Clegg’s pitch for the centre falling flat as exclusive Uncut poll reveals 60% of voters think Lib Dem’s headed in wrong direction

by Jonathan Todd

There are two core dimensions to the Nick Clegg project. To make the Liberal Democrats both a party of government and of the centre. His external critics probably struggle most with the latter, seeing him as a Conservative in all but name, and his internal ones the former, uncomfortable with the compromises of power.

These loud complaints shouldn’t distract from how close he is to completing his project. The chances of another hung parliament are non-trivial. In anticipation of this, Conservatives and Labourites are keen to be on good terms with him.

How would we regard Clegg if he were to serve in government until 2020? And with which party would he prefer the second half of this period to be served?

After a decade in government, there would be voters who wouldn’t be able to remember the Liberal Democrats in opposition. To serve half of this time with the Conservatives and half with Labour would reinforce their centrist claims. Which is why, if we take these claims seriously, Clegg may favour changing governing partners in two years.

One Liberal Democrat minister has, though, recently claimed: “A Miliband government would be catastrophic.” But his party’s president, Tim Farron, is clearly keener. The ambitious Farron might feel that his own leadership ambitions are assisted by a change in coalition partner.

Labour have synchronised policies with Clegg’s party on a mansion tax, votes at 16 and a 2030 decarbonisation target for electricity, which makes it easier than otherwise for him to make this transition. But Labour should reflect on the polling that YouGov have done for Labour Uncut.

While government with the Liberal Democrats was thought to help detoxify the Tory brand, we find no evidence that government with the Liberal Democrats would strengthen the Labour brand. 37 per cent of voters would trust a majority Labour government to take the right decisions on the economy – 8 per cent more than would trust a Labour-Lib Dem one, as the polls below show.

The attractiveness or not of a Labour-Lib Dem government after 2015 seems fairly indifferent to whether Clegg remains Lib Dem leader, as the poll below shows. Unless Labour absolutely feels that personal relations with Clegg would make government with the Liberal Democrats impossible, then this poll suggests that insisting upon his departure as a condition for a Labour-Lib Dem coalition would be of limited utility. As disappointing as this may be to Farron, it would seem better for Labour to seek other kinds of concessions from the Liberal Democrats.

That said, minority government should not be discounted as a possibility after the election. Equally, Clegg tells the other parties more than they might think about how to form majorities. Clegg’s pitch for the centre depends upon having the fiscal discipline and independence from the trade unions that Labour lacks, as well as the fairness that the Conservatives miss.

But the pitch is falling flat. The YouGov poll for Labour Uncut found that 60 per cent of voters think his party has changed for the worse since May 2010, and worse still 59% of Lib Dem voters from 2010 also think the party is headed in the wrong direction.

Those that intend to vote Liberal Democrat remain a hardy few. It seems a vanishing possibility that the party can recover anything like the vote share that it held at the last general election.

As Len McCluskey threatens to pull Labour to the left and the Nigel Farage the Tories to the right, Clegg is failing to hold the centre. Some would attribute this to his personal failings and others to the structural impossibility of doing so in multi-party government. The public would much prefer single party government. 57 per cent favour either a Labour or Tory majority government, compared with 22 per cent favouring either a Tory-Lib Dem or Labour-Lib Dem coalition, according to You Gov.

For the Conservatives to form a majority, they must show that they have the heart that Clegg says they don’t. For Labour to do so, Clegg’s claims about profligacy and trade union capture must be exploded. These are the fundamental barriers to the two largest parties doing what Clegg is seeking to do but failing: commanding the centre.

Conservatives shouldn’t show compassion or Labour prudence because it would make future government with the Liberal Democrats easier. But because – no matter what pressures Cameron and Miliband will come under to pacify their supporters in coming weeks – majority governments will continue to be forged on the centre.

The two largest parties have retreated too far into their electoral and ideological citadels to seem able to achieve this. If this were to change, it would be the gravest threat to Clegg’s project.

Jonathan Todd is the economic columnist for Labour Uncut. “Labour’s manifesto uncut: How to win in 2015 and why” is launched on Monday 23rd November at the PragRad fringe at Labour conference

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3 Responses to “Clegg’s pitch for the centre falling flat as exclusive Uncut poll reveals 60% of voters think Lib Dem’s headed in wrong direction”

  1. swatantra says:

    This is thre trouble with a Party of Protest, you get all kinds of odds n sods joining up. Now, having been in Govt, the people are a lot wiser tas o where Lib Dems poistion themselves, and they are now firmly confirmed as a Party Right of Centre, despite what Ashdown says.

  2. uglyfatbloke says:

    Who really cars about the Lib-Dems. Come the next GE they will be badly beaten in England and pretty much destroyed in Scotland, where they currently look like saving two seats…three if they are very lucky. Of the others, one will fall to Labour and the rest will go to the gnats. Oh dear, how sad, what a pity…never mind.

  3. Robin Thorpe says:

    What Jonathan is saying here does make a lot of sense; in order to garner sufficient votes to form any government (and therefore have any chance of implementing socially responsible policies) then any party must appeal to as broad an electorate as possible.

    For Labour to win the next general election they must win seats in the south-east and south-west, vice-versa for the Tories. Retreating into “their electoral and ideological citadels” will only serve to maintain a coalition or minority govt. In this situation the LibDems would stand to decide which side gets to enact their manifesto (or make up a new one as the ConDems have done).

    @uglyfatbloke: I don’t think that you can discount the Lib-dems so easily. Under the stewardship of Rennard they built up very strong local support in some areas and their councillors still retain this popular support. Isolated pockets of Lib-dem MPs will remain. It is perhaps ironic that under PR they probably would lose more seats then they are likely to under FPTP.

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