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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The Tories have missed a chance to show that they care about student debt

After condemning Jeremy Corbyn for his "betrayal", the government has still raised the top student interest rate to 6.1 per cent. 

For weeks, the Conservatives have assailed Jeremy Corbyn for his alleged betrayal over student debt. The Labour leader told NME during the campaign that he would "deal with" the issue. But he later clarified that this did not amount to a "commitment" to wipe out student debt (which would cost around £100bn) and that he had been "unaware of the size of it at the time". For this, the Tories have accused him of Clegg-style hypocrisy. 

There is little sign, however, that the attack has proved effective. Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of student debt and Corbyn's language in the NME interview was ambiguous. "I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [student debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off," he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 as part of the coalition. Young voters still credit Corbyn for his vow to abolish tuition fees (were he to break this promise in power, it would be a different matter). 

A further problem for the Tories is that they have spotlighted a problem - student debt - without offering any solution. At present, graduates pay a marginal tax rate of 41 per cent on earnings over £21,000 (20 per cent income tax, 12 per cent national insurance and 9 per cent student loan repayment). This, combined with the average debt (£50,800), leaves them struggling to save for a home deposit, or even to pay the rent. The Conservatives, unsurprisingly, are unable to sell capitalism to voters with no capital. 

Yet rather than remedying this problem, the government has compounded it. The Department of Education has ruled out reducing the top interest rate on student loans from 6.1 per cent, meaning the average student will accrue £5,800 in interest charges even before they graduate.

By maintaining the status quo, the Tories have missed a chance to demonstrate that they have learned from their electoral humbling. Had they reduced student debt, or cut tuition fees, they could have declared that while Corbyn talks, they act. Instead, they have merely confirmed that for graduates who want change, Corbyn remains their best hope. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.