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.
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.