Clegg and the Centre Ground

John Rentoul

ind 229x300 Clegg and the Centre GroundPeople have made the mistake of misjudging Nick Clegg before.

One nugget in Steve Richards’s Whatever It Takes is that Miriam “had her doubts” about the “sudden transformation” in her husband’s public status as a result of his good showing in the televised debates. She was “intelligently sceptical about the theatrical dimension in British politics”, he writes, and was proved right by the Lib Dems’ disappointing election result.

Recently, though, Clegg has been written off by the newspapers as an unprincipled opportunist heading for a fall over public spending cuts. Today’s interview with The Independent suggests that there may be more to him than that. The key bit is this:

There were some people, particularly around the height of the Iraq war, who gave up on the Labour Party and turned to the Liberal Democrats as a sort of left-wing conscience of the Labour Party. I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems never were and aren’t a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was.

I thought he was ruling out the long-term option, dear to many Lib Dem hearts, especially those from the Social Democratic tradition, of replacing Labour as the main alternative to the Tories.

In fact, he was making a narrower tactical point, which was that in the latter Tony Blair years the Lib Dems found themselves to the “left” of Labour on crime, immigration, civil liberties and foreign policy. Some of that remained by the election despite Gordon Brown’s unsteady lurch to the left.

It was an uncomfortable and unfruitful place to be, as the loss of five seats in the election showed. Now Clegg is telling it like it is to his party. They won’t like it, but it is impressive.

And — call me a one-track member of the New Labour Establishment if you are an Ed Miliband supporter — it carries an important message for the last few voters in the Labour leadership election. Labour’s big mistake would be to let Clegg get away with moving his party back to the centre ground. David Miliband as leader can hold that territory. His brother is most unlikely to do so.

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  • george

    I agree with your general point.
    But not with your point about the Lib Dems losing support. In the last election, though losing five seats, the Lib Dem percentage of the vote went up one per cent.

  • AlanGiles

    But that was when they at least gave the impression they were an independent party, who disapproved of cutting quickly and deeply as Cameron/Osborne said they would do.

    I think they now have the problem they will be perceived as too right wing by the rank and file majority, and not quite right-wing enough for Tories (a bit like the problem of Blair’s ToryLite New Labour).

    Former LibDEm MP Sandra Gidley was on The World This Weekend today, and made very similar points.

    I have no doubt this years conference willbe a triumph because it is the first taste of power for 65 years, but next year, if things (and ratings) don’t improve……

  • AlanGiles

    You really should try using your real name, to put your money where your mouth and pomposity is.

  • AlanGiles

    Thank you for your cowardly intervention.You read Rentoul in the hope that one day he will grow up, that the scales will fall from his eyes and he at least tries to be objective. He will see some of Blair’s faults which are manifest – greed and self-aggrandisement being not the least of his faults. Steve Richards manages this quite ably. So do most writersWe await that day with anticipation, alas, he seems to be continuing his absurd hero-worship, most unseemly in a man of his age. Rentoul reminds you of a PR agent for a dodgy pop star, excusing and explaining his every selfish transgression. But as you seem to share this wide-eyed innocence it is no wonder you support him. I sometimes wonder if you ARE Rentoul since, like him, you use the cheap, sordid device of implying that anybody who mistrusts Blair is mentally ill. Perhaps you should get to see a psychiatrist yourself, as you hide behind your obvious pseudonym

  • Ciaran Rehill

    Since the demise of “Independent Minds” it is a choice of John R or Julie Burchill.

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