The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. A year ago, Labour was reeling: the party had just finished a distant second to a party to its extreme flank. To make matters worse, this was an enemy that it had already killed: one of the few good stories of the 2010 election was the rout of Respect in Tower Hamlets. Now it’s the Tory party’s turn to feel bruised and confused: they thought that David Cameron’s referendum offer had buried UKIP for good. But instead they were left reeling, in third place, behind a party that they thought they’d finished with.
‘This morning,’ Dan Hodges declared after Bradford West, ‘Labour is no longer fighting to win the next election. It’s fighting to stay in existence.’ Which, if nothing else, should put the froth about the end of the Conservative dominance of the centre-right into some perspective.
The UKIP surge in Eastleigh, like the Bradford spring before it, doesn’t really mean anything. The remarkable story of British politics after the crisis isn’t in the success of fringe politicians: it is their failure. Respect and UKIP are a reminder that the political spectrum is not a line but a circle. Their policy programmes – such as they are – are a laundry list of uncosted fantasy solutions coupled with a series of attacks on their perceived enemies. For UKIP, it is European immigration. For Respect, it is Israel. It’s become all too easy to throw back Cameron’s ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ attack back in his face over the last week, but that is what the UKIP activist core is.
But just as the ‘Bradford spring’ gave way to the familiar winter of inactivity, so will UKIP fade and fall away. Most of their party is simply not ready for prime time: just as Cleggmania dissipated, so too will UKIP’s moment in the sun.
For now, it creates the slightly bizarre spectacle of both main parties’ being offered the same advice: abandon the centre. Just as Tory backwoodsmen are calling for Cameron to abandon such trivial issues as gender equality and climate change, some in Labour also think that Ed Miliband should surrender the notion of a centre, with Shifting Grounds’ David Clark declaring that the centre-ground ‘no longer exists’.
They’re both equally wrong. The lesson for both Cameron and Miliband is the same: if they want to win an election that is still very much up for grabs, they need to claim the centre, not the fringes. In the pages of the Sunday Telegraph, Cameron abandoned the centre-ground not just in policy but in word, too, instead of speaking of a ‘common ground’. But no matter how much you might redefine or wish away the centre-ground, it will still exist, because a better word for ‘the centre-ground’ might be ‘the real world’.
Regardless of who wins the next election, a re-elected Cameron or a newly installed Miliband will face the same problems: falling revenues, a growing welfare bill, stagnating incomes, a growing deficit, a housing crisis, a skills crisis, a social care crisis and a changing climate. The person who best articulates the solutions to these problems will win the next election: by definition, if you face the same problems, and your solutions aren’t entirely valueless, the other side will occasionally have the same or similar solutions.
The problem is, both parties have a large number of false prophets who are determined to talk not about the real problems that reflect the lived truth of the world today, but instead to mount a series of hobby horses. For the Conservatives, that is ‘tax cuts’ or ‘a smaller state’. For Labour, that is ‘a new economic strategy’ – as if the sentence alone was the same as actually having one – or ‘a new politics for the common good’. In a time of crisis and victory will come to whichever party snaps out of this funk first.
Conservatives, Eastleigh, Labour