Since the European and local elections, there has been a significant change in the phraseology of Nick Clegg’s speeches and other comments which presages a, so far largely unheralded, change of strategy.
Talk of anchoring British politics in the centre ground has been dropped (hooray), consigned to the same retirement home as Alarm Clock Britain. However, this change of vocabulary is more significant for it isn’t just about presentation, it’s also about strategy.
The previous talk about anchoring politics in the centre ground was based on the idea that whoever is in power, the Liberal Democrats will make things better – fairer than a solo Tory government, more economically competent than a solo Labour government.
It was, as Nick Clegg’s former Special Advisor and now my colleague at work Sean Kemp put it, the condiment strategy. Whatever the main fare, add a sprinkling of Liberal Democrats to improve it.
One problem with this was that promising always to moderate other people’s work a bit didn’t make for a compelling message about a principled party with strong beliefs. For a predominantly single-issue party, a condiment strategy can work – whatever the government, we’ll make it greener, for example. But the Liberal Democrats aren’t a single-issue party in that sense.
Another problem was that although the rhetoric of adding a practical and moderating touch to the ideological extremism of other parties often goes down well in the short run and in polling to really succeed you need consistently extreme parties to be up against. For all that is wrong with Labour and the Conservatives, they’re not off at the extremes of the political spectrum in the way they’ve been in the past. Even when they were, ‘we’ll be a bit nicer and more sensible than the others’ was a brittle base on which to build a party’s success and create a robust activist-based campaign infrastructure on the ground (look what happened to the SDP).
So what replaces the condiments? In Clegg’s public comments in the last few weeks, there’s been a much greater emphasis on liberalism, or rather a return to it as the rhetoric echoes his pre-2010 talk about the future of British politics.
It is still a work in progress, for both him and the party, as on the key economic issue the party’s new fiscal rules are still of the ‘split the difference’ variety – close the deficit more slowly than the Tories and reduce debt more quickly than Labour.
There is ground to be different rather than moderating on the economy, such as in shifting tax from income to wealth, altering the structure of the financial system and really embracing employee control and participation. Whether the party will do that – and whether those issues will interest the public enough to make an impact on the party’s position in the view of the electorate – remains to be seen.