The Lib Dems have a rare chance to recapture the middle ground

With Ukip distracting the two main parties, it's up to Clegg to take the initiative

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The Independent Online

There is no doubt who won the battle of the party conferences. The score was David Cameron 4 (three for his speech, and a Miliband own goal), Ed Miliband 0.

When the Conservatives conducted focus group discussions with a handful of voters, they found to their relief that Labour’s pledge to spend an extra £2.5bn on the NHS had made little impact. The main thing people had noticed about the Labour conference was that Mr Miliband forgot to mention the deficit in his speech.

The Labour leader’s unforced error will return to haunt him. It makes it even more urgent for his party to spell out how it would make the painful cuts necessary to balance the nation’s books by 2020, as Labour says it would do.

There is understandable frustration in Labour circles that Mr Cameron won plaudits in the newspapers for promising £7.2bn of “unfunded” tax cuts. If Mr Miliband had promised a free paper clip for every household without saying how it would be funded, commentators would have crucified him. Labour rushed out a long list of previous quotes by Mr Cameron and George Osborne, saying tax cuts were a “tax con” unless they were fully funded. But the Tories were in opposition then. The Tory sums for 2015-20 do not add up, and would mean even more unpalatable cuts they have not disclosed. But the Tories have a credible message because they have forced the country to swallow some nasty medicine since 2010.

Labour has no such track record and has not yet convinced the public it can be trusted with the economy. The deficit was not caused by Labour overspending, but many voters think it was. Labour can’t wish that away and must now overcompensate to correct it. Mr Miliband must tell voters how he would meet the biggest challenge facing the new government elected next May – the deficit, stupid.

 

The Labour and Tory conferences had something in common. Despite their denials, both parties were trying to bolster their core vote, preaching to the once-converted who have drifted off to Ukip. Strategists in the two parties no longer speak of winning the magic 40 per cent of the vote, their traditional general election goal. In an era of four-party politics, Labour and the Tories are locked in an undignified scrap to get a toe over the 35 per cent line, and become the largest party in another hung parliament. At neither conference did I find anyone who seriously believes their party will win an overall majority.

So Labour is reluctant to frighten off natural supporters by talking up cuts, preferring to look left than to camp on the centre ground. And the Tories tack right, as we saw when Hard Cop Osborne detailed £3.2bn of welfare cuts, before the bad news was deliberately eclipsed by Soft Cop Cameron’s goody bag of tax cuts.

In appealing to their own base, Labour and the Tories might just throw an unintended lifeline to the Liberal Democrats, whose Glasgow conference starts today. Ironically, the two other gatherings have been a good advert for the Lib Dems’ unique selling point: only they can ensure the next Government delivers a “stronger economy” and a “fairer society” – to which Nick Clegg will add the slogan “opportunity for everyone”.

With Mr Miliband unable to utter the D-word, the public may well doubt that Labour would run a stronger economy. With the Tories promising at least £12bn of welfare cuts, voters may feel some sympathy for the Lib Dems’ plea that the nation’s books should not be “balanced on the backs of the poor”, which we will hear a lot in the next few days.

True, the Lib Dems desperately want to find a gap in the market. A YouGov survey yesterday put them on 6 per cent, one point ahead of the revitalised Greens who, like Ukip (14 per cent), are hoovering up protest votes that once went to Mr Clegg’s party.

Labour and the Tories may unintentionally reinforce their own weakness. Their core vote strategy is unlikely to appeal to many voters in the middle, who would accept that welfare spending has to be constrained but do not want to hit 5 million people on benefits and another 5 million “strivers” working on low incomes.

Mr Clegg has the right message for these voters. His challenge is now to ensure they hear it. He will speak less about the nasty things the Lib Dems have stopped the “nasty party” doing inside the Coalition, which dominated his party conference speech a year ago. Instead, he will accentuate the Lib Dems’ positive achievements in Government, and try to dispel the view that they are clinging on to power for its own sake, which has taken hold since 2010 even though the party had been out of office for 65 years.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s task got even harder this week. The Tories showed their ruthless side by stealing the Lib Dems’ flagship policy of raising the personal tax allowance to £12,500 by 2020. A shameless move from a party which in 2010 attacked the Lib Dem plan for a £10,000 allowance as unaffordable in tough times, and then implemented it as the price of Lib Dems joining the Coalition. As the Tories now claim the credit for it, we should remember that it wouldn’t have happened without the Lib Dems.

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