Nick Clegg's attempt to position the Lib Dems in the centre ground of British politics has left the party occupying "a bizarre electoral wasteland where few voters exist", according to a leading member of the party's social liberal wing.
Writing for The Huffington Post UK on Tuesday, Naomi Smith, the co-chair of the internal Lib Dem left-leaning pressure group, the Social Liberal Forum, said Clegg's speech yesterday in which he defended the coalition's benefit cuts left her "baffled".
"He claims to position the Liberal Democrats as 'governing from the centre ground'. If only. Instead, the area he has chosen to occupy, is a bizarre electoral wasteland where few voters exist," she says.
"His speech mentioned ‘opportunity’ no fewer than ten times. But where are these voters who care so much about opportunity but not outcome?
Smith was the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in the Cities of London & Westminster in 2010 and worked in Liberal Democrat HQ during the 2005 general election.
"Voters can largely be divided between those who care little about equality of opportunity, and those who care simultaneously about equality of opportunity and of outcome. The welfare cuts he supported in the Autumn Statement offer little fairness for the more vulnerable."
Naomi Smith: Nick Clegg Must Deliver a Fair Sustainable Economy
On Monday, the deputy prime minister defended the coalition's decision to impose a real-terms cut on benefits over the next three years by subjecting them to a below inflation rise of 1%. Clegg argued that the cut was necessary given the need to reduce the budget deficit, as well as the fact many workers were seeing their wages squeezed.
The Lib Dem leader tried to chart a middle ground by criticising Labour for opposing a necessary £3.8bn reduction in welfare payments at the same time as slamming Tory MPs for wanting to cut as much as £10bn from the benefit budget.
"When two-thirds of people think the benefits system is too generous and discourages work then it has to be changed, or we risk a total collapse in public support for welfare existing at all," Clegg told the CentreForum thinktank.
But Smith writes that Clegg has "lost the trust of many voters" and that all too often he has backed unpopular issues that fall outside of the Coalition agreement.
"Worse still, his rationale for going off-piste without a mandate has been deficit reduction. The government asked us to judge them on their ability to reduce our deficit," she says.
"Thus far, the austerity measures Clegg campaigned against in opposition but readily signed up to in government, haven’t significantly reduced our deficit nor kick-started sustainable growth."
On Monday, the former Lib Dem Treasury spokesperson and constant coalition critic, Lord Oakeshott, told the Evening Standard that the government needed to do more to create growth.
“The autumn statement had nothing to make the banks lend and builders build, and it’s curtains if we can’t get growth going and the deficit down," he said.
Although Clegg's position as leader of the Lib Dems seems pretty secure, his deputy Simon Hughes, who is seen as a flag-carrier for the social liberal wing of the party, admitted there was "a little bit of chatter" about the deputy prime minister's position.
Rank-and-file Lib Dems will be looking nervously at the party's awful poll ratings, with a survey over the weekend showing Ukip had achieved 14%, pushing the Lib Dems into fourth place on 11%.
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