Most right-of-centre voters place the Lib Dems on the Left – and most left-of-centre voters place the party on the Right. Few voters feel that the party’s ideological location is the same as their own. This is especially marked among voters who have switched from Lib Dem to Labour: they are overwhelmingly on the Left themselves, but feel that the Lib Dems no longer are.
The problem the Lib Dems face is the opposite of the benefit they enjoyed at the height of Cleggmania two years ago. Then, for a short while, millions of voters projected their own idea of the perfect political party onto the Lib Dems and said they would vote for them. Today, many voters project their idea of the LEAST perfect party onto the Lib Dems and say they will cast their vote elsewhere. Unless the party dispels this mixture of confusion and aversion, it will struggle to revive.This problem of being all things to all people dates back long before Cleggmania. In fact, our campaigning ("keep it local") sometimes encourages just that attitude.
One can also understand the voters' puzzlement about what we now stand for. Through the Blair and Brown years the Liberal Democrat complaint against their governments was essentially that Labour was not being social democrat enough. And then we went into coalition with the Tories.
In large part that move was forced upon us by the election result: the economic situation demanded a stable government and the arithmetic of the Commons meant that a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition was the only one possible.
But it also reflects a shift in the balance of power within the Liberal Democrats. Ever since it was created the party has played host to a remarkable variety of views. That is no bad thing - let a thousand flowers bloom and all that - but it does make possible remarkable shifts in direction.
And what we have seen in recent years is a shift in the Liberal Democrat programme from a social democrat one that promised more spending on public services to a free-market one.
In many ways I welcome that, but the proponents of this shift have to ask themselves why it has alienated are more left-wing voters. I share the analysis that socialism does more to benefit the managerial and professional classes than it does to benefit the workers, but the workers do not appear to see it that way.
My problem with free-market Liberal Democrats is that they have no clear idea of who it is that they want to persuade to vote for them. At its worst their style of argument is an adolescent one of "no one can tell me what to do". At its best it presents cuts in public spending and tax as desirable in their own right.
What it does too rarely is talk to average voters about how free-market policies will improve their lives.