This morning, I saw in my Twitter feed a tweet from George Eaton, the political editor of the New Statesmen, which read:
“The Lib Dems are on 6%. It’s almost like centrism isn’t what voters want.”
It reminded me of one of my pet peeves of this current political era: people extrapolating from the low poll ratings the Liberal Democrats constantly get that centrism is dead or at least in serious trouble. What it could mean instead is that the Lib Dems alone are dead, for reasons that have nothing to do with the popularity or otherwise of centrism or liberalism or political moderation or any combination of any of these political buzz words.
Let’s start with centrism. Although I would disagree with Lib Dem activists on any number of things, I agree with most of them about the fact that the Lib Dems aren’t even particularly centrist in approach. A couple of years ago I spent some energy trying to get people from the right of Labour, the left of the Tories and Lib Dems in the same room to talk about public policy. My take away from these sessions was that the right of Labour and the left of the Tories had much more in common with each other than I had anticipated – and the Lib Dems were nowhere near either of them. Large scale infrastructure projects? The Labour and Tory people argued about the timing, cost and public/private mixture of funding, while the Lib Dems said we just shouldn’t have any large scale infrastructure projects at all. This sort of thing came up on every bread and butter issue, with the Liberal Democrats in the room always the extreme outliers. The Lib Dems are not in the middle of any current political thinking and further more, are not trying to be in the centre of it.
Where most Lib Dem policy thinking is rooted is very firmly on the left. In fact, in several areas – education springs to mind – Lib Dem policy thinking is notably to the left of Labour.
Perhaps that’s really why the Lib Dems are stinking up the polls: who wants vague Corbynism-lite from a party that was in government with the Conservatives just a little over three years ago? It’s the same ground I’ve gone over previously, but I’ll briefly recap: the Lib Dems want to return to where they were in 2004, to go back to being the prime choice of lefties fed up with New Labour. Only it’s 2018 and New Labour doesn’t exist anymore, and in the interim, the Lib Dems were in a coalition with the Tories for five years. The left isn’t going to return to the Lib Dems any time in the short to medium term, if ever again. The party will not be considered a party of protest at anything other than local level for a very long time either.
Where there are votes is in the centre and the centre-right. People who liked the coalition, wished it had continued past 2015; people who voted for the Tories in 2015 and regret it, particularly in light of the Brexit vote. Centre-right Remainers and floating Remainer voters, basically. But this isn’t where the Lib Dem activist base is politically at all. Where they are is on the soft-left or even hard-left. They think Brexit will eventually bring people, particularly young, pro-European people, to the Lib Dems, away from Labour. Yet it isn’t happening. At all.
To return to George’s tweet: this does not prove in any way that centrism isn’t in trouble, or that centrism actually is what people want, if only it was packaged in the right way. It just means you cannot deduce whether that is the case simply from the Lib Dems bad poll ratings.