The Lib Dems' third way: 'There is no opportunity without a stronger economy'

A vote for the party is a vote for another coalition – and Nick Clegg made a strong case for it

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Nick Clegg has made one big claim for the continued relevance of the Liberal Democrats. “There is no opportunity without a stronger economy,” he said. “That’s why Labour is not the answer. And without a fairer society you can’t create opportunity for everyone, instead of just those lucky few at the top. That’s why the Conservatives are not the answer.”

This pitch – a fair society and a strong economy – is essentially the magic formula that sustained New Labour in its early, optimistic years. It is a good guide to the state of politics now, at the end of an unusually long party conference season, as we are little more than six months away from the election. At its simplest, the risk of a Labour-only government next May is that it would not take the hard decisions needed to keep the recovery going, while the risk of a Conservative-only government is that it would balance the books on the backs of the poor.

If enough voters believe those risks are serious, then it follows that Lib Dem participation in the next government would be in the national interest. Naturally, the choice at the next election is not so simple. For one thing, this newspaper has a sneaking admiration for Ed Balls, who is a more serious economist than the man whose job he shadows. It would help if Mr Balls and the Labour Party accepted that the last government should not have been running a deficit at the peak of the boom, but that borrowing did not cause the crash: it simply  made it harder to get back to sustainable public finances afterwards.

Indeed, the Labour government took the right decisions – to nationalise the banks and reflate the economy – to prevent the financial crisis turning into a full-blown depression, and it was the Coalition that cut public spending too sharply, which helped to choke off the first stage of the recovery.

Yet Mr Clegg is right to suggest that there should be unease about the instincts of the Labour leader, even more than the shadow Chancellor, which are to tax, spend and borrow – and to “forget” the deficit. Just as he is right to point out that the two big election messages from the Conservative conference last week were a further squeeze on benefits and tax cuts skewed towards the better-off.

There is more to Mr Clegg’s claim to mitigate the faults of the two main parties than economic management and social justice, however, as we will be reminded by the two by-elections today. The threat from Ukip, which is likely to win the former Tory seat of Clacton and to make deep inroads into the Labour vote in Heywood and Middleton, means that David Cameron is going to continue to pitch for anti-EU votes.

The Prime Minister regards himself as a liberal, compassionate Conservative, but he sees no contradiction between that and a level of Euroscepticism that this newspaper believes is against the national interest. For the past four-and-a-half years, the Lib Dems have undoubtedly prevented their Conservative partners from doing foolish and illiberal things in Europe and to the European Convention on Human Rights. Equally, while Ed Miliband may have pulled back from some of the illiberal rhetoric of New Labour, Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, has matched Theresa May’s illiberalism stride for stride.

One aspect of Mr Clegg’s speech that was particularly welcome was his focus on mental health and his promise to aim for parity of esteem with the care of physical health – a subject on which The Independent has long campaigned. Mr Clegg could have done more in his speech, perhaps, to draw a distinction between the Coalition’s joint record of the past four-and-a-half years and the differences between him and the Conservatives about the future of the country after May 2015. His attacks on the Tories made it sound as if no decent liberal could possibly have propped up a Cameron-led government since 2010 – yet there have been joint achievements worth celebrating.

That said, the Liberal Democrats have set out their pitch for the election in vivid primary colours. Whether or not they will be in a position to influence the next government depends entirely on how the votes fall between Labour and the Conservatives. If either of the two largest parties falls short of a majority, the Lib Dems have made their case.