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5 October 2014updated 21 Jul 2021 12:19pm

Centre-ground and policy record: is the Lib Dems’ battlecry enough?

The Liberal Democrats’ focus on the political centre, and championing their record in government, isn’t a radical rallying call.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Like this time last year at their party conference, the Lib Dems are championing themselves as the party of the centre-ground. Their message going into the election is that Britain’s natural political centre is liberal, and the Liberal Democrats are the only true party of the centre. This will be coupled with championing their achievements in government. It’s not exactly a radical rallying call, but will it work?

Nick Clegg, in an interview with the Times yesterday, voiced his optimism that voters would be enthused by a liberal middle way. He said:

The centre of gravity in this country is liberal. People accept there are lots of difficult things to do to fix the economy but they want to be as fair as possible . . . if I look at the extraordinarily socially aggressive comments from George Osborne and the economically vacuous statements from Ed Miliband, frankly, I dislike them both equally.

However, while placing his party in the centre bodes well for working with either of the main parties in coalition, it’s not exactly a strong battlecry for his parties’ troops and the voters he wishes to attract.

I interviewed one of the Lib Dems’ few cabinet ministers, the Scotland Secretary Alistair Carmichael, when the conference opened. While he said Clegg’s centrist offer is “exciting” and “radical”, he admitted that it’s not the best strategy to directly appeal to voters: “I don’t think I would go onto the doorsteps and talk about the centre, because that means nothing to people.”

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One Lib Dem MP tells me it’s “not a radical enough offer”, and that this is a function of Clegg being “extremely principled, sometimes to the detriment of the party. It means he doesn’t listen to ideas about going in a different direction”.

Lib Dem frontbenchers are hammering the party line this conference that whether it’s Labour or the Tories who win the most seats in 2015, majority rule by either would be bad for the country. Their argument is that the Lib Dems will act as a vital “check” on the excesses of either the left or right. It works pragmatically, looking to May 2015, but its “all things to all men” appeal rings a little hollow as an authentic, alternative offer to the electorate.

But of course, they won’t just be banging the drum for the centre-ground. Clegg and co will be listing again and again what they have achieved in government: increasing the income tax threshold, the pupil premium, pensions reforms, capping care costs, free school meals, etc etc.

It’s a legitimate strategy – as one Lib Dem minister points out to me, the party has never had such a weapon in its “armoury” when going into general election battle before. However, the Conservatives and Labour – and even Ukip to an extent – have stolen a march on the Lib Dems, policy-wise.

The Prime Minister announced in his keynote conference speech last week that he would raise the personal tax allowance to £12,500 – a Lib Dem policy. This came a week after Miliband announced that Labour would use a mansion tax on properties over £2m to fund the NHS – the mansion tax is a Lib Dem policy. Then there was one of Ukip’s flagship plans announced this autumn: scrapping income tax on the minimum wage. This was the intended outcome of the Lib Dems’ beloved tax cuts.

So the Lib Dems’ policy messages are vulnerable to being overshadowed by the other, noisier parties – a situation not helped by the fact that they’ve had to hold their annual conference last. There is also the feeling among some that their list of achievements isn’t enough to woo the electorate. One prospective Lib Dem candidate is dismissive: “as if extending the pupil premium is going to win an election”.

But this may not just be a short-term, electoral problem for the party. The results of the BBC’s Sunday Politics survey suggest that Lib Dem candidates are leaning to the left of the party’s current position, with 44 per cent preferring a coalition with Labour, and only 14 per cent preferring the Tories in the event of another hung parliament. There is also a broader question of Clegg’s analysis that Britain’s political centre is liberal. Ukip’s increasing popularity has caused many commentators and academics to suggest that the UK is actually moving towards the right.

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