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Goodbye to the Middle Ground

September 27th, 2013

If a Middle Ground even exists

It’s been an axiom of political analysis over at least the last quarter century that elections are won on the centre ground, or, if neither of the main two parties is on that ground, then by the party nearest it.  Occupying and dominating that position was crucial to Tony Blair in government and opposition, and heading towards it defined strategy for his two predecessors too.  Likewise, David Cameron spent much of his time in opposition making policy and presentation designed to appeal to those in the centre or even on the centre-left.  Going back further, the downfall of Margaret Thatcher was in no small part due to a perceived excess of ideology and stridency.

Against that backdrop it may seem curious that Ed Miliband has therefore chosen to take a leap towards the left and away from the centre.  However, as HenryG mentioned in his piece yesterday, those who find it so have failed to appreciate the changed political landscape.

One point taken far too readily for granted is just what the centre ground is.  Leaving aside people’s personal interests (it’s remarkable how Tories suddenly become socialists when it’s their pet interest that needs state support, or how lefties swing to the right when the supposed collective good runs up against their own), put crudely, the population at large is some way to the left of the political class’ median on economic matters and some way to the right on social ones.

Consequently, many people end up voting for parties large parts of whose programme they disagree strongly with (though chances are they disagree even more strongly with those of other parties, or at least with their perception of them).  That said, large parts of the electorate – even that part of it which votes – are only marginally engaged with politics and have little or no accurate knowledge of specific policies anyway: they are not necessarily anything like the key determining factor.

What does matter is image.  Is a party seen as a threat?  Are its leaders competent?  Will it be too divisive – or too craven to powerful interests?  Will it deliver for people like me?  Does it speak my language?  Does it understand the way life is in my community, what’s wrong and what needs to change?  Does it understand the world we live in and the way it works?  And so on.

Some of these do have a policy or ideological edge (and the bias tends towards the centre) but not all.  In any case, the number of swing voter groups has increased and parties have to balance their attractiveness to all of them.  As Mike has regularly pointed out, the LD-Lab switchers are under present polling more relevant than Con-Lab switchers.  So are the Con-UKIP ones.  Neither of these groups sit in the traditional centre so why concentrate on pitching a message there?

    Winning an election is always about putting together a coalition of voters, many of whose interests and opinions clash.  It’s simply not possible to do that on a policy platform. 

    Miliband’s decision to move left should therefore be seen not as a retreat to a comfort zone (though in no small part that’s also true) but in terms of defining his public image by what he stands against – something less likely to upset voters than defining by what he stands for.

Miliband has adjusted Labour to an effective opposition far faster than either Labour managed in the 1980s or the Conservatives after 1997.  Perhaps the main reason is that he has refused to be tied to the centre ground in the extent to which he’s been willing to pick fights with unpopular businesses or industries while refusing to accept the government’s analysis on the need for austerity (and hence the painful decisions that come with such an analysis).  It would be no way to run a government but it is a highly effective way to run an opposition.

David Herdson