The concept of the centre ground has been discussed widely in politics in recent weeks. In a recent columnon this site, the Editor suggested this column was – as the name he gave it – “Far from Notting Hill” and close to the centre of English politics.
It’s true that over the last decade, mostly on this site, I have been encouraging the Conservatives to embrace a provincial conservatism for the working class and lower middle class – the people who primarily determine the centre ground of politics in England. With my new centrist hat on, here are some thoughts on what the centre ground really means, who occupies it, and how to keep hold of it.
1. To have any meaning, the centre ground has to mean the centre of where popular opinion is.
In politics and the media, the “centre ground” usually denotes the patch between the right and left of the spectrum – a “moderate” approach to thinking about politics and an emphasis on technocratic solutions (usually devised and implemented through multilateral institutions like the EU). It shouldn’t need stating, but clearly does, that the “spectrum” as we think about it has zero resonance with the public, who find our ideological consistency baffling.
It should also not need starting that the number of people who share this “centrist” approach are common in the media, but tiny in number across the country. It varies, but self-defined centrists tend to believe in, say, EU membership, a market-based approach to public service reform, continued large-scale immigration, policies that encourage big business growth and active intervention abroad diplomatically and militarily. It’s hard to think of a less popular political platform; such a platform is on the absolute fringes of public opinion. As such, to say the people in this space are in the centre ground is clearly meaningless if not ridiculous.
2. The centre ground changes all the time.
Public opinion is dynamic and changes all the time; in turn, the centre ground itself changes all the time. While some big issues have been in the centre ground for many years – most obviously the British obsession with the NHS – other things come and go all the time.
For example, anti-EU sentiment wasn’t common two decades ago, but was made mainstream by Nigel Farage and David Cameron; environmental concern was also a niche concern two decades ago but has become at least a high tier-two concern for the public overall – and a tier one concern for the under-40s. While it is therefore possible to say what the centre ground looks like now, we don’t know what it’ll look like in 5 years.
3. The centre ground is very large.
While self-defined centrists are not in the centre ground, that’s not because the centre ground is small. On the contrary, it’s very large – it’s just that they are so out of touch with ordinary people, they don’t make it in. It’s perfectly possible to be a middle class, Labour-voting, urban, Remain voting, NHS executive who opposes private sector involvement in public services (and indeed who favours the nationalisation of the utilities) and be in the centre ground.
Each of these views is popular, and together they are reasonably common too. And just as it’s wrong to think of self-defined centrists as being in the centre ground, so it’s wrong to think the centre ground is made up exclusively of small-c conservative, working class, provincial Brexiteers who want the Government to be tough on crime. It does not necessarily follow that only those that win elections are in the centre ground. Michael Howard was in the centre ground in 2005 and Gordon Brown was in 2010.
4. Starmer and the centre ground.
Starmer began in the centre ground and naturally occupies it (as do his staff). Yes, it was hard to get cut-through during the pandemic, but he demonstrated basic competence and gave a reasonable critique of the Government’s performance during the pandemic. In recent times though, encouraged by the media and by the anti-Government partisans still enraged by Brexit, he pivoted to “sleaze” – mostly focused on the Prime Minister’s supposed dodgy financing of a flat redecoration.
The problems with this approach were obvious: (a) his own politicians are accused of worse; (b) most people think politicians are the same dodgy lot; (c) the Prime Minister isn’t accused of mis-using taxpayers’ money; and (d) the whole business is complex. So a few polls show people cared about it; but people always say they “care” about “Inside Westminster” stories when asked, and claim to follow them closely; in truth, it was obvious that none of this was ever going to connect.
5. The wider Labour Party are a million miles away from the centre.
Just as the so-called centrists are miles away from the centre, so is the modern Labour Party. Starmer is in the centre ground, but the party isn’t, because it’s dominated by the hard left – whose weird preoccupations are the ones heard by the electorate.
It’s often said most people don’t care about politics; this isn’t strictly true: most people do care about it, they just don’t care about Westminster politics ,and they certainly don’t care about the preoccupations of the modern Labour Party. Most British people couldn’t place Palestine on a map and I suspect most couldn’t spell it.
6. Blair drifted further and further away from the centre, and Blairites are no longer in it.
Blairites often talk about their success in the centre ground of British politics, rightly pointing out their electoral successes. While it’s true to say that Tony Blair entered Downing Street in touch with the public, he left it racing to the fringes.
Watch interviews with Blair before the 97 election and you’d hear endless talk of jobs, growth and public services – exactly what people cared about. In his latter period, it was all Europe, the Middle East, re-making the world etc. Of course, some of this was forced upon him post 9/11, but the truth is that the Labour Party had drifted away from the public not long after the beginning of Blair’s second term.
7. The Conservatives can own the centre by delivering for working people.
The Conservatives have cleaned up in working class constituencies by delivering Brexit, cutting immigration and implementing an Australian-style points system and pumping more money into the police and NHS – and promising to improve life in towns. The working class is the party’s new base and the Government should pay disproportionate attention to these communities in Government and into the next election.
However, in the context of Covid-recovery, and aided by the Labour Party, the Conservatives can own the centre ground for the vast majority of the country by focusing on jobs, living standards and public services. While it will be hard for them to create a broad platform that speaks to metropolitan inner London, Manchester and Bristol, they absolutely can and should develop a platform that speaks to people from Sevenoaks to Hartlepool; their problems are different in scale, but they’re fundamentally the same problems, and they hold the same values.
8. Going after the urban young will take the Conservatives away from the centre ground.
Let’s be honest: many in the “consultancy class” in the Conservative movement are uncomfortable being in the same party as those that delivered them a landslide. They would sooner their voters were those that they personally socialise with and / or consider virtuous.
In short, they would like to pivot to the urban young in the big cities – to the “centrists” who are tiny in number. The environment is not a niche concern now, but most of the cultural issues that concern the urban young really are. The Conservatives must, at all costs, resist a shift to this group of people.