Clegg's "centre ground" strategy will alarm Lib Dem members

Unlike their leader, most Lib Dem supporters continue to think of themselves as on the left.

Nick Clegg isn't due to address the Lib Dem conference until 2:30pm, but here's one striking line from the advance excerpts. The Deputy PM will tell party members: "we work every day to keep this Government anchored in the centre ground." Given the coalition's abolition of the 50p income tax rate and its reckless reform of the NHS (the two policies that have done most to damage its poll ratings), it's a questionable claim. But, in fairness to Clegg, a Guardian/ICM poll earlier this week showed that a plurality of voters (48%) believe the government is "staying centre ground", while 27% believe it is shifting to the right and 7% believe it is heading leftwards.

What is less clear is how Clegg's decision to reposition the Lib Dems as a centrist party, one that attracts as much "vitriol and abuse" from the left as the right, will be received by his party's supporters. As Fabian Society general secretary Andrew Harrop noted on The Staggers earlier this week, polling by YouGov shows that 43% of remaining Lib Dem voters place themselves on the left, while just 8% place themselves on the right. In electoral terms, a centrist strategy makes little sense when, to avoid a disastrous defeat, the party needs to attract tactical Labour votes in Lib Dem-Tory marginals (of the 20 most marginal Lib Dems seats, 14 are Lib Dem-Tory marginals).

It is to Ed Miliband's party, not David Cameron's, that the Lib Dems are in greatest danger of losing further support. While 54% of their voters would consider switching to Labour, only 36% would countenance voting Conservative. And if the Lib Dems even want to begin to win back some of their former supporters, around 40 per cent of whom have defected to Labour, a centrist strategy will not cut it. Clegg's heart may tell him to remain in the centre, but his head should tell him to return to the left.

Nick Clegg will address the Liberal Democrat conference later today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn fares well in his toughest interview yet

Labour will be relieved that Corbyn's encounter with Andrew Neil was less painful than Theresa May's. 

Jeremy Corbyn's half-hour BBC1 interview with Andrew Neil was the toughest grilling he has faced since becoming Labour leader. Neil sought to cause Corbyn maximum discomfort by confronting him with his past views on the IRA, NATO and Trident (which he never anticipated having to defend from his current position). 

"I didn't support the IRA, I don't support the IRA," Corbyn said in response to the first. After Neil countered that Corbyn "invited convicted IRA terrorists to tea in the Commons a few weeks after the Brighton bomb," the Labour leader replied: "I never met the IRA. I obviously did meet people from Sinn Fein" (a distinction without a difference, some will say). But after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Corbyn is aided by the reduced toxicity of the subject (New Labour dealt with terrorists) and the fact that for some voters, the young most of all, "the troubles" are a distant memory.

NATO, Neil recalled, had been described by Corbyn as "'a very dangerous Frankenstein of an organisation', 'a danger to world peace'. Two years ago you said it should be 'wound up'." It is to Corbyn's credit, in some respects, that he struggles to disguise his sincere views, and he did on this occasion. "NATO exists," he observed at one point, eventually conceding after much prodding: "I will be a committed member of that alliance in order to promote peace, justice, human rights and democracy". But nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the subject will seem esoteric to many voters.

Trident, however, is another matter. "My views on nuclear weapons are well-known," Corbyn correctly noted, making it clear that the Labour manifesto committed to full renewal against his wishes. "I voted against the renewal," he said. "Everybody knows that because I wanted to go in a different direction." That the opposition is divided on such a profound issue - and that Corbyn's stance is at odd with the electorate's - is undoubtedly a drag on Labour's support.

But under forensic examination, Corbyn emerged stronger than many predicted. There were few moments of intemperance and no disastrous gaffes. Corbyn successfully dodged a question on whether Labour would cut immigration by replying that the numbers would "obviously reduce" if more workers were trained. Indeed, compared with Theresa May's painful encounter with Neil last Monday, Corbyn's team will be relieved by his performance. Though the Labour leader cannot escape his past, he avoided being trapped by it tonight. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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