.

So I’m sorry to break the news to you, but the Lib Dems will continue to anchor the government in the centre if there’s another Coalition: anyone who expects much more of a junior Coalition party than that is kidding themselves. In some areas we’ll move things in a liberal direction; in most others, the best we can do is restrain the most illiberal instincts of the senior partner. Nick Clegg’s speech doesn’t alter that reality, though his words were clearly designed to pacify party activists after the past fortnight’s tumult.

In terms of policies, there wasn’t much that was new. Nick reaffirmed the to get the current structural deficit in balance by 2017/18 through a mix of tax rises and spending cuts: whoever’s in power after 2015 will have to do that, even the Tories, whether they advertise it up-front or prefer to renege after the election.

The still-to-be-approved-by-conference proposal from Danny Alexander to usher in a Mansion Tax by the back-door of higher Council Tax bands was repeated.

Nick also re-invented the promise of Gordon Brown’s Golden Rule: that government “will be able to borrow in order to fix our creaking national infrastructure”, something the Coalition chose not to do when interest rates were at their lowest.

All sensible-enough policies – and all (whisper it) sit happily within the liberal centre, albeit much closer to Labour than the Tories’ post-2015 vision. The form may have changed to make Lib Dem members feel better, but the substance remains the same. And it remains the same for a very simple reason: fighting from the liberal centre is still the party’s only credible choice in 2015.

* 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.