Nick Clegg's speech to the Liberal Democrats at their party conference in Glasgow was focused, very definitively, on the centre. The Lib Dems, he said, are 'in the centre of Government and the centre of British politics, standing up for the millions of people in the middle.' He spoke of the centre seven times. He addressed, for the first time, the idea that the Lib Dems won't be going into the next election as a party fighting to win overall, but instead as a party trying to be a centrist anchor in a coalition government. This was the most interesting passage in the speech - 'We're not trying to get back into Government to fold into one of the other parties - we want to be there to anchor them to the liberal centre ground, right in the centre, bang in the middle. We're not here to prop up the two-party system: we're here to bring it down.'
It seems ridiculous that Clegg's assertion that he won't be leading the government after the next election is a step forward for the third party, but it is. I remember an interview during the 2005 election in which, when asked whether Tony Blair or Michael Howard should be handed the reins of power, Charles Kennedy, then Lib Dem leader, ignored the question and instead said and repeated his own name, in the manner of a toddler who's just learned what they're called. Clegg has instead, wisely, chosen to accept the fact that the Lib Dems are, and will remain, the third party, and can only wield influence while acting alongside one of the other two. He thinks there are votes to be had from people who see both Labour and the Conservatives as too extreme. This is a curious idea; generally, the common wisdom is that the public dislikes the major parties for being all the same - the 'three cheeks of the same backside' thesis. Furthermore, his assertion that the Lib Dems are Britain's centrists seems to show his failure to understand his own party.
The Liberal Democrats have a centre-left and a centre-right faction, with compromisers persistently flitting from one side to another on various issues. They could be described as the 'on the one hand this, on the other hand that' party. The members appear to be more centre-left (ish), while the men (they are almost all men) at the top seem to be of the centre-right. Does that mean that the party balances itself out, and occupies the centre of British politics? No, probably not. Furthermore, are the people of this country broadly 'centrist'? Again, the answer is no, probably not. The British people don't compromise on their viewpoints; nor do they converge around a centre - they don't have to. General assumptions suggest that a majority of people lean to the right on crime and immigration, but to the left on healthcare and education. Does this mean that they'll balance those two ideals at election time and gravitate to the centre? No - they'll prioritise their key issues and vote on those. The Liberal Democrats should know this - they attracted anti-war voters in 2005, and student voters in 2010, by taking distinct positions on those issues, positions which varied from those of Labour and the Conservatives.
Centrism breeds shallowness and emptiness in politics. Bill Clinton tried it - calling it 'triangulation' - and so did Tony Blair and David Cameron. What they managed to do was diminish and demoralise their traditional power bases, while failing to convince those on the opposite political wing that their party were truly of the centre. Clinton and Blair were saved by opposition parties that shifted further and further to the right in response, masking the vacuity of their shifts to the centre. Cameron was not so lucky, and his compromise efforts failed to take Downing Street outright. The chances are that Clegg's attempts to do the same will be even more muddled, as his party is split between left and right in an open and obvious fashion.
It's OK to position yourselves on the left, the right, or in the centre. It's even acceptable to position yourselves on different sides according to different issues. The key is to articulate why - and that's what Nick Clegg's speech failed to do. He may say that the Lib Dems can act as a moderating influence on the extremist wings of the two major parties, but that's an analysis riddled with flaws. The extremist wings of the other two parties - namely mad Communists and swivel-eyed Europhobes - don't hold much influence that needs tempering. Furthermore, the Lib Dems can't show that their three years in government have resulted in the country becoming anchored to the 'liberal centre ground', so why should we believe that voting for them in 2015 would result in anything different?
Clegg and the Lib Dems are labouring under two mistaken beliefs: the first, that a junior coalition partner ought to have an active influence on all government policy; second, that the way to the public's heart is through middle-of-the-road centrism. The MPs that have become ministers in the coalition have by and large been either marginalised by more powerful Conservatives or used as convenient whipping-boys for unpopular initiatives. The way to fix that perception isn't through diluting the party's policies in an attempt to find a centrist, third way style manifesto. What Clegg should have done was mark out four or five key policies for the next election that the Liberal Democrats would not compromise on in coalition negotiations at any cost, and then announce that their role in any future coalition would be delivering those policies - not merely attaching themselves to the programme of the senior party. The Lib Dems would then be a party of distinct ideals, and could take the chance to prove themselves as a party of delivery.
The Liberal Democrats are the third party in this country; it is likely they will remain so after 2015 - certainly on seats if not votes. Yet their positioning as a party slap bang in the middle of the political sphere seems like little more than an electoral tactic - rendering them empty and shallow, an alternative choice that is not a viable one for anyone wanting principled, policy-driven government. This tactic is doomed, and will result in the Lib Dems spreading themselves too thin, not to mention alienating whichever faction of the party loses out in any future coalition negotiations. For the Liberal Democrats to remain relevant, they need to completely revise their idea of how a third party should operate. Clegg's conference speech doesn't give any suggestion that he's up to that challenge.