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The Central Question

September 12th, 2010 Posted in Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy, Opinion by

There is some pressure on Nick Clegg to deliver a speech in Liverpool next week that sets out what it is that defines the Liberal Democrats as an independent force in British Politics. Co-incident with that there is a party-led ‘strategic-review’ that attempts to either help him do that or remind him that some Liberal Democrats find the idea of their Leader actually leading somewhat troubling.

Within that debate there will be a raft of suggestions about philosophy, policy, and tactics ranging from what community politics means, to our view of the EU, and electoral pacts.

I have one small contribution I’d like to add. Nick should make an overt, aggressive and comprehensive pitch for the centre-ground. Specifically he should crush attempts by his left-wing to reinforce an idea we are a narrow party of the centre-left only interested in competing to replace Labour.

The party currently has a positioning problem. Nick typically describes us as liberal, avoiding the left-right labels. Previous leaders and opponents have suggested it is a non-socialist alternative to Labour, equidistant, orange Tories, and so on… most commentators use centre-left without any correction from the party.

This is a mistake.

The first point to make is in the main, most of our supporters (around 55% according to YouGov poll in the middle of the last decade) self-define as centrist, as do most voters. the next largest LD group around 30% as very slightly left-of centre, with a small tail to the left and a few slightly right-of-centre. We are more credible as a centrist party than a centre-left faction.

The Labour party is unambiguously the strongest force on the left, the Conservatives on the right. It should then be to the Liberal Democrat’s electoral advantage to reinforce what is already broadly true, that Labour are left, the Conservatives are right and we are the natural party of the centre-ground. That can be conditioned for different audiences or aspects of our movement… the liberal centre-ground, the radical-centre, anti-authoritarian moderates etc… but it should be clear and repeatedly expressed that the Liberal Democrats are interested in attracting support from across mainstream opinion.

Avoiding the left-right issue in most contexts is perfectly sensible politics. The labels tend to put-off those who do not share the identity more than they attract. They do not entirely describe what it is you are about.

But organisations also do not control their reputations, they can only influence them. If you are believed to be something you are not, you do need to remind people, from time to time, what you prefer to be, through consistent language, positioning and correcting misrepresentation.

Being sold as centre-left is not an advantage. It sends two messages, one is the moderate centre-right are the enemy and should support the Cameron project, the second is that we are a faction in the same space as Labour, not distinct movement in our own right.

The underlying goal of those who bang on about the centre-left and progressive alliances against the Tories is either replacing Labour by becoming Labour or we must believe they have no grasp of the electoral reality that split votes favour opponents. Either way the UK doesn’t need two mass-movements on the left, any more than it needs two conservative parties. The gap is a clear and credible force in the middle.

The centre-ground is attractive  in that it is distinctive and does not alienate. To be considered centrist in British politics is a mark of high esteem. It says you are pragmatic, considerate of the diversity of opinion, one-nation, able to work with others, a broad church that can adapt the best thinking of your opponents… or in other words tolerant and… liberal.

If this party has a future as a mass movement it must then decide, are we a faction of the left, or the liberal bulwark against extremism with ambitions to dominate the centre-ground we define and our opponents only borrow. Nick’s answer to this central question and vision of the future needs to be: yes.

17 Responses to “The Central Question”

  1. JohnM Says:

    I agree! ‘Radical’ and ‘centre’ are not contradictions.

  2. S McG Says:


  3. mdc Says:

    What exactly are the LD for? If even the party itself doesn’t know, then perhaps disbandment would eb the best course?

  4. LibDemFerdy Says:

    Excellent analysis and advice. It must apply both towards the left of the party as to the right. Ideally, we should have no natural allies but be able to join other parties for the benefit of the nation.We are Liberal. Not a remote offshoot of the Tories or Labour(new or old).

  5. Chris Oakley Says:

    I am a liberal by inclination but in the tradition of Mill rather than anyone I see in the current party. The statist agenda of modern LibDems is anathema to me so reading MPs like Stephen Williamson trotting out inaccurate propaganda from the smokefree alliance in a vain attempt to justify his illiberal position on public health just drives me further away from a party that I once supported. How can anyone calling themselves liberal hide behind the pathetic ASH derived justification for public mendacity, namely the lie that smoking is all the fault of “big tobacco” so we are not hurting anyone by undermining science and reason whilst de-normalising 12 million people. The truth is that the love /hate relationship between western society and tobacco began in 1492 and continued unabated for 450 years before Mr Duke created big tobacco. The fact that the massive, and agreeably rather untrustworthy tobacco industry, came into being because people liked smoking rather than vice versa seems to elude the likes of Williamson. Had we accepted that fact 30 years ago then we would have focused on harm reduction and other strategies alongside cessation, we would not have allowed policy to be dictated by a vocal minority and would not have created the social divisions that are inevitable when legislation is based on lies. The ASH excuse does not work on me and certainly would not have worked on the likes of Mill. You are correct. The party does not deserve to carry the name liberal because it isn’t liberal and most liberals are not looking for an alternative to Labour. I cannot in all conscience vote for the party as long as it supports illiberal, irrational, mendacious, statist dogma emanating from the bloated public health industry.

