In our Liberal Democrat leadership contest, calling yourself a “centre-left politician” has become a bit of a catchphrase.
This concerns me. If we are having the necessary debate about our future direction, we need to make sure that words are given their proper meaning.
The left-right axis in British politics is useful terminology, and has a clear definition. It refers primarily to how the role of the state in the economy is seen. The right believes in a minimal role for the state and a dominant private sector. The left believes the opposite. The centre-left and centre-right both believe in a more moderate version of either.
All politicians are fundamentally accountable to their voting records, and are accountable for the choices they make while in government. These are key indicators towards what an individual believes.
The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government was a centre-right government. The state was shrunk. A centre-left government would have not sought to bring down the deficit so quickly and would have raised taxes rather than only making cuts.
I myself have defended on doorsteps for the past decade the Lib Dems as having moderated Conservative policies in the coalition. Without the Lib Dems, the government would have been further right. But even with the Lib Dems, the coalition was still right of centre.
Anyone who voted for coalition policies and, more importantly, anyone who directly served in the coalition government, has a record of supporting and steering a centre-right agenda. Andrew Neil and the wider media were all too quick to point this out when, as leader, Jo Swinson attempted to position herself as progressive.
If anyone who served in the coalition government wants to present themselves as centre-left, they have to repudiate their involvement in the coalition with convincing reasons and explain why they have come on a political journey since then.
I appreciate there is a level of realpolitik involved in government. It’s true that if politicians wish to remain ministers, they do not get the luxury of always voting for what they want as individuals. However, it’s also realpolitik to be held accountable for your voting record, and previously held political positions. That is what the public care about.
If they do not, and still claim to be centre-left, they are creating a problem for our party, not just about confusing language but a problem that British voters always sense: that they do not stand for anything. We must be honest with our electorate.
My recent Lib Dem leadership pitch was a genuine centre-left pitch.
I was not personally involved in the coalition and clearly asserted that in hindsight it was a mistake. It made our country less liberal, not more liberal. Its legacy after ten years is a steep rise in inequalities, the near destruction of local government, a sharp decline in public services, and Brexit.
Moreover, because I am a centre-left politician, I expressed a clear preference for a Labour government over a Conservative one. I advocated a progressive alliance with Labour and the Greens for the next general election. I ruled out any arrangement with the Tories.
Whether a progressive alliance is formal or informal is merely a tactical question; it doesn’t change the strategic outlook.
We can only get to discussions with other progressive parties if the next party leader is genuinely centre-left and can convincingly own their past record. Otherwise why would Labour and the Greens consider working with us?
There are core areas in which we Lib Dems are absolutely unified. We are the strongest advocates of civil liberties. We are absolutely opposed to authoritarianism. We are pro-European. But we are not united on our economic views. There is a genuine internal argument about where the party should sit on the left-right economic spectrum.
The Orange Book, which shaped the ideology that made us comfortable with the coalition, was a centre-right document. Any centre-right or centre-left views are welcome in our party, but they should be given their proper name. Genuine differences should not be muddled up.
So let’s not twist words. In this leadership election, we need to be honest about the choices we have. We can continue down the path well travelled over the past decade. Or we can change direction and embrace our centre-left, progressive instincts. I believe we must do the latter, which is why I’m supporting Layla Moran for leader. It should be clear where the two candidates stand.
Wera Hobhouse is the Liberal Democrat MP for Bath and the party’s environment spokesperson.