Robert McIlveen lives in Sheffield and is doing his PhD there on the
Conservative party, its organisation and electoral strategy.

The Labour party, and much of the media, tell us we’re “lurching to the
right.” Many in this party, and on this website, despair that we’re
“charging to the centre.” Apparently David Cameron is doing both,
neither or some combination of them, depending on who you read. But
what is the centre that we are heading towards or fleeing from? Where
is it and does it matter?

The idea that political parties gravitate to “the centre” of the
ideological spectrum has been around since Anthony Downs’ An Economic
Theory of Democracy
. It’s pretty common parlance to hear people claim
elections can only be won from the centre. But that doesn’t tell us
what the centre is. Downs’ idea works when you have two parties (we
have at least three), one issue dimension (we have at least two, maybe
more) and voters vote for the party closest to them (they often don’t).
So should we forget the centre and go for something else?

No, but we should re-imagine it. Consider what we mean by “centre.” It means different things to different people, and it certainly means different things in different places. The ideological centre of each constituency is going to be in a different place, and we can’t aim at all of them. Clearly, this story suggests that we have decisively taken the centre in Southern Conservative-Lib Dem seats, even if in the North we are still sometimes on the irrelevant edge. 

So why have we found the centre in one battleground and not another? Can we do it nationally? 

The best way to re-imagine the centre is to forget policy dimensions. Yes, policy matters, but it rarely wins elections. Labour lost elections from a loony left position, but policy was not what swept it into power in 1997. For us, the problem is not so much policy as getting a hearing with swing voters. Remember the finding that voters liked our policies when they did not know they were Conservative, but approval dropped when they did. The political centre, in our case, is about language and perception as much as it is about policy.

This has partially succeeded – David Cameron’s decontamination of the Tory brand has been his greatest achievement so far. However, we need to take Labour on even over the very words used to discuss politics. “Investment in public services” is Labour’s favourite phrase, when we all know they mean “starving actual public services of cash (prisons, maternity units, the armed forces and so on) to pay for an inflated public sector payroll to keep us in government.” I’m not suggesting we adopt the latter (it might be a bit wordy!) but we will find it hard to convince the electorate of Labour’s failures (and our better alternatives) if we fight on Labour’s linguistic ground. Most Labour “investment” is spending and waste. When Labour “engages” with extremist groups it capitulates to them in a craven bid for votes. 

The centre ground is not a place or a manifesto – it’s the dominance of the agenda, language and ideas of politics. In the 1990s Labour came to define the centre and dominate politics for a decade or more. 

We can recapture the centre, and return to government. If we have the solutions to “Anarchy in the UK” and Labour can only talk about throwing money around; if we can respond to wealth inequalities by demanding tax cuts for the low paid, rather than the left’s howls for hitting the most productive in society; if we can remind people that government action often makes things worse rather than being the only solution to any problem, the centre ground will shift to us. If we can redefine the language of politics on our terms we can push Labour to the fringe and put ourselves into government.

33 comments for: Robert McIlveen: The centre ground should be on our terms

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