[Commentary from Liberator 365, which will be with subscribers next week]
Nick Clegg’s decision to challenge Nigel Farage to television debates on the European Union was certainty brave – even if Clegg’s jokes suggested a career in stand-up comedy does not await him after politics.
Although commentators mostly said Farage had won the debates, Clegg was able to say reasonably enough that he could not reverse decades of populist eurosceptic bile and alarmism in two hours. What he did do was make the pro-EU case unabashedly in public – a refreshing change from previous European elections when the Liberal Democrats campaigned on more or less anything except the EU.
As Charles Kennedy has now revealed, in 2004 he wasn’t allowed (it remains unclear by whom) to run an avowedly pro-European campaign, and the Liberal Democrats duly concentrated on local issues and government bashing. Things were no better in 2009, when Clegg was still trying to disentangle himself from Ming Campbell’s attempts to appease anti-EU voters by making convoluted promises about referendums.
As Liberator has long pointed out, every opinion poll shows a pro-Europe vote vastly in excess of the number of people who have ever voted Liberal Democrat, and it ought to have been self-evident long ago that this was the pool in which the party should fish. Instead, it muttered about referendums in an attempt to buy off those minded to support UKIP or the Tories.
Finally, the Liberal Democrats have realised that anti-EU voters have a choice of two parties that really mean their hostility, and there is no earthly point in trying to posture as the third such party by promoting something in which they do not believe anyway.
Whatever viewers may have thought of the debates, Clegg has established himself as the country’s most prominent pro-EU politician and has given his party something on which to fight the European Parliament elections.
Will this approach be extended? Clegg has clearly come down on one side on the question of the UK’s membership of the EU. Yet on other matters, he keeps insisting that the Liberal Democrats are ‘in the centre’, a stance interpreted widely as meaning the party simply wishes to split the difference between the Conservatives and Labour.
As has been often repeated, though it would seem not often enough, if you are in the centre you allow those on either side to define your position. It is also meaningless as a political stance. By declaring oneself to be there, what are you and what are you against, and in power what would you do? Why would being ‘in the centre’ at the next general election give people any particular reason to vote Liberal Democrat?
Clegg has learnt the lesson that his party cannot again fight the European elections by campaigning about nothing in particular and seeking to offend no one. Indeed, by cultivating the pro-EU vote for May, Clegg has explicitly set out to offend eurosceptics and signal that he doesn’t seek their votes.
Good. Maybe this step will see the party at last drop the delusion that it can ‘win everywhere’ and realise that it needs a core vote, of which the pro-EU one is an important part but not the whole.
Misguided or (at best) forced decisions in coalition have alienated the students, young professionals and rural poor who were the main props of the party’s support in 2010. Perhaps the party will now see who it should appeal to and who it should not waste its breath trying to cultivate, and so develop a platform that stands a chance of enthusing some badly needed voters.