According to Nick Clegg’s aides the summer will see the start of a concerted attempt to shift (further, some might add) the Liberal Democrats to the centre-Right, culminating in a series of binary choices at Conference in Glasgow on a range of issues from tax to Trident.
This would mean abandoning the centre-left political territory occupied by British Liberals since Keynes inspired the 1929 Liberal manifesto and Beveridge played such a key part in the policies the Party stood on in 1945. Jo Grimond in rescuing the party from near-oblivion in the 1950s and 1960s stood similar ground. A cynic looking at the current opinion polls for the party and its leader might be tempted to draw parallels. A more relevant poll finding, perhaps, might be the one that shows a plurality of voters preferring to see a centre-Left government after the next election. Among that plurality is the bulk of the Liberal Democrat vote in 2010.
What will happen at Glasgow is a series of votes where Ministers will tell Conference representatives that it would be politically damaging for the party to fight the 2015 election on positions different to those taken by the Coalition Government. Of course, the Conservatives will not be doing this on subjects such as equal marriage, Europe or renewable energy; but that appears to be of no concern to the strategists.
The key issues include tax; nuclear power; the living wage (vociferously opposed by economic Liberals, who dispute the Resolution Foundation’s work to demonstrate the economic benefits and savings to the exchequer); Trident replacement; and higher education where the party may struggle to avoid reopening the self-inflicted wounds of late 2010. The motion in Clegg’s name aiming to persuade the party to back George Osborne’s deficit reduction strategy in the 2015 election and beyond may be the most significant of all.
It is striking when listening to senior Party figures at present to note just how often they link their efforts to Liberal values. Norman Lamb, in a thought-provoking speech about the potential future role of mutuals in public services at the Social Liberal Forum Conference, did just that. Others, though, can only bring themselves to talk about shifting the party to the centre ground – or as Richard Grayson put it in his remarks leaving the party, leading ‘a centre-Left party [from] the centre-Right’.
One of the biggest problems the Liberal Democrats face in the march to 2015 is motivating the foot soldiers. Articulating values is one of the most effective ways to do that. There is not the slightest evidence that the party’s loss of identity, or the discernible attempts to shift it to the Right has attracted new activists or inspired existing ones to work harder. There is, though, lots of evidence that many long-standing Liberals have switched their energies to their gardens, their golf courses or their grandchildren in response to that shift.
Now is the time to vigorously restate the identity that inspired the party’s volunteer base, rather than seeking to change it forever.