After Labour's leftwards lurch, the Lib Dems have the centre all to themselves

With Labour preaching socialism and the Tories chasing after UKIP, Clegg will be rather pleased with how things have turned out.

Apparently we in the Lib Dems are meant to have had a fit of the vapours over the re-emergence of Red Ed. James Forsyth tells us that "there’s genuine concern in Clegg’s circle about the contents and policy implications of Miliband’s speech. After yesterday, it is even harder to see how a Clegg Miliband coalition would work."

And I’m sure he’s not making that up. I suspect Nick does go a little weak at the knees at the thought of being the filling in an Ed Miliband and Linda Jack sandwich.

But actually Nick will probably be rather pleased about the way things have panned out in Brighton. Sure, the inner circle may be a little horrified at the prospect of coalition negotiations with a Labour leader reviving the 1983 manifesto, but at least Labour have now clearly tacked left. They may not have meant to – 'One Nation' is still being kicked about - but in the context of Labour’s new strategic approach, it’s a dead duck. They have nailed their colours firmly to the socialist mast.

Meanwhile, far from being tempted to chase after them, the Tories seem destined to tack in the other direction as they look to take the ground back from UKIP. How else to explain George Osborne's decision to march off to Brussels to defend capitalist predators just as Miliband is taking them on. 'Ed’s trying to fix the market, George is trying to free it' will be their cry around the shires.

And where does that leave Nick? Well, firstly, in the centre ground that he has promised to fight for since the last election. And what’s more, he finds the Lib Dems now have it all to themselves.

Secondly, Labour knows full well that to retain 2010 Lib Dem voters, it needs Lib Dem-friendly policies – like a mansion tax, a living wage, free childcare, decarbonisation targets. Why, Lib Dem activists even voted to condemn the Bedroom Tax last week. Plenty of common ground there for any coalition negotiations.

And thirdly, if either Labour or the Tories genuinely want to deliver on any of their more radical and eye-catching policies, they’re going to have to come up with some significant quid pro quos for the Lib Dems – like Lords reform. Otherwise they may find they can’t deliver on some high profile pledges, which, from experience, doesn’t play well with the average voter.

So it’s all fallen into place rather nicely. Almost like it was planned that way. It’s probably why they call him Mystic Clegg.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.