John Redwood is the Conservative MP for Wokingham, and Leader of the Conservative Policy Group on Economic Competitiveness. Follow John on Twitter.
Mr Miliband has suggested that the much fancied centre of UK politics is moving to the left. Mr Blair and Mr Reid have denied any such thing. Labour are divided on whether they can shift leftwards safely or not.
Some Conservative members fear that the Coalition is dragging the centre to the left, thanks to the influence of the LibDems on Coalition rhetoric and policy. They want the Conservative leader, Mr Cameron, to be more Conservative. Some LibDems fear that UKIP is dragging the centre ground in the opposite direction, highlighting the issues of immigration and the EU which Lib Dems prefer to skate over.
So who is right? Does it matter?
It does matter, because it is a common prejudice for the main figures in each of the principal parties that they can only win by occupying the centre ground. Their problem comes in trying to define what right and left mean in the muddle of modern UK and EU politics, and in trying to discern where the true centre lies amidst the babble of voices and the myriad of viewpoints captured by the more sophisticated and wide ranging polls. Is it being in the centre to say there should be no changes to the current immigration policy, or do you have to move sharply in the direction of less inward migration to be in the centre of the public’s view? Is it being in the centre to say you are happy with the amount of EU power we currently experience, or do you need to propose far less EU interference to hit the centre of the UK electorate? Is it being in the centre to say the deficit should be cut at the rate proposed by Labour as it left office, or at the rate first proposed by the Coalition, or at the rate now proposed by the Coalition, which is slower than either?
Those who believe the centre is moving leftwards point to the popularity of higher wages for most, to the wish by many to see the banks and bankers punished more, and to the demands for a further clampdown on tax abuse by the rich. There are many who now run populist campaigns to blame bankers for the crisis, to demand more money from the rich to pay the bills, and to attack large companies for planning their affairs to minimise tax legally. These campaigns are so popular that they have already been adopted in one form or another by all three main political parties. In this sense all three parties just assume the centre ground is to the left as traditionally described.
Those who think the opposite point to the polls on a range of other issues. People want the Government to be tougher on permissions for migrants to come to the UK than it has been. They want welfare reform which makes it more difficult for people on benefits to receive more money than someone on average wages. They wish to stop recently arrived people having access to benefits at all, and wish to charge visitors for use of the NHS. They want the Government to stop the EU interfering as much as it does in government decisions in the UK. They want a tougher approach to law and order, and wish the Government to expel more foreign criminals from our country altogether. They think there is plenty of waste and undesirable spending within the public sector that the government should cut or control.
The balance of these arguments implies that the centre ground – to the extent that it exists – is shifting more to the right as conventionally described, than to the left. We do need, however, to examine the crucial debate on how to institute economic recovery. Here those on the left say the government should cut less and borrow more in the short term, as the best way to encourage growth. Those on the right say the government should cut more from the public sector, to energise the private sector more by tax cuts and monetary means.
Here the surprising thing is there is practically no disagreement between Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem over monetary policy. The massive sums being created and used in Quantitative Easing programmes evoke no critical response from any of the three parties. All agree Mr Carney is the best man to be the next Governor of the Bank of England, and all seem to accept that more monetary easing is needed. The battles occur over far smaller sums at the margins of total public spending For choice Labour would like to spend a little bit more in the short term. All three parties have agreed Labour’s cuts just before leaving office to capital spending were too large, and steps are being taken to reduce their impact.
The debate over public spending is undertaken in a fog of statistical ignorance by most in the three parties. Many seem to assume public spending is being cut, when the figures show clearly that so far under the Coalition current public spending overall has risen substantially in cash terms and a little in real terms. The UK’s so-called austerity is nothing like the big programmes of spending cuts in troubled Eurozone economies. The austerity instead has been visited on the private sector through major tax rises, and via the impact of inflation on real incomes.
All three parties seem to think the electorate will not take any cash or even many real cuts in current public spending, so they all perch close to each other behind maintaining the status quo on current public spending. The public would like the Government to break out onto the common ground, away from the so called centre ground. They want change and reform. They do not like large build ups in public debt, do want a new relationship with the EU, and do think welfare reform of the right kind is a priority.