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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.