The battle for the centre - and the 2015 election

Last week, we received a large postbag from readers objecting to <a href="http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/09/miliband-isnt-chasing-power-rather-h... Hodges’s magazine column on “centre-ground” politics</a>. Here he

Whoever controls the political centre will win the 2015 general election. Or at least that’s the view from the first-floor flat of 10 Downing Street.

David Cameron’s strategists came away from the recent Conservative party conference in Manchester with the sense of a job well done. Those I spoke to were frustrated that some of their work had been overshadowed by the uproar over the Daily Mail’s attack on Ralph Miliband. They acknowledged that Ed Miliband’s announcement he would freeze energy prices had resonated with the public. Yet they also believed Labour had made a crucial strategic error.

“The idea that Labour is marching off to the left has been embedded,” a Tory strategist told me. “Before [the conference season], our dilemma was whether we painted Ed Miliband as a joke or as someone who was dangerous. We’re now confident we can do both.”

Before the Tory tribe arrived in Manchester, there were debates about whether Labour’s so-called core vote strategy (the belief that the party can win the next general election with no more than 35 per cent of the vote) should be matched by one of its own. There were attractions. It could help neutralise the threat posed by the UK Independence Party and reassure activists unsettled by the gay marriage controversy and by Nick Clegg’s provocative flourishing of a list of Conservative policies he had successfully vetoed.

In the end, the lurch to the right that some had been predicting did not happen. “We’ve got our strategy and we’re sticking to it,” a Downing Street source told me. That strategy is clear. For the first time since Tony Blair won a landslide victory in 1997, the Conservatives believe that the middle ground of politics is theirs for the taking. The challenge for them is how to occupy it.

In the aftermath of Cameron’s conference speech, I asked one his advisers why, if the centre ground was so important to the Prime Minister, he hadn’t just stood up and said: “We are the party of the centre now.” The public reason given was a tactical one. “Our strategy is show, don’t tell. Look at Ed Miliband’s speech. It was all about what a strong and decisive leader he was. Well, if you really are strong and decisive, you don’t need to shout about it.”

There are other reasons why the Tories are edging, rather than marching, towards the political centre. First, they are not entirely sure where the centre is. They know, for example, that cuts to welfare help reinforce their reputation as the “nasty party”. Yet they are equally aware that their policies on welfare are popular in the country.

Similarly, they recognise that a tough stance on immigration is vital for bringing back the Ukip defectors. But they are also aware that if they cannot make inroads into the BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) vote, their chances of winning a majority in 2015 rapidly diminish.

That’s why a number of senior Downing Street aides are now keen to stress the importance of the “common ground” rather than the “centre ground”. That means giving guarantees on areas such as NHS funding and then balancing this with tough measures, such as the so-called bedroom tax, which place them firmly on the right.

Another problem is that, after three and a half years of coalition, the Conservative Party is not in a consensual mood. Cameron is stuck between reassuring his party that he will govern as a true blue as soon as the Lib Dem shackles are broken and reassuring the country that a vote for the Conservatives does not mean a vote for a full-on neo-Thatcherite renaissance.

Whatever dilemmas Labour’s abandonment of the political centre pose for the Prime Minister, they’re as nothing compared to the concerns being shared among some of Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet.

There is relief among Labour’s inner circle that Labour’s position in the polls stabilised in the conference season. However, there is also unease at the way Miliband remains wedded to the so-called 35 per cent strategy. So much so, that over the coming weeks, we can expect to start hearing talk of a “40 per cent strategy”.

This may appear to be dancing on a psephological pinhead. Yet those advocating it say that ignores its significance. “If you’re aiming for 35 per cent of the vote, you can play safe,” I was told. “You take the base, bolt on some Lib Dems, some first-time voters, some nonvoters and you’re basically home and dry. If you set your sights at 40 per cent, then you can’t get there without starting to reach out to soft Tory voters. And that, in turn, means getting into some serious, grown-up politics.”

Whether Miliband wants to engage in that sort of grown-up politics is unclear. There was concern – and not just from the New Labour wing of the party – at the purge of the Blairites in the shadow cabinet reshuffle on 7 October. There was a sense that the Blairites were being airbrushed out of the picture, as if they were now an embarrassment to the party.

There is a consensus among those in the shadow cabinet untouched by Miliband’s long knives that Labour’s perceived shift to the left has reached the limit of its elasticity. There surely must be what has been called a “recalibration” towards the centre and tough policy changes in areas such as welfare and education are going to have to be addressed.

Some NS readers might not like it but David Cameron is eyeing up the political centre. He is growing increasingly confident that a recovering economy, as well as doubts about Ed Miliband’s overall strategy, will enable him to claim it as his own.

 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband fighting for control of the centre ground. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

Getty
Show Hide image

The Tory-DUP deal has left Scotland and Wales seething

It is quite something to threaten the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act.

Politics in the UK is rarely quite this crude, or this blatant. The deal agreed between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has – finally – been delivered. But both the deal and much of the opposition to it come with barely even the pretence of principled behaviour.

The Conservatives are looking to shore up their parliamentary and broader political position after a nightmare month. The DUP deal gives the Tories some parliamentary security, and some political breathing space. It is not yet clear what they as a party will do with this – whether, for instance, there will be an attempt to seek new leadership for the party now that the immediate parliamentary position has been secured.

But while some stability has been achieved, the deal does not provide the Tories with much additional strength. Indeed, the DUP deal emphasises their weakness. To finalise the agreement the government has had to throw money at Northern Ireland and align with a deeply socially conservative political force. At a stroke, the last of what remained of the entire Cameron project – the Conservative’s rebuilt reputation as the better party for the economy and fiscal stability, and their development as a much more socially inclusive and liberal party – has been thrown overboard.

Read more: Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

For the DUP, the reasoning behind the deal is as obvious as it is for the Conservatives. The DUP has maximised the leverage that the parliamentary arithmetic gives it. As a socially conservative and unionist party, it has absolutely no wish to see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. But it has kept the Conservatives waiting, and used the current position to get as good a deal as possible. Why should we expect it to do anything else? Still, it is hardly seemly for votes to be bought quite so blatantly.

The politics behind much of the criticism of the deal has been equally obvious. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones – representing not only the Labour party, but