The prime minister closed her party’s conference with a bold pitch for the ‘centre-ground’ of British politics. It lacked real vision, it certainly lacked consistency, and it lacked policy commitments. But it did not lack chutzpah.
Simply saying you are on the centre-ground does not make it so. The public, not prime ministers, decide where the centre-ground lies. Politicians play a role in shaping it, and it goes without saying that parties in government, let alone politicians ahead in the polls, have a great say in influencing centre-ground opinion. Politicians can help curate it, but they have no copyright on it.
Both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband believed that the 2008 crash moved the centre-ground left. To this day, there is no measurable evidence to support that thesis, either in the United Kingdom or across the globe. Outside the United States, only rightwing incumbents have been re-elected in post-crash general elections. Even countries like Australia that avoided recession replaced their centre-left government with a rightwing alternative. The failure of global markets and some pretty solid government-led responses – led by Brown, Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd – were supposed to make people more critical of markets and better disposed to the state. Something entirely different happened – the rejection of elites: Miliband beating his ‘heir to Blair’ brother David, the Scottish nationalist surge, the rise of Syriza, Podemos, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, not to mention the vote for Brexit. Even Theresa May’s own pitch draws on this anti-elite sentiment. The sensible, policy-heavy, ‘experts matter’ centre seems weaker than ever.
All this means that the late Philip Gould was right when, towards the end of his life, he intuited that the notion of the centre-ground, as it is traditionally conceived, was losing its usefulness. No longer is politics like a two-player boardgame where you advance forward from one side or the other, concentrating on only certain key places – where the swing voters are – until you achieve a commanding position and from there claim victory.
Gould worried that politicians were increasingly conducting their politics in an ‘empty stadium’. As the rules of the game changed and grew tougher, the traditional moves no longer sufficed. Politicians had fewer answers and thus fewer people were listening; politics was looking only smaller while the nation’s problems looked bigger.
For these reasons and more, Labour, and politicians of all colours, needs to think again about the idea of a centre-ground altogether. At worst, the very notion suggests that you have to concede your principles and beliefs to win votes and win over voters. It is fixed, amorphous and ambiguous all at the same time. When seen alongside ‘triangulation’ it makes politics almost grubby or unprincipled. Within the Labour party, its advocates come across as calculated, managerial and opportunist.
Where the Miliband project failed – in no small part because he fought it on the more ‘leftwing’ centre-ground he wanted, not on the terrain the voters had marked out – was because Labour’s leader failed to properly seek permission from the public to put his plans into practice. In the past, Labour has believed that credible and coherent ideas will convince the public that it can run the country. It seeks permission to do what it most cares about through having the answers to the problems the voters most care about. Labour got to pass civil partnerships and a ban on fox-hunting because it was trusted on the economy. It rescued the NHS, improved schools and filled in potholes. It is on this ‘permission politics’ that Labour’s centre‑left must focus.
General election voters in marginal seats ask five big questions of the parties. Will you run the economy so I can afford my mortgage? Will my kids have a good school in the area to attend? Will the NHS be there when I, or my elderly relatives, need it? Will the police turn up when a crime takes place and will they have some reasonable chance of catching the perpetrator? Will the next generation do better than the current one?
In 1945, 1964, 1997, 2001 and 2005 Labour had answers for all of these. By contrast, in 1983 and 1987 it believed it was ‘rightwing’ to answer such questions. In 1992 the party arguably had answers to all but the first. By 2010, it had a strong record on each and answers on the NHS, and on the economy that had been, but not about the economy to come. In 2015, it was just the NHS and lots of warm words with little fleshed out about the ‘promise of Britain’ for the generation to come. In the last two elections, Brown and Miliband had got themselves contorted on city academies and believed it was ‘rightwing’ to talk about home affairs. Brown made more speeches about taxing carrier bags – a policy he did not ever deliver – than crime. Miliband made even fewer. You do not have to like the answers to acknowledge that, since 2005, the Tories have at least had an answer to all five questions. The addition of immigration – it is unclear exactly what the public wants other than less of it – only muddies the water for progressives yet further. Most would rather change the question.
So the task for those in Labour is simple: no compromising – answer all the questions. The party is self-evidently far from being in a position to do this right now. But, nevertheless, members must, concurrently to the party’s travails, be thinking about how they give the public what it wants, the country what it needs, all based on what the party believes.
May believes she needs permission for her ‘blue collar’ economics from her blue rinse party, not the country. In doing so she buys off the former with grammar schools that the latter really does not want or need. She is no more centre-ground because of her speech on the Wednesday of her party’s conference, than she was after her ‘hard Brexit’ speech on the Sunday. The abandoned ground in British politics is there for Labour’s taking. It requires it to go to the public with an honest plan and gain permission to implement it.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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