• Allegra Stratton and Patrick Wintour
• guardian.co.uk, Sunday 13 March 2011 12.11 EDTNick Clegg has told Liberal Democrat delegates that they are now the party of the “radical centre”, hours after the party voted to commit itself to the traditions and beliefs of social democracy.
In his address wrapping up the party’s two-day conference, Clegg pushed ahead in his attempt to redefine the Lib Dems. His speech rejected the “tribalism of left and right” and instead made its pitch to middle-income earners – “alarm clock Britain”.
Clegg said: “We are liberals and we own the freehold to the centre ground of British politics. Our politics is the politics of the radical centre. We are governing from the middle, for the middle.
“Lloyd George’s ‘people’s budget’ to make the wealthy pay their fair share and give a pension to all those who had worked hard. Keynes’s plans to make our economy work for everyone and provide jobs for all. Beveridge’s radical blueprint for a welfare state to give security and dignity to every citizen. They may not have called it alarm clock Britain but they had the same people in mind.”We are not the heirs to Thatcher. We are not the heirs to Blair. We are the heirs to Mill, Lloyd George, Keynes, Beveridge, Grimond. We are the true radicals of British politics.”
The two other traditions in British politics had failed middle-income earners, he said, “because both of those political traditions forget about people and place their faith in institutions. For the left, an obsession with the state. For the right, a worship of the market. As liberals, we place our faith in people.”
While he sought to persuade his party that they were now at the centre of British politics, delegates had earlier passed a strategy paper that called for the Lib Dems to fight as a party of social democracy.
The motion that was passed said: “The UK Liberal Democrats are based firmly in the historical and global traditions of the liberal and social democratic philosophy and beliefs.”
At the opening rally on Friday night, the party president, Tim Farron, said: “In the old days, some people would say the Lib Dems are a party of the centre-left. That is the party I still belong to.” the party’s deputy leader, Simon Hughes, said: “Our job is to be, yes, an alternative to the Tories. But our job is to replace Labour as the radical alternative to the Tories in Britain.”
The public pronouncements by Hughes and Farron are slightly at odds with some ministers who have come to accept they may fight the next election on the centre, and possibly even from the centre-right, against Labour. They believe that some leftwing supporters may not in future come back to the Lib Dems.
The motion also called on Lib Dem MPs, peers and ministers to spell out more clearly “those policies which derive from the Liberal Democrats’ existing and emerging policy platform” and “those aspects of government policy which originated from the Conservative party policy platform”. The motion went on to say that the party would fight the election as an independent party “with no preference for future coalition partners”.
In his speech, Clegg said: “The old political establishment, on the left and on the right, hate what’s happening to our politics. The old left screaming betrayal every time politicians work across party lines or make a compromise.
“The old right simply horrified to see Liberal Democrats in government at all. We are showing that new politics, plural politics, coalition politics, can work for this country. And it terrifies them. There are enemies of reason across the political spectrum.”
The concept of “alarm clock Britain” has surprised some who believe it is an odd formulation that requires too much explaining.
In his speech, Clegg set out again what he meant by alarm clock Britain: “Everyone who wants to get up and get on. People who, unlike the wealthy, have no choice but to work hard to make ends meet. People who are proud to support themselves but are only ever one pay cheque from their overdraft. People who believe in self-reliance but who don’t want to live in a dog-eat-dog world. Who want everyone who can to work hard but want children, the elderly and the vulnerable to be looked after, too.”
Clegg also raised an allegation that Labour-run Manchester council was making deeper cuts than the Lib Dem council in Sheffield and as such the scale of cuts being brought in may be politically motivated.
He said: “I cannot tell you how proud I am that not a single Liberal Democrat-led council is closing a single Sure Start children’s centre. Sheffield has had a budget cut of more than 8%. Every lost job is a loss we all feel keenly, but the Liberal Democrat council here has kept compulsory redundancies down to 270. And they have kept open every children’s centre, library and swimming pool. But cross the Pennines into Manchester, a council having to make almost identical savings, you’ll find a Labour council letting nearly 2,000 people go. So don’t let Labour take the moral high ground.”