  6. libertarian Says:

    The Lib Dems could try being you know Liberal.

    That is free market, open to movement of goods and people anti authoritarian etc as opposed to

    the Tory right who are anti foreigner, corporatist big business the Labour left who are socialist, statist, authoritarian control freaks.

    Then though the Lib Dems would have to give up their support of the statist, authoritarian, undemocratic and centerist Federal European Union and be in favour of the far more Liberal European Free Trade Association instead

  7. Sebastian Says:

    Chris: Did you know that most smokers hate smoking? They want to stop but they can’t – it’s an addiction. Not to mention that many smokers smoke through their pregnancy. Is it their right to inflict some of the consequences of their habit to an unborn person?

  8. Andrew Brown Says:

    Although I have traditionally described myself as centre-left, the approach advocated here has a lot to recommend it.

    To some extent I think the centre-left tag has not been disputed in recent years due to the centrist/centre-right nature of New Labour. Of course, this may or may not continue to be the case but in any event the new political landscape requires us to rethink our positioning. After all – had the party been considered centrist at the last election, some of the furore surrounding entering coalition with the Tories would have been tempered.

    In 2015, and the various elections in the intervening period, Labour (in whatever guise) will been keen to paint us as apologists for the Tories. Claiming to be centre-left in the context of the coalition years will not be credible.

    The new party president could, potentially, have a big part to play in this new world. He or she could (should) work to represent the party and its policies free of direct association with the government. This should include where we have differing positions to the Tories as well as highlighting achievements and seeking to position the party as socially liberal and fiscally responsible.

  9. Julian H Says:

    Sebastian, do you think women should be allowed to have abortions?

  10. David Says:

    The problem is that most people see the Lib Dems as a sort of proxy Labour party; an electable (in their constituency) alternative, or a cool version without the trade union dinosaurs, but basically Labour by another name.

    The tragedy is that many Lib Dem MPs seem to believe this too; they’re just a better ‘progressive’ party, not tied up with those Labour buffoons…

    That’s why I voted Tory and not Lib Dem. The Tory party has traditionally had a lot of ’19th century’ laissez faire liberals, and these seem to be coming to the fore once again; Cameron isn’t far from this description.

    Actually, Clegg isn’t either, which is why my faith in the Lib Dems has been partially restored. Seeing myself more as a Liberal than a Tory I’d love to be able to vote Lib Dem, knowing I wouldn’t be getting a Labour party in drag.

    Let’s remember that 19th century Liberalism, as personified by JS Mill, Jeremy Bentham etc., was anti vested interests (on either side); it’s all about the purity of one man one vote, with the least amount of structural inequality in society; a dynamic country where the cream can rise to the top, but the poor won’t be emiserated. It was anti-big government, no nanny state!

    As soon as the Lib Dems rediscover the roots of their political philosophy, I’ll be happy to vote for them; I will never do this when they’re merely ‘Labour Lite’.

  11. Chris Harris Says:

    Yeah, ‘Radical’ and ‘centre’ are not contradictions indeed.
    Chris Harris

  12. marcus aurelius Says:

    tragically many Lib Dems seem top be neither very liberal nor very demovratic.

    All of those that knock on my door in West London rave about all the things they want to compel people to do. They are altogether to much equality, not enough liberty and bugger all fraternity. No wonder they prefer big unaccountable Marxian EU government of the bien pensant to the raucous tabloid human and populist British tradition.

  13. The Closed Satanic Mills Says:

    Liberal Vision………………Looking forward
    …………………………….to freedom

    Got to be a joke.
    Freedom for whom.? 1%,,,2% at most

  14. Dave B Says:

    For these labels to work, you need to have a declared definition of the terms ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘center’.

  15. Timothy Cox Says:

    “…most commentators use centre-left without any correction from the party. This is a mistake.”

    Hear, hear. It is a mistake, and it is also a mistake to give too much credence to those on extreme left of the party. Rebalancing the party within the centre ground may cost some peripheral support, but those that belong on the far left would most probably find their agendas better served elsewhere.

    The Blair/Brown and Cameron projects have shown the utility of dominating the centre ground in modern politics. As Labour flees to the left, so the space for a Liberal centre party reopens. It’s of no help to anyone to pretend to be an all encompassing party of the left: the Liberal Democrats have never been this in the past, and we shouldn’t pertain to be today.

  16. Tristan Says:

    Would be good to have two movements of the left actually.

    The radical, anti-authoritarian, libertarian left to oppose the statist, authoritarian, anti-liberty left which dominates today.

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