The official theme for the Lib Dem conference this year was “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society”. These sort of slogans are a pet hate of mine. They say something unbelievably bland and wholly uncontroversial. You have to dig behind the branding to try and discern what a political party is really trying to say. A more accurate catchphrase for the Lib Dems this year would have been “Phlegmatic and stoical”. Apparently, their offer is to calmly and coolly temper the excesses of others.
Clegg’s gamble is that there is a substantial swathe of the public who consider Labour too soft-headed and the Conservatives too hard-hearted and – in anticipation of another indecisive election result – they will vote Lib Dem to anchor the next government closer to the centre ground. If the yellow team emerges again as a junior coalition partner, they will either make sure that (a) Ed Miliband doesn’t go on a crazy spending spree or that (b) David Cameron isn’t too mean to the oppressed, the poor and the disadvantaged.
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t get the pulse racing. Worse than that, it can often give rise to real confusion. Mere minutes after hearing from chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander that there was no fiscal room for extravagant public spending projects, Clegg announced that he’d found £600m down the back of the sofa and could now offer a free school lunch to every child between the ages of four and seven. In his speech, Clegg expressed the desire to go still further if he is in government after 2015 – extending free meals to all primary school pupils. Perhaps, if the Lib Dems can cling on for a third term in office, all British adults will be able to help themselves to lunch at Pret A Manger at the taxpayers’ expense.
Despite three and a half years of trying to tackle a monstrous budget deficit, the Lib Dems remain disappointingly attached to statist solutions to society’s problems. The “big announcement” on the opening day of their conference was that they now favoured a small compulsory levy on carrier bags. Quite how this will be administered without a barrage of new red tape is not obvious. It also seems unwise, in a political environment in which the cost of living is a major area of concern, to enthusiastically embrace a policy designed to edge up the average weekly shopping bill. It remains unclear whether a young child seeking to take home the remains of his school dinner in a doggy bag will be able to do so for free, or whether he will also have to stump up five pence.
As with nearly all politicians these days, Clegg talked a lot about his “vision” and how he wanted to be “absolutely clear” without really spelling out what this clear vision was. He is, we were told, very much against chemical weapons. He also apparently has some fondness for the 1970s pop group Abba. He wants to work with other political parties. But he doesn’t want to be subsumed by them. He wants Scotland to stay as part of the UK, but welcomes the diversity that comes with our country being a family of nations. There’s nothing much here to offend the wider electorate, but there isn’t much to excite them either.
Since the last general election, most opinion polls indicate that the Lib Dems have lost around about half of their support. Not even the most optimistic of party strategists believes that all of this ground can be won back. In fact, the party will effectively fight the next election as a series of a few dozen by-elections, leaving their candidates in around 90 per cent of seats merely to fly the flag. But even given that there are lots of constituencies where the Lib Dems have a strong and popular MP, it is difficult to see the party avoiding an overall collapse in Parliamentary representation if their national vote share is barely into double digits. Clegg’s hope is that his phlegmatic, stoical, middle-of-the-road approach will be sufficient to drag his party back into the teens and perhaps even towards 20 per cent of the vote.
Many third party leaders have been the nearly men of British politics. However, if Clegg can make his strategy work, he may end up being the permanent man of British politics. But whether a government anchored in moderate, centrist compromise can really perform the radical surgery our public sector and wider economy so badly needs is a very different question.
Mark Littlewood is director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs and former head of media for the Lib Dems.