The Lib Dems are now pinned in the liberal centre - whether we like it or not

Written by Stephen Tall on 16 April 2015 in Opinion
The party's 2015 manifesto is carefully calibrated not only to dodge the hostages to fortune of 2010, but also to offer plenty of scope for the Lib Dems to cut a deal

The contrast could not be starker. Throughout the 2010 general election campaign Nick Clegg was insistent.

"I'm not the king-maker," he told every journalist asking what the Lib Dems would do in the event of a hung parliament, "It's the people who are the king-makers."

Fast forward through five years of coalition government and he's not now so bashful: "Someone is going to hold the balance of power on the 8th of May and it won’t be David Cameron or Ed Miliband. So ask yourself this: Do you want Nigel Farage walking through the door of No 10? Do you want Alex Salmond sat at the cabinet table? Or do you want the Liberal Democrats?"

King-maker is now exactly how Nick Clegg wants to be seen.

It's a pitch which attempts to make virtue out of a necessity. One thing Lib Dem strategists fear above all in this election is being written out of the script by a media focused on the Labour/Tory ding-dong.

The spectre of 1992, when the final week's campaign saw Paddy Ashdown's hopes of entering government dashed by 'shy Tories' rallying to John Major's standard, looms large. Like a youngest brother desperate not to get overlooked, the Lib Dems are attention-seekingly eager to remind voters and the media: we still matter.

And it's not the only difference between this Lib Dem campaign and its predecessor. This week's manifesto launch showcased that the Lib Dems have learnt one major lesson the hardest of ways: don't promise what you can't deliver. Though Nick Clegg undoubtedly feels hard done by over his tuition fees U-turn -- neither Cameron's nor Miliband's broken pledges have been so mercilessly replayed -- he is determined to avoid a repeat.

When, last October, the party conference voted to reject a leadership-backed motion allowing for the expansion of Gatwick airport if it's recommended by the Davies commission, Clegg pointedly remarked, "it will need to be discussed again because, how can I put it, I’ve seen the perils of the past of putting something which you know in your heart of hearts is not necessarily deliverable."

Lo and behold, the 2015 manifesto offers just enough wriggle-room on airport growth. Though the party "remain[s] opposed ...  because of local issues of air and noise pollution", the pledge is very carefully worded: "We will ensure no net increase in runways across the UK". So, if and when Gatwick gets the go-ahead for its second runway while the Lib Dems are in government, there will be plenty of conditions attached to address environmental concerns, including the demolition of at least one surplus runway somewhere else.

This, then, is the new politics of realism. The manifesto is carefully calibrated not only to dodge the hostages to fortune of 2010, but also to offer plenty of scope for the Lib Dems to cut a deal with whichever party, Labour or Conservatives, are in a position to offer a second coalition.

Its top-line pledges of a balanced budget, tax-cuts for the low-paid, investment in health and education, and environmental protection will not be deal-breakers for either the Red or Blue negotiating teams.

The Lib Dems are eminently placable opponents of an in/out referendum on the EU: they know Cameron's backbenchers won't accept it being dropped, and besides, ruling out the public having a say on Europe isn't such a good look for a party with the word 'Democrat' in their name. Policy accommodation with Labour would be more straightforward -- the policy overlap is significant -- but the bad blood shed over the last five years, combined with Labour's fiercely tribal animosity, could yet stymie any regeneration of the Lib/Lab pact.  

For some activists, the Lib Dems' policy flexibility is a betrayal. What is the point, they ask, of a liberal party which dilutes its liberalism for the sake of power? Which would be fair enough comment but for the inverted question it begs: what is the point of a party which cleaves to pure liberalism at the cost of ever exercising any power?

As Tim Farron once put it to me when I once asked him how many of his 'red lines' had been crossed by the Coalition: "every one of my red-lines was crossed every day for 24 years when we were in opposition.”

The inescapable reality is that, for the forseeable future, there is only one way the Lib Dems will be able to put their policies into practice: in partnership with either the left-leaning Labour party, or the right-leaning Conservatives.

We are pinned in the liberal centre whether we like it or not. A radical manifesto -- full of civil liberties and political reform and Trident cancellation -- may sound nice in theory, but that's all it would ever be.


Stephen Tall is editor of the Lib Dem Voice blog.


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