Who will vote for Clegg's "centrist" party?

The Lib Dem leader needs to remember that most of his party's supporters lean left.

Nick Clegg's speech today was an attempt to answer the question "what are the Lib Dems for?" They were, he said, the true party of "the centre ground" - more socially progressive than the Conservatives and more economically responsible than Labour. Unlike his social democratic predecessors, who leant towards Labour, Clegg believes the Lib Dems should be genuinely equidistant between the two main parties.

He declared:

Both the Conservatives and Labour try to occupy the centre ground.

Both get pushed off it by their tribal politics.

But the Liberal Democrats are not for shifting.

In the case of welfare, while Labour supported unlimited benefits and the Tories "draconican" cuts, the Lib Dems offered "sensible, centre ground" reform. He boasted that they had limited George Osborne's welfare cuts to £3.8bn, rather than £10bn, and vetoed "extreme" reforms such as the abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s.                                    

But while Clegg's approach is intellectually coherent, it is dubious as a political strategy. As Fabian Society general secretary Andrew Harrop previously noted on The Staggers, polling by YouGov over the last year shows that 43 per cent of remaining Lib Dem voters place themselves on the left, while just eight per cent place themselves on the right. In electoral terms, a centrist strategy makes little sense when 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) to prevent complete collapse.

It is to Labour, not the Conservatives, that the Lib Dems are in greatest danger of losing further support. While 54 per cent of their voters would consider switching to Labour, only 36 per cent would countenance voting Tory. And if the Lib Dems even want to begin to win back some of their former supporters, around a third of whom have defected to Labour, a centrist strategy will not work.

Clegg's wager is that his party will attract millions of new centrist-minded voters to replace the left-wing supporters it has lost. Writing in the New Statesman earlier this year, Richard Reeves, his former director of strategy, wrote that the Lib Dems needed " 'soft Tories', ex-Blairites, greens – and anyone who thinks the Tories are for the rich and Labour can’t be trusted with the economy." But how many people do you know who fit that description?

Before reaching out to the centre, Clegg needs to consolidate his left-wing base. If he is either unwilling or unable to do so, the Lib Dems should replace him with someone who can.

Nick Clegg said the Liberal Democrats were "not centre ground tourists". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt