It is often observed in British politics that to succeed electorally, political parties should stick to the centre ground. Under Nick Clegg’s leadership, centrism was placed at the forefront of how the Liberal Democrat party positioned itself to the public. While he was correct to recognise that the main dynamic in British politics is (sadly) not illiberal/ authoritarian versus liberal, but actually right versus left, he was wrong to conclude that the Party’s response should be centrism. The 2015 General Election showed us that pursuing a centrist strategy was a catastrophic error. As former Cambridge MP and City Council Leader Professor David Howarth told us on this website immediately after the General Election last year, it is something ‘we must never do again’.
Liberal Democrats who still think centrism can take the Party to success hold a paradoxical stance where their preference over the Party's positioning is incompatible with it achieving a General Election breakthrough. More generally, many do not fully understand why centrism will not work, failing to realise its impact upon wider strategy and thinking. The electoral reality for most minor parties means that they need to pick a left/ right side and work within it - especially one whose support is geographically dissipated and which operates under a First Past The Post system. This article will argue that for simple, compelling and strategic reasons, the Party should not pick the Right, but the Left. This will be an unpalatable proposition for some, but it is vital that this dilemma be addressed so that any Liberal Democrat fight back is based on solid foundations.
Centrism can work as a strategy, but usually only for major parties
A centrist position can work as a short term electoral strategy for the main parties of the left and right, but for most minor parties, it doesn’t work at all. This is because it is much safer for left or right inclined voters to continue support a centrist major party, such as Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’. It seems unlikely that a vote for them will directly lead to the other main party getting into power. By contrast, small centrist parties are perceived as being prepared to lend support to either the left or the right which, as we saw in 2015 (but should have learned from the past) is a recipe for being aggressively squeezed.
The Party’s strategy during the last Parliament played perfectly into its opponent’s hands. The usual warning at General Elections from the main two parties that a vote for the Liberal Democrats could be a vote for the other main party, resonated very well thanks to a Lib Dem campaign that reinforced this as distinctly possible at almost every turn – affirming both the Party’s centrist credentials and setting out what Lib Dems would try to bring to a coalition with either main party. Far from aligning the Party with more voters, the Party’s pitch worked in tandem with our opponents’, to help generate a lot of fear about voting Lib Dem. Our invitation to look left, look right, and then cross was not a route to success, but an invitation to get run over.
Moving away from centrism was key to the Party’s 1997 breakthrough
2015 wasn’t the first time this strategy had failed. Keen students of history, or those who have been around liberal politics long enough, will remember that the Alliance pursued a centrist strategy in the 1980s. Though dogged by questions over who it would side with in a hung parliament, in 1983 it aspired to build a big enough coalition of support so that it could form a Government in its own right – not readily rely on either Labour or the Conservatives and so get caught in either of these parties’ orbits.
High on ambition and coming within 2% of second place in the national vote, the votes it received in 1983 spectacularly and notoriously failed to translate into seats under First Past The Post. Out of the 633 seats contested, it achieved 314 second places, but only 23 all-important first places. Nationally, the Alliance was still some way off hitting a threshold where its vote share translated into many gains. If the Alliance did not get centrism to work under the electoral system from a much stronger position during the 1980s, there should have been little doubt to its inappropriateness in the 2010s.
As Lib Dem blogger Nick Barlow set out in 2015 (after writing a Master’s Degree dissertation on Liberal Democrat positioning and strategy), it is uncommon for liberal parties to flirt with centrism and, in the few countries where is has previously worked well, the party political landscape has been very different from Britain’s. In these countries the main parties of the left and right sometimes form Governments with each other (forming a grand coalition), which has the effect of playing down the left verses right dynamic in political debate and accentuating an illiberal/liberal one. Barlow found that where liberal parties were otherwise still centrist they would have a strong appeal beyond centrism and, using Europe as an example, the only European party he could find operating in this way was the Finnish Centre Party, which also firmly operates as an agrarian party. He noted:
‘In short, it is possible for a liberal party to alternate between supporting governments of left and right, but it only happens in systems with three or four parties where the liberal party has created a distinct ideology for itself beyond mere centrism, and where the parties of left and right are close together and can form governments with each other, excluding the liberal party. When those conditions don’t apply – especially when there are more parties in the system – it’s rare to find a liberal party remaining in the centre. Instead, they tend to pick a side and work within it, not alternating from one to the other.’
In countries with an especially strong liberal political culture and multi-party system, two liberal parties are sometimes found. This can currently be witnessed in The Netherlands, Denmark and Estonia. At a national level these parties do not tend to align with each other, but with other parties within a respective right or left wing bloc. In these countries, national Governments usually have a liberal pillar (fulfilling the desire of some centrist Lib Dems for Governments of either left or right to have a liberal voice), but due to the inclusion of one liberal party at a time. If we look at other countries in the world with a sole liberal party, we find the parties (whether a major or minor one) usually also operate as either of the left or right.
Barlow argues that equidistance can be effective for the Liberal Democrats in winning votes (it certainly was far more so in the 1980s, than after 2010), but not in winning seats and argues that moving away from equidistance was key to its breakthrough in 1997, when the number of its MPs elected were twice that in 1992. The breakthrough, which was entirely at the expense of the Conservatives, occurred despite the Party losing national vote share, and New Labour encroaching onto centrist ground. Barlow argues that: ‘it wasn’t just that the party got better at targeting seats, but that the way the party had positioned itself made it more attractive to tactical anti-Tory voters’, and cites British Election Study data to back this up: ‘… at the 1992 election, 44% of voters thought the Liberal Democrats were closer to the Tories, 38% to Labour, but by 1997 that had shifted to 56% saying closer to Labour, and just 10% to the Tories’.
It is certainly the case that by 1997 the Party was more able to squeeze anti-Tory votes, because it had finally picked a side. The process of alignment began immediately after the 1992 Election with Paddy Ashdown’s Chard Speech (which came two years before the uber-centrist Blair became Labour leader). In the run up to 1987 Election the Alliance suffered from a perception that it was conflicted about which major party it would prefer to support in a hung parliament (with SDP Leader David Owen perceived as favouring Thatcher’s Conservatives, and Liberal Leader David Steel preferring Kinnock’s Labour). By 1992 the Party had made its position clear - it was ‘equidistant’ between Labour and Tories – but this did little to resolve the issue and it was plagued by queries of who it would support in a hung Parliament during the 1992 Election campaign. But the Chard Speech kick started moves towards the Party again operating within the left, with Ashdown urging Liberal Democrats ‘… to work with others to assemble the ideas around which a non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives can be constructed.’ The formal abandonment of equidistance - and so further confirmation of the Party operating within the left - was indirectly endorsed by the 1995 Conference which accepted that year’s Federal Executive annual report that stated the Conservatives would ‘not be sustained in power by the Liberal Democrats’. This provided the Party with something of its own, albeit lower key, Clause 4 moment. However, as Liberal Democrat Director of Strategy and Planning (1995 to 1997), Alex Leaman, observes, ‘the abandonment of equidistance was essentially a negative act – Liberal Democrats would not put the Conservatives back into office’ (p8). This approach offers a useful lesson for the future.
However, there were other factors at play behind the Party obtaining many more all-important first places in ’97 than just squeezing anti-Tory votes. Its success was not just aided by the extent of Tory sleaze and unpopularity, but also due to Labour itself becoming more moderate. This made it easier for Liberal Democrats in target seats to gain ‘soft Conservative’ voters (as some Party canvassers would describe them) because the prospect of the Lib Dems propping up Labour became less worrisome for many of these voters. At the same time, Labour found it was able to squeeze more former Lib Dem voters in its marginal seats against the Tories. Whether by luck or design, the Lib Dems and Labour began operating in a way that was mutually beneficial – they began operating together as a more effective left wing bloc.
Further strides were made by the Party after 1997 during the stewardship of Charles Kennedy. The Government job-seeking-cosiness with Labour during the later Ashdown years, was ushered away and the Party began to further differentiate itself from Labour. While managing to broadly maintain its coalition of existing support, it started to gain more support from the left. The Party continued to operate within the left wing block, but now increasingly at Labour’s expense, furthering a long held ambition of some (including famously, two-time Party leader Jo Grimond and later, as expressed during his campaign to be Leader, Ashdown himself) for the Party to eventually supplant Labour, to again become Britain’s main progressive force (since last summer it appears the Canadian Liberals have done precisely this to largely the left wing New Democratic Party’s expense).
The Kennedy era demonstrated – in sharper contrast to Ashdown’s – that operating as a left-wing party did not mean the Party had to surrender autonomy to Labour. It also showed that the Party did not (unlike under Clegg) have to make how it self-defined according to the left/ right scale a major part of its pitch to voters, which it largely refrained from doing, instead defining itself in terms of its liberalism. Under Kennedy, the Party tried to make clear that Liberalism was the key dynamic it brought to political leadership, providing both differentiation and an honouring of core principles.
Many Liberal Democrats have yet to break free from the centrist strategy’s inhibiting logic
Embarrassingly for Ashdown, it would appear from his Chairing of the 2015 Election campaign that he did not understand the shortcomings of centrism. This was despite arguments against it and moving away from equidistance being key to his 1997 electoral breakthrough (when titling his autobiography ‘A Fortunate Life’ it seems that he was genuinely not kidding).
Remarkably Nick Clegg’s last Head of Strategy and the Party’s 2015 General Election Director of Strategy, Ryan Coetzee, has questioned the feasibility of the Party positioning itself so as to be able to alternate between coalitions of the left or right, but only expressed doubt after it was too late. In a post-Election comment piece in late May 2015 he wrote:
‘My tentative conclusion is that it is probably not possible to succeed electorally in coalition government under first-past-the-post while remaining equidistant from the two big parties. If we can’t win the fight for proportional representation, it may be that we have either to stay in opposition or pick a side.’
Despite this, it is evident from the implications of what some communicate – whether in speeches, comments pieces or just online debates - that the argument against centrism within the Party has not been fully won nor properly understood, and hence why I write this post. In some cases members continue to mistake the centrist major party strategy as suitable for a minor party. By way of example, in an October 2015 post entitled ‘In Defence of Centrism’ Lib Dem blogger Harry Samuels argued that at the Election ‘To the left, we lost trust, and to the right, in a national election with perceived danger, we were too risky a vote. But none of this says anything about centrism … if we look at the most successful politicians of the past two decades, Blair and Cameron (whether we like that description or not, it is objectively true), both succeeded by appealing to the economically centrist, socially liberal values in most British people.’
In other cases, members continue to give false hope to this flawed approach by apportioning blame for its and other shortcomings elsewhere. May 2015 was not some kind of freak natural disaster or (as David Laws described it a) ‘tidal wave’, but an event we were heavily able to influence. Inviting pity for the Party as some have, blaming pollsters for the aggressive squeeze we received at the 2015 Election (as Ashdown would have us do) or encouraging members to believe voters will realise their mistake (and experience as Clegg argues ‘buyer’s remorse’) is not helpful when the Party is, to a large extent, responsible for where it finds itself. Centrism has never worked out well for the Liberal Democrats at Westminster, and is part of the reason the Lib Dem vote imploded so spectacularly in May.
If not overtly supporting a centrist strategy, then many Liberal Democrats are still caught in flawed centrist thinking. The Party’s priority cannot be to get into Government at Westminster as soon as is possible when it cannot readily alternate between supporting the left and right. Labour’s move to the left under Corbyn also presents little new opportunity for centrism.
If Labour takes a harder left position then a centrist Liberal Democrat Party risks an even more aggressive squeeze in 2020, as Labour’s position will further stretch and accentuate the left right dynamic in British politics. In this instance, the Party might win some votes from Labour moving to the left, but it will likely find getting more all-important first places harder too. In fact, by Corbyn wishing Labour to assume some positions that are also attractive to many liberal voters (deescalating the international arms race, advocating more infrastructure spending, and reversing marketizing reforms to public services that demand universal provision and are natural monopolies), he makes the Lib Dems key challenge to differentiate and obtain distinctiveness even harder. Corbyn is bad news for the Lib Dem revival.
Centrism in the 2010s was not devised according to solid evidence or popular demand, but was a lazily borrowed, misguided and disastrous approach adopted to suit the preferences of a small group who (rather than devising possible exit strategies from coalition with its historic arch rival) hoped to increase the chances of sustaining government jobs. Although centrism accords with the personal preferences of some Lib Dems and can, on the face it, seem like a sensible strategy, it is a recipe with devastating consequences. While the Party's emphasis on centrism has (thankfully) tapered since the Election, such was its emphasis during the coalition years that centrism has become synonymous with the Party in the eyes of some voters and new members, but as long as the Party prevaricates on this issue its decision making will be undermined and accruing many more first places will be hard to come by. There was much to read between the lines of the Campaigns and Communications Committee’s review of the 2015 Election but, while it criticised aspects of the centrist strategy, including its messaging, it did not directly criticise the strategy itself.
Once the deficiency of a centrist approach is appreciated it becomes easier to comprehend why the coalition of support that had been knitted together in held seats during the 1990s and 2000s had by 2015 been spectacularly pulled to pieces. Not only by 2015 did the Party have trust issues and sleaze of its own to contend with, but very many voters of an anti-Tory leaning went elsewhere. Similarly, soft Conservative voters had become more anxious of the left, including fearing how the rise of the SNP could push a Labour Government further to left or make it less stable, and so voted Tory rather than Lib Dem, to help avoid it.
It must be noted that far from being an unlucky event for Lib Dems, the SNP’s success was significantly boosted by the Lib Dem’s multi-faceted betrayal of anti-Tory and progressive voters during the coalition years. Moving to the centre was supposed to yield some electoral dividend, but votes were lost left, right and centre.
In part 2, Paul Pettinger argues why the Party should seek to again operate on the left, and considers some implications of this for internal Party affairs.