Nick Clegg's paradox: the policies are fine, he's not

Demiation is a word I've invented. It means to be cut by half, the likely fate of Lib Dem MPs


The paradox of centrist politics is that elections are supposed to be won in the centre ground, but the one party that occupies precisely that territory is facing demiation in next year's election. Demiation is a word I've invented to cut through pedantry about whether decimation means to cut by one 10th or to destroy utterly. Demiation means to be cut by about half, which is what is likely to happen to the number of Liberal Democrat MPs (currently 56) next May.

In YouGov's map of where the voters place parties on the left-right spectrum, the Lib Dems used to be seen as left wing, but not as left wing as Labour. After the last election and the forming of the coalition, they were seen as having moved sharply towards the centre. Since then, they have stuck to a point just to the left of the centre, which is where the voters, on average, place themselves.

At the same time, Labour moved further to the left on the ideological map, while the Conservatives have moved further to the right. Despite the perception of a widening gap between the two larger parties, the Lib Dems have failed to benefit from their position in the moderate middle.

One explanation is that the terms left and right don't mean as much to most people as they do to political obsessives, and I am sure that is part of the explanation. Yet I don't think it is a coincidence that the most electorally successful leader of the democratic era, Tony Blair, was logged by YouGov as just to the right of centre. So why is Nick Clegg, the leader now closest to Blair's vacant slot, the most unpopular of the four main party leaders?

Other things are going on. One is the breaking of promises. It turns out that the voters notice and care when a party and its leader make a solemn pledge, which they underline with personal declarations and big signatures on placards, and then break it. It is good and democratic and right that there should be a heavy price to pay. The voters might understand that some policies have to be traded if no party wins a majority in the Commons, but the Lib Dems had marked the tuition-fee promise out as special.

This makes it harder for the Lib Dems to change any policies. This month, Clegg said he wanted to reform the bedroom tax. It seemed a sensible decision. The party accepted that public spending has to be cut, but cutting the spare room subsidy had worked out badly, so why not try to change it and make it fairer?

Sean Kemp, who used to be Clegg's special adviser, explained why not. The biggest reason people won't vote for the Lib Dems "is not about policies at all, it is about trust", he wrote. "Having the words 'U-turn' on the front of the Daily Mirror doesn't really help with that."

Last week, Clegg gave us another reason for distrusting his party, which goes to the heart of the centrist paradox. The Lib Dems failed to expel David Ward, the MP for Bradford East – or even to extract a meaningful retraction from him – after he said that, if he lived in Gaza, he "probably … would" fire a rocket into Israel. There is nothing wrong with a political party taking sides over Gaza. I don't agree with it, but there is a big market in British politics for an anti-Israel position. Indeed, Ed Miliband has adopted a moderate version of it, opposing the Israeli incursion into Gaza.

But Ward went much further than that, appearing to condone the firing of rockets intended to kill civilians. When challenged, he issued a statement: "My comments were not in support of firing rockets into Israel. If they gave the opposite impression, I apologise." The next day, however, he repeated himself. If he lived in Gaza, he said, "I might well resist". That is an ambiguous phrase, and again, he relied on a quibbling difference between understanding why people do something and approving of it.

This ambiguity is not helped by the Lib Dems' record. Two years ago, Jenny Tonge was eventually forced to resign from the party for saying: "Beware Israel. Israel is not going to be there for ever in its present form ... One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough."

It is possible to disagree with the policies of the Israeli government without condoning the murder of Israeli civilians. But Ward is playing the same sectarian politics as his neighbour in Bradford, George Galloway, assuming that hostility to Israel appeals to the quarter of his voters who are Muslim. This is the Lib Dem problem. They appear to be in the centre of British politics because they are "left wing" in the urban North and "right wing" in the rural South-west.

Blair was successful because he was a consistent centrist. Clegg is less successful because he is in the centre to try to hold together a party that stands for different things in different parts of the country.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before