One of the topics I endlessly seem to rattle on about (the culture war, identity politics, election strategy, political history) is what I think of as the real centre ground. Since the 1990s and ‘the end of history’, as declared by politico Francis Fukuyama, it has been a commonly accepted political rule that the centre ground of British politics (and in many ways American politics too) is liberal on the economy and liberal on society. In other words: centre-right on the economy, centre-left on society.
For those of you who challenge this notion with New Labour’s interventionist approach to public services I remind you that in 1997 New Labour committed to Conservative levels of government spending, they promised spending cuts in 2010, they were major proponents of market-based globalisation, they didn’t repeal trade union legislation and further blurred the line between private and public sector with PFIs. But from the 1990s onwards, the trend in society has been a liberal one with huge gains made with regards to equality of minorities – particularly amongst LGBT+ people – and a consensus amongst the vast majority of voters who share the view that we are all equal, racism and discrimination is bad, women should be paid as much as men and should be allowed to have a career beyond the kitchen.
Recently in British politics, a change has been afoot. Since the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent political drama of the last decade, the electorate’s desires have become clear. The view that centre right economics and centre left society is the centre ground was born, not out of a desire to appeal to a centre ground but, because ‘the end of history’ moment dictated that this was an inevitable direction of travel.
In fact, the real centre ground is the total opposite of the one that has become so commonly accepted; the denial of the real centre ground for an imagined one born out of liberal dogma is what has now led to the uprising of the silent majority and is a major factor in the breakdown of British (and western) democracy. Brexit, the 2019 general election, Jeremy Corbyn, the rise of UKIP are all examples of this rising silent majority who reject the imagined centre ground and have turned to the political extremes in rejection of this status quo.
So where is the centre ground?
First, the British electorate is broadly centre-left on economic issues. This means that overall the electorate is sympathetic to a greater degree of government intervention in the economy, the existence of a welfare state – including the NHS – and also government investment in public services and infrastructure. Regularly, polls show a palpable level of support for ideas like nationalisation of the railway and a real living wage. Second, the British electorate is broadly centre-right on issues of security and society. As a result, the electorate is moderately conservative on social issues such as the role of family and identity, they desire stricter laws on immigration and they demand an anti-progressive form of foreign policy that prioritises defence and intelligence over international aid and humanitarian projects. This means that for the last twenty or so years of supposed moderate, fact-based, ‘centrist’ governance in which those claiming to be on the centre – Blair, Brown, Cameron, and May – actually were no more representative of the centre ground in politics than figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage.
Perhaps it is slightly unfair to categorize Theresa May as being from the same political tradition as her more recent predecessors. She certainly did attempt to find the ‘real centre ground’ of the British electorate even if it was only aesthetic. In fact, it is under Boris Johnson where this ‘real centre ground’ has been found. In the 2019 election he advocated a one-nation approach to Conservatism and proposed major investments into the public sphere whilst also putting forward a vision of a country which had more police, a foreign policy which was more focused on defence than aid and even re-introducing policies such as stop-and-search.
The view that the ‘centre ground’ in British politics is centre left on society and centre right on the economy is wrong and public opinion suggests otherwise. Part of the Conservative Party’s electoral success in 2019 is, in a significant way, down to the reconciliation of these two policy platforms. The wider problem is whether Labour, and progressives as a whole, can do the same. So far Labour has struggled to satisfy their metropolitan voters that they must move right on society and maintain a centre left position on the economy. For the Conservatives, moving left on the economy has been a far easier transition than progressives moving right on society. If parties want to win elections, want to appeal to voters, the Third Way conception of the ‘centre ground’ is not the true place to maximise votes. It is only in the ‘real centre ground’ that votes can be maximised, electors can be satisfied and democracy can be allowed to flourish.
Daniel is a political activist and Senior Associate Editor of Liberal Base. His interests are in populism, democratic crisis, western party politics and automation. He tweets @danny_hod and blogs at dannyhodson.com