Why it’s time for Lib Dems to pin colours to the centre ground.
ON the morning after I resigned as leader in the wake of that devastating election result, I decided to buy a phone. Rather than moping at home I thought I’d cheer myself up by buying some new gadgets.
In any event, I half expected some grim faced official from the Home Office to turn up and demand my security vetted Blackberry back at any minute.
So off I went with my eldest boy, Antonio, to the nearest high street. I was braced for lots of awkward sideways glances from other shoppers. Instead, something quite unexpected happened: person after person came up to me to say how sorry they were, how undeserved they thought the election result was, how unfairly they thought we’d been treated.
It’s as if lots of voters experienced some kind of buyer’s remorse in the wake of such an unanticipated result. In some strange way people seem to understand better what we stood for – and what they have now lost – through our defeat in the polls than through our victories in Government.
And now we face a new reality. It might not feel fair. We got a million more votes than the SNP yet we only have a seventh of the seats they do. The Tories only got 24 per cent of the eligible vote, yet they have a majority in the Commons. Yet it’s the reality we need to deal with.
I got to know David Cameron and George Osborne pretty well over five years of sharing power. They have many qualities – some good, quite a few bad – but one in particular really helped them out in this election: they are lucky generals.
They took over their party 20 years ago just as Labour sank into endless Blair-Brown internal strife; and then fought Labour in an election just after Gordon Brown had presided over the worst economic crisis in a generation.
Then they were in a Government which had to make big, controversial cuts to public spending, yet it was us, their coalition partners, who took most of the political blame.
And now they face a divided and directionless Labour opposition, cut off at the knees by the SNP’s surge in Scotland, and a much reduced Liberal Democrat presence in Parliament.
So, now that they can finally do what they like – what do they actually do? Bully the BBC. Denigrate refugees. Repeal human rights laws. Attack the Unions. Remove help for the working poor. Revive the Snoopers’ Charter. Undermine our place in Europe. Threaten to scrap free school meals. And reverse pretty well every green measure introduced in recent years.
No wonder more people now say they appreciate what we did in Government – they can see what happens the moment we leave the room.
I realise there are some who feel that pinning our colours to the centre ground risks sounding a little insipid. I accept the observation that by talking about the centre ground in relation to the other two larger parties at the last election we made the centre ground sound a bit too much like a tactic, rather than a place rich in values and conviction.
I’m not sure we had an obvious strategic alternative, but I accept that criticism and take full responsibility for it.
But what I don’t accept for one second is that the liberal, progressive, modern centre ground of British politics is an insipid place to be.
There’s nothing insipid about believing in compassion rather than intolerance. In believing in reason rather than prejudice. In believing that the freedom and privacy of individuals should be cherished, not frittered away.
There’s nothing insipid in believing that social mobility, true opportunity, cannot be made available to millions of our fellow citizens unless we do the hard graft of creating a strong and prosperous economy too.
Or believing that our clapped out political institutions need a radical overhaul.
And there’s nothing insipid in believing that we must stand tall in the world, not retreat towards the false appeal of chauvinism and nationalism.
Tolerant. Compassionate. Rational. Progressive. And open, not closed, to the world. That is the centre ground I believe in .
And the great irony of all this is that just at the moment when we have been knocked to the floor a great big liberal-sized hole has opened up in the middle of British politics.
In that huge chasm between a self serving Tory government and a far left Labour opposition lies our great opportunity. Because, right now, they are not speaking for mainstream Britain. They are not arguing for liberal values. They are not standing up for a Britain that is tolerant, generous and outward-looking.
The centre ground of British politics is standing empty. That is our opportunity. That is where we belong. That is where, under Tim Farron’s leadership, the fightback begins.
Nick Clegg is MP for Sheffield Hallam and former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party.
This is an edited version of his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference.