Why the Lib Dems should stick in the liberal centre. Not because we have to, but because we should choose to.

by Stephen Tall on May 14, 2015

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg Delivers His Keynote Speech At The Liberal Democrat Party ConferenceThe near-obliteration of Lib Dem MPs has at least resolved one strategic dilemma for my party: there’s no point pretending for the next few years that we aim to be a party of government.

At the next election we will instead revert to the tried-and-tested formula that people should vote for us because they believe in our values and like our policies. It probably won’t work — it didn’t do much for the Greens this year — but it will at least be coherent.

Which is more than can be said for the logical fallacy many of my fellow members have indulged these past five years: that the Lib Dems should aim to continue in government (last September, 69% said they wanted the party actively involved) but should also desert the liberal centre ground and stake out more radical and edgy terrain.

As I have said many, times before, ’til I’m blue in the face (or red in the face: I’m fine with political equidistance), you cannot do both at the same time:

The inescapable reality is that, for the forseeable future, there is only one way the Lib Dems will be able to put their policies into practice: in partnership with either the left-leaning Labour party, or the right-leaning Conservatives. We are pinned in the liberal centre whether we like it or not. A radical manifesto — full of civil liberties and political reform and Trident cancellation — may sound nice in theory, but that’s all it would ever be.

However, now, in one bound, we are free. The Lib Dems won’t be strong enough to be a Coalition partner for a decade or more, never mind whether its members would ever again choose to lay down our MPs’ lives for the nation’s sake. Forget about putting liberalism into practice, we can revert to dreaming about its theory. We no longer have to stick in the liberal centre because it’s the only feasible position for us to adopt if we want to have any power.

No, we don’t have to stay within the liberal centre: but we should choose to do so.

As with most political choices, I’m motivated by two reasons: principle and pragmatism.

The pragmatism is probably least contentious: elections are won from the centre and parties which forget that invariably lose. As Danny Finkelstein has noted in The Times of the voters who’ve just given David Cameron an unexpected majority:

… it is wrong to think of them as Tories. These are people who just want a moderate, competent government which keeps the economy on track. One which ensures that there are decent public services that don’t cost the earth.

A political party which doesn’t persuade such people to vote for it — for a stronger economy, a fairer society to coin a phrase — is destined to banish itself forever to the fringes.

Now to the principle of liberal centrism. First let me pray in aid a quote from Edmund Fawcett’s brilliant book, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea:

Liberal politics aspires to openness and toleration, to settling matters by argument and compromise, to building coalitions rather than creating sects, and to recognizing the inevitable existence of factions and interests without turning them into irreconcilable foes.

As for the practice of this principle of moderation, well Lib Dems have (1) long favoured a mixed economy in which free enterprise is balanced against workers’ rights, and (2) long been open to either/both state and/or private provision of public services, rarely dogmatic, often preferring a combination if that’s what works best. I’d say that’s a pretty liberal and centrist position.

It’s true, of course, that there are issues on which the Lib Dems are by no means centrist. For example, on civil liberties, the European Union, immigration and political reform we are anything but. These are fundamental tenets to us, but are either unpopular with, or irrelevant to, large chunks of the population.

I suspect those who advocate the party ditching its liberal centrism for liberal radicalism — for example returning to “the provision of an aggressive political lead on issues of moral concern, injustice and oppression” — secretly quite like the idea of the Lib Dems banging on about topics the voters don’t much care about, and which, if they did care about, would take great care not to vote for us.

That doesn’t mean we change our views, that we reverse our positions on those fundamentals. But I do think we need to respect the voters’ wishes enough not to fixate on the radical edges they don’t share such that we purposely ignore the liberal centre they do share.

Their decision to vote for us (or not) will be based on what we have to say about the economy and about public services — on both of which issues we have good, sensible, practical things to say. Why on earth we shouldn’t tell them those things just because they place us in the liberal centre beats me.

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3 comments

This is something I could get on board with, just wish that all the lefties over on LDV shared your opinion.

I will sit on the sidelines for now.

by Adrian on May 14, 2015 at 9:53 pm. Reply #

Beloved, long-lamented Jo Grimond strove to end the harmful two-party "see-saw extremism" of Labour's state-run Socialism v the Tories' unbridled Capitalism. Get ready for 5 long years of Conservative extremism that will wreak havoc on our fair-share society and
Euro-centred economy when the now-giddying Tories inevitably come crashing down. Instead, the pivotal Liberals can guarantee the country a more comfortable best-of-both-worlds life by remaining in the centre to restrain Labour's loony Leftists from catapulting the country into doomed-to-crash-down-again red-flag Socialism.

by David Charles on May 14, 2015 at 10:58 pm. Reply #

[…] revolves around the arguments put forward by those such as Stephen Tall who advocate a place for the  Lib Dems in the centre and those such as David Howarth who argue […]

by Talking the talk is no longer enough: time to live our values | England is the home of lost ideas on May 16, 2015 at 9:58 am. Reply #

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