It’s easier to define what the centre ground of politics isn’t than what it is. So here goes.
It’s not the same territory in one generation as in the next: political landscapes change – sometimes because of a volcanic eruption, like the financial crash; sometimes more slowly, because of eroding attitudes (on eugenics, say, or over women).
Nor is it found by picking some point halfway between that held by the two main parties. Most voters aren’t engaged with them in the first place, or with politics at all.
Polling will help you to find it, but the map it provides is confusing – at least to political aficionados. For example, most voters are broadly pro-NHS but anti-immigration. Does that make them Left or Right?
Those two examples help to find the answer – as close to one as we can get, anyway. Voters lean Left on economics and Right on culture. To their being anti-migration (though less than they were) and pro-health service, we add the following.
English voters are also: patriotic, pro-lockdown, anti-racist, pro-armed forces and supportive of public spending over tax cuts (if forced to choose).
They are somewhat isolationist, pro-Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, unsupportive of the aid budget when push comes to shove, punitive on crime, and paralysed over housing, where the interests of different generations net out.
Centrist voters, like a lot of others, are also closer to teachers than governments, at least if they have children of school age – a headache for reforming Ministers of all parties.
They are pro-environment, but in a certain way: our columnist James Frayne has suggested that there is a consensus for improving food safety, animal welfare, protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing the use of plastic.
(Welsh voters are broadly the same; Scottish ones are divided over patriotism and, as the inter-SNP dispute over trans has demonstrated, probably a bit more to the Right on culture, as well as rather more to the Left on economics.)
James himself, whose fortnightly column on this site we call “Far from Notting Hill”, isn’t himself a million miles away from where this centre currently is.
If you wanted to pick out some issues that give the flavour of it, you could do worse than the following: hospital parking charges, pet kidnappings, the proposed Football Superleague, and the decline of high streets (which doesn’t stop those who complain using Amazon).
This ground was getting bigger, like a widening land enclosure, before Brexit; and leaving the EU has allowed it to become even bigger. You can see where all this is going.
Theresa May, under the guidance of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had first dibs at occupying this territory – or, if you distrust the metaphor of ground, winning the support of these voters”: remember “citizens of nowhere”, and all that.
She made a botch of the job, and Boris Johnson had a second go. Do you want to go Left on economics? If so, you’ll welcome his government’s proposed Corporation Tax rises, the record borrowing, the superdeduction for manufacturing, the net zero commitments.
Do you want to go Right on culture? There’s less for you here, given the quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy. Even so, you can rely on Johnson not to “take a knee”, unlike Keir Starmer; to commission the Sewell Report; and to protect statues.
We are over five hundred words into this article, and haven’t yet deployed those two reverberating words: “Red Wall”. But now we have, that the Conservatives hold, say, Burnley, Redcar and West Bromwich East says something about this new centre and who lives in it.
Whatever this week’s local, Mayoral, Scottish and Wesh elections may bring, these voters are Johnson’s to lose – if Starmer can’t grab enough of them: he has done nothing to date to suggest that he can.
With the real middle ground well and truly occupied, consider the three most coherent alternatives to today’s Johnsonian centre party. First, one that begins by being to the right of it on economics.
It would be for a smaller state, free markets, lower taxes and personal freedom. This outlook is likely to drag it to left on culture: for example, it would not be uncomfortable with the present immigration policy, and not always exercised by “woke”.
It members might include: Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Matt Ridley, Steve Baker, Lee Rowley, Sam Bowman, Crispin Blunt and our columnists Ryan Bourne, Emily Carver and Dan Hannan.
We see no reason why it shouldn’t include economically liberal former Remainers other than Truss – such as, talking of this site’s columnists, David Gauke. Or, if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, George Osborne.
Next up, a party that starts by being to the left on culture. This already exists. It’s called the Labour Party. It’s Dawn Butler going on about “racial gatekeepers” and Nadia Whittome refusing to condemn the Bristol rioters.
It’s Angela Rayner claiming that the former husband of the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool was once a banker in the Cayman Islands. (He was a barrister and the head of banking supervision at the islands’ monetary authority.)
It’s Zarah Sultana calling on prisoners to be prioritised for Covid vaccinations, and Labour voting against the Crime and Policing Bill. It’s Starmer himself taking a knee in his office rather than in public – so seeking to placate his party’s left while also hoping no-one else much noticed.
Finally, we turn to a party that begins by being to the right on culture: a successor to the Brexit Party. The Conservatives may be leaving a gap for it here with their new immigration policy.
Which means that it would be likely to pick up more voters outside London and the Greater South-East, which in turn would drag it leftwards on economics.
This is the ground that Nigel Farage occupied, that his Reform UK party is now trying to recover under Richard Tice, and that a mass of others are sniffing around: Reclaim (that bloke from Question Time), the Heritage Party, the SDP (no relation; not really).
In electoral terms, this new Labour Party would be best off junking its efforts in provincial working-class seats altogether, and competing with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for the urban, university-educated and ethnic minority vote. Think Bristol West.
Our new economically liberal party could begin by diving into the blue heartlands from which city workers commute into the capital. Think St Albans.
And the various revamp parties would try to paint the Red Wall purple, where voters may have backed one of the two main ones, but have no love for either of them. Think, say…well, anywhere within it.
We apologise for coming so late to the cause of this article: Matthew Parris’ column in last Saturday’s Times, where he yearned for a “sober, moderate, intelligent and morally reputable centre party”, and asked “where is it”?
He’s right that the Conservatives’ grip on the centre will weaken sooner or later: because another volcanic eruption blows it apart, or it sinks below the sea…or Johnson blows himself up or sinks instead.
But he’s mistaken about what the centre is. Or, more precisely, he identifies it with himself. But many sober, moderate, intelligent and reputable voters backed the Tories in 2019, if only for want of anything else – and still do, it seems.
The real centre isn’t where Matthew or ConservativeHome or anyone else wants it to be. It’s where it is, as cited above. Johnson’s bottom squats on it, and he’s no intention of moving.