The panel was distinguished: Ivan Lewis MP, Lewis Baston, Luke Akehurst, Ryan Shorthouse and Chris Nicholson.
What is key in this discussion is the definition of the centre-ground. Ivan couched the centre-ground as having three important factors: 1. Economics/standard of living; 2. Care for public services and; 3. Fairness.
The majority of people realise that there is a need for cuts but equally feel that they are being implemented too fast and too deep. We need to understand the squeeze that is being felt on income, for example through VAT increases, but also the hit to aspiration through the increase in university tuition fees, scrapping of EMA and further housing costs.
There is also a clear understanding of the need of public services but also value for money. How public services are changed often sets the tone for how government is perceived by those in the centre-ground.
Fairness is a term that is overused and poorly understood. Lewis Baston spoke of how fairness is a key term and is important in understanding the political centre. Labour is perceived to have good intentions but we fall down on the perception of our ability to make tough decisions.
For Ryan Shorthouse, the centre-ground is defined by the floating voters within marginal seats. They are not bothered about politics and its ‘Punch and Judy’ nature; they have concerns about their standard of living. They are generally aspirational, middle income but also a fervent believer in the role of public services.
The electoral battleground is a balance between efficiency (often viewed as a Conservative trait) and equity (perceived to be a centre-left trait). Therefore, the question becomes: which party best balances these two issues for the floating voters given that in good times equity is more important while in bad times efficiency is a priority?
Cameron understood this and according to both Shorthouse and Akehurst the Conservatives have used an external force (the Lib Dems) to detoxify their brand as opposed to an internal change such as Blair’s ‘Clause Four’ moment.
The ‘big society’ is designed to incorporate the centre-ground defining issues. We should champion such an idea – after all it is not a new nor exclusive concept – but it needs to be supported by the state. Cutting the state back to the detriment of such a movement is irresponsible and pointless.
The panel was split as to whether the coalition had shifted the centre-ground but what is important is how Labour can best fight for this ground in the next election.
Touching on Ed Miliband’s speech (at the same conference), Ivan spoke of how we need to ensure a better work life balance with an emphasis on more than the bottom line. We need to differentiate our idea from the coalition’s and be explicitly different on two aspects: slower cuts and an emphasis on jobs growth. However, for this to work, we have to reassure people about our fiscal responsibility.
There is an issue of focusing too much on a place on the political spectrum. For Luke, factors such as trust, the narrative about the leader, culture, language and the performance when in government will all affect the electorate and how people vote.
As has been cited in many recent articles, Labour is in danger of appearing to simply oppose cuts and this will lead them to vacate the centre ground. For Chris, Labour are not emphasising the role of social enterprises and the private sector within the NHS and as such are not engaged in the public debate.
The centre-ground is more than the key to winning the next election; it is about appealing to both the low-income and aspirational middle-class groups. It is about ensuring that people get a better standard of living, that people get value of money from public services and that there is fairness within the economy as well as in opportunities.
Targeting the centre-ground can be seen to some as an indication that the party has no ideology or principles. I feel this misses the key point. When we are in power, we then have the ability to shift the centre-ground which will allow us find the correct balance of equity and efficiency. Only government has the ability to shift this ground and sitting on the outside brings no change.
As Ivan stated extremely well, the people within the centre-ground has what is best for them and the economy at the heart of their decision making.
Without economic credibility Labour cannot win the next general election and cannot influence that key balance of equity and efficiency.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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