Why being a centrist party hasn't helped the Lib Dems

They forgot about the importance of competence and trust, and took their existing vote for granted.

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It may not look like it, but over the last four years, the Liberal Democrats have achieved exactly what their strategists hoped. They are indeed seen as the most centrist party - closer to the median voter than any of their competitors according to this poll. The thing is, centrism hasn’t panned out that well for them electorally. It turns out being on the "centre ground" is far from sufficient. Why?

When strategists and commentators talk about the need to be in the centre, they can mean three different things (and often some muddle of all three). Sometimes the "centre" is an idea about public opinion: what the average voter thinks. Sometimes the "centre" is a brand idea: the place between the traditional positions of the parties. Sometimes the "centre" is an ideological idea, relating to policies that are neither left-wing nor right-wing. 

These different ideas of centre often cohere, but frequently they don’t. Those pesky voters can’t be relied on to nestle in the ideological centre. For example, according to YouGov, the average voter in Britain would nationalise the railways and energy companies and prevent migrants receiving benefits for the first five years of living and working in Britain. Whatever the merits of these ideas, neither are they in the middle of the major parties, nor are they at the midpoint of an ideological spectrum. The centre of gravity of public opinion is not necessarily halfway between Rawls and Nozick.

A different idea of the centre ground is the "split the difference" approach to politics, also known as triangulation. As Dick Morris says, you "get rid of the garbage of each [side’s] position, that the people didn’t believe in; take the best from each position; and move up to a third way." This version of the centre ground is the ideal way to launch a new candidate or party. Any new leader has to be change, not continuity. Triangulation on the big issues allows them to show voters they have changed from the past, while reassuring their party that they are still against the bad guys on the other side.

There are two big limits to the power of triangulation. The first is that it concedes the issue agenda. Another Morrisism is that you "use your tools to fix their car" – whatever they say, you try and co-opt rather than beat back. Second, it is a better campaign strategy than governing strategy. Once you have got past a leadership transition, defining against your own party and its history becomes decreasingly relevant. You cant constantly be "new". You need a more robust set of guiding principles and a more positive articulation of what you are for.

That takes you to the third definition of the centre ground: an ideological position that is between left and right. The electoral challenge is that there is no particular reason to think that a centrist ideological position is always the route to victory. The parties that are rising most rapidly across Europe couldn’t be further from that model of politics. It is also often unclear what counts as ideologically centrist – is being pro-European a symptom of left-wing internationalism or right-wing free-marketism?

Putting parties on a bipolar scale between left and right is a task for academics and columnists. But it disguises as much as it reveals. It ignores the importance of competence as a governing trait and it obscures the commonalities between apparently, right, centre and left voters. Immigration and the NHS are the two top issues centre, left and right voters as well as voters without an ideological self-identity.

The governing constituency in Britain wants a government that is motivated by a belief in fair play, hard work, opportunity, honesty, strong communities, national pride, family life. Establishing a party identity that chimes with this common sense language is far more important than any of the three definitions of centrism. The two biggest parties are reflecting this in their strategies, with the Tories trying to catch up with Ed Miliband’s lead on being the party for hardworking people.

The challenge for the Lib Dems is that in government they haven’t come close to manifesting these values. They seem centrist, but also exceptionally deceitful and weak. As a result, far from dominating the mainstream of voters and pushing Labour and the Tories to the extremes, the Lib Dems are polling single digits. Their ideological shift to the centre has lost the left voters they once gained over Iraq, tuition fees and climate change, and they have failed to compensate for those losses from non-ideological and centrist voters.

The centre point of public opinion is an important guide, but a long way from being a complete strategy. You can’t just test an idea, find it has more than 50 per cent approval and run with it. Sometimes unpopular positions can help deliver a positive image on something more important. Sometimes a policy can be popular in its own right but tarnish a party brand in a profound way – as the Tories found in 2005 when their immigration policy was popular but also compounded their image as the "nasty party".

Back in 2010, Lib Dem strategists set out to be a centre ground party without paying sufficient attention to all the other things that matter. They forgot about the importance of competence and trust, and took their existing vote for granted. Unfortunately for them, whatever they say in Glasgow isn’t going to help. Being in the centre could mean being seen as mainstream and common sense; for the Lib Dems, it means they are seen as a pointless mush.

James Morris is a partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and a pollster for Labour. 

James Morris is a partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and worked as a pollster for Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader.