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Peter Cuthbertson: Voters aren't crying out for a party of free market social liberals

Peter_cuthbertson What a great period the last few turbulent months must have been for political journalists! And now they have another leadership election to enjoy, with a frontrunner many of them find very sympathetic. Nick Cohen explains:

"My colleagues in the commentariat love Nick Clegg. They would marry him if they could. I exaggerate, but only slightly. He’s what they expect a modern media-friendly party leader to be. Expect pro-Cleggery to dominate the punditry."

Right away Clegg implied a direction in which he would take the Liberal Democrats quite distinct from the activist-pleasing approach chosen by Kennedy and Campbell. The distinguishing feature of Clegg’s rhetoric almost from the moment of Campbell’s resignation has been condemnation of his party’s two years of “internal self-analysis... testing the patience of the British people”. Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems would “move outside our comfort zone” and “start talking to the British people, instead of to ourselves”.

Rachel Sylvester of the Daily Telegraph most concisely summarises what leadership agenda to expect from Clegg, an ‘Orange book’ contributor:

“The Liberal Democrats have always been an uneasy coalition between old-fashioned Lefties, who want to tax the rich until the pips squeak, and the younger generation of ‘Orange book’ modernisers, who are both economically and socially liberal...

...If Sir Menzies's successor is a moderniser, who manages to convince his party's activists that the world has changed - that they must be liberal on both social and economic issues, in favour of low taxes as well as gay marriage, pro-choice in health and education as well as over abortion - then there will be a wide-ranging impact on politics.”

It’s easy to see how, as Nick Cohen indicates, this package of policies will find plenty of support among political journalists - and within the Westminster village as a whole. But political breakthroughs require a party to pursue an agenda that has the genuine sympathies of a broader mass of ordinary voters outside this small circle – sympathies opinion polls can identify with the greatest certainty. Polls suggest that the agenda above would be a step further into obscurity, even assuming the next Lib Dem leader can take his party with him when embarking on such a different course.

Far from voicing the hitherto unspoken preferences of large numbers of voters, Nick Clegg could find himself adopting the liberal extremities of the ‘uber-modernisers’ just as the Conservatives reject them with finality as bad policy and bad PR; calling for tax cuts just after both main parties corner the market for the votes of those fed up with paying above the odds for so little in return; and going to the wall in defence of Brussels just as Europe regains its political salience for a eurosceptic electorate.

For most political journalists, embracing social liberalism is virtually synonymous with modernising a political party. This is so much the case that one would be forgiven for thinking that on such issues as immigration and asylum, civil liberties, crime and punishment, drug legalisation and family structure, Britain is a nation of trendy social liberals governed by a political establishment of stuffy cultural conservatives reluctantly conceding as little as they can possibly get away with. Consistent majorities and pluralities in opinion polls suggest that the reverse is a much more accurate picture.

In April 2006, YouGov found that 83% of voters support giving priority to British families in allocating council housing, 74% support BNP policies on accepting fewer asylum seekers even when the policy is associated with the party and 59% support a halt to all immigration (48% when associated with the BNP).

On civil liberties issues, some of the oft-voiced concerns about a ‘surveillance society’ and traditional civil liberties are essentially fringe views among the wider electorate. When it was proposed, 72% supported 90-day detention of terrorist suspects and 61% thought opponents of this measure were more concerned with the civil liberties of terrorists than in protecting the public from terrorism. 85% support CCTV on high streets and 93% support it on public transport. (It is fair to note that other privacy issues are of greater concern to voters. Most polls on identity cards show significant but far from overwhelming pluralities in favour – an unremarkable result until one considers how fantastically rare it is to find any political activists who think they are a good idea.)

On crime, 91% of voters support criminals serving the full sentence handed down by judges, and in 2003 YouGov twice asked the public for their views on capital punishment. In January 56% backed the death penalty; in December 62% were in favour. Just 28% believe possession of cannabis should be legalised.

On the family, 70% believe it is better for parents to be married and 57% think it is right for ministers to encourage marriage. Public opinion is split 49%-44% in favour of tax incentives for marriage.

Why do these poll results seem so counter-intuitive? Precisely because, as the words of Sylvester and Cohen above indicate, the fashionable socially liberal position is already so dramatically over-represented among political and media insiders that it seems like the popular outlook in the country as a whole. It isn’t.

A party can still win seats in parliament with minority positions and unpopular policies – although the strength of British voters’ social conservatism does suggest an upper ceiling on Lib Dem support. But the way to do well with a minority position is to pair it with other policies that command greater public support and are reasonably compatible with the less popular policies. There are voters out there who will vote for an agenda of increased immigration and reduced incarceration, of unequivocal commitment to civil liberties and human rights – at least so long as it is twinned to populist “the rich have done too well” economics and a policy of leaving public service provision ‘to the professionals’ while generously doling out taxpayers' money year after year. Hence the Liberal Democrats do have more than sixty seats. Whether their social liberalism will do so well when twinned with right-of-centre economic policies remains to be seen.

Rightly or wrongly (I think wrongly), some existing Lib Dem voters would be alienated by any move in a free market direction. For the Lib Dems to gain in support, these people would need to be replaced at the polls by former Tory voters or former Labour voters (unless one entertains the fantasy that the Lib Dems would win more seats on the back of an army of hitherto non-voters). But how many Tory voters are there who vote Conservative because they like its free market views but would jump ship to a socially liberal, Europhile, green, anti-prisons party that offered them a free market economic package? How many Labour supporters vote Labour because they like its social liberalism and Europhilia but would jump ship to the Lib Dems if they could continue to get those things plus a much bigger dose of market economics? To ask these questions is to answer them.

If Clegg’s agenda is to keep his party’s social liberalism but ditch the populist “the rich have done too well” economics, the new policy concoction may please some in the media, but voters are unlikely to be inspired. Abysmal a leader as Ming Campbell has been, if Nick Clegg gets his way the Liberal Democrats may do even worse.


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