Nick Clegg's speech yesterday at the Royal Commonwealth Society has left me 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.
His speech mentioned 'opportunity' no fewer than ten times. But where are these voters who care so much about opportunity but not outcome? 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. The Institute for Fiscal Studies have claimed that the bottom 30% of society in income terms will lose the biggest proportion of their income once the new benefits system is rolled out. Little equality of outcome there then.
If we are to believe Clegg 's narrative that the Liberal Democrats are more economically trustworthy than Labour, yet more socially caring than the Conservatives, then we need evidence. Over tuition fees, free schools, the NHS, and the welfare bill, Clegg has lost the trust of many voters and he will be judged at election time on his record of action, rather than his promise of things to come. Where is the economic turnaround that we should have been enjoying by now? Where is the big ticket social policy championed by Lib Dems in government? 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.
And while the pupil premium and raising of the income tax threshold are policies to be applauded, the welfare cuts he so strongly supports, are a far cry from what is expected of a self-styled progressive party.
Clegg wants to 'respond to the hopes and fears of reasonable people'. Many Liberal Democrats activists couldn't agree more, and is one reason why so many of them opposed the government's NHS reforms at Lib Dem conferences. It was an issue all too dear to voters. Even Clegg's former strategic adviser Richard Reeves believes that Clegg should have stopped the NHS reforms. And this is Clegg's big problem - all too often in government, he has backed unpopular issues that fall outside of the coalition agreement (which is what Lib Dems agreed to deliver - nothing more, nothing less). 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. Thus far they have failed to deliver on that particular performance measure. As Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakshott said in the Evening Standard yesterday, there was little in the Autumn Statement to stimulate green growth and reduce the deficit to sustainable levels.
Clegg's recognition that Liberal Democrats need a distinctive narrative from our coalition partners is welcome. Recent stances on snooping, press regulation and drug reform are encouraging, and I hope that Clegg will also do the right thing and stand firm against the
introduction of secret courts. But if he really wants to appeal to 'reasonable people' he needs to raise living standards for the many not just for the few, by promoting a fair, sustainable economy, as set out by the Social Liberal Forum's Plan C for the economy.