The common and the middle ground

When Theresa May stands up today, it is worth thinking about a critical distinction in politics between the common ground and the middle ground. First espoused by Keith Joseph in the 1970s the distinction is that the middle ground is a compromise between politicians, while the common ground is an attempt to build agreement between politicians and voters about what has gone wrong with the UK. The common ground is an attempt to show why your principles can solve the issues of the day, the middle ground is an attempt to show you are in the political centre of the day.

The failure to understand the distinction leads to the ‘ratchet effect’. If your opponent is constantly moving to the left in politics, and you always seek to find the middle ground between yourself and them, you will be dragged ever further to the left. You might win elections, but only on their terms. Joseph used this to illustrate how the Heath government has been pulled over its period in office to endorse an industrial strategy, corporate bailouts, and a watering down of economic reform in areas such as the unions and liberalisation.

We face a growing global dissatisfaction in Western politics. The rise of Trump, in part Brexit, the radical movements in Southern Europe, Le Pen in France, the difficulties of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan all are part of a wider dissatisfaction. What is our reaction as Conservatives to this wider dissatisfaction?

A move left on the middle ground?

Outside of Brexit, which has been imbued with a specific cachet from 17 million votes, it is hard to argue that we are not currently seeing our own ratchet, and that our response so far is to move to the soft left. The modern ratchet is twofold. In the first case, there is an economic ratchet. Ditching ‘austerity’ (by which we mean a balanced budget 12 years after the last recession began), continued monetary market meddling, embracing an industrial strategy, and increasing regulation (e.g. in the energy markets with tariffs and in the labour markets with a higher statutory minimum wage) all illustrate we are moving to the left. This Conference so far has had limited policy announcements, but those that exist and the mood music now and in the last few months has been mainly focused on intervention and spending more of taxpayer’s money.

Secondly, and just as importantly, there is a push against individuals and in favour of identity politics. Almost unnoticed last week the Government ditched the numerical and verbal tests that have been used for years to recruit the top civil servants. The reason given was that they discriminated against certain groups. Yet complex numerical and verbal skills are a necessary part of being an effective civil servant. May has ordered a review of equal opportunities. Will it report that often different outcomes reflect the aggregates of different choices by individuals and families. If Pakistani and Bangladeshi households see much lower incomes, at least most of this is not racism but due to low female participation rates, different educational results, and larger families. The pressure is to ignore this – and present any problems as needing quotas, interventions and other illiberal moves.

These days the left is able to present itself as morally virtuous on both fronts. This creates a danger for Labour – as has been shown in the recent leadership elections, where the centrist candidates in both 2015 and 2106 were almost embarrassed to say that they believed in ‘moderate’ policies, instead talking about how their policies might not be as good as Corbyn’s but were electorally successful. But to be frank if you run a contest where the more left-wing (and less like a ‘Tory’) you are, the more morally virtuous you are, then eventually you end up with Jeremy Corbyn. Twice.

The biggest problem with the ratchet and the middle ground is that by following left-wing solutions you never tackle the underlying problems. Chasing the middle ground is based on showing that we ‘care’ – and that if you ‘care’ you have to intervene. But if the problems are really an inefficient public sector, a distorted capital and land market, and excessive meddling by government, as well as a failure to apply liberal solutions based on market based mechanisms and technological solutions to complex issues like troubled families, then your interventions will only make things worse.

Today’s speech will help define the May administration

I accept this is a free market analysis from a generally free market and liberal Tory. But even if you don’t agree with it, it surely must be worrying that the trend is almost all in one direction – always to more intervention. David Cameron was no pure free marketer, but since he left the stage the party has become steadily more authoritarian and pro-government.

The middle ground is a danger not despite the fact that Labour are weak, but precisely because they are so weak. If we are dragged onto the Labour party’s territory by their move leftward we will never solve the problems we face – and will face electoral, political and philosophical difficulties that may let them crawl back into power as part of a general coalition with the Lib Dems and SNP.

Of course, these are still early days. May has chosen to hold back policy announcements this conference, to the point where very little new has emerged after the vacuum over the summer. But nearly three months on from her elevation as leader, today’s speech will be critical in setting out what an early vision of what May seeks to achieve – and how she intends to achieve it. Will May make a pitch for the middle or common ground? Will she continue the move toward interventionism? Like others, I wait with interest for her speech today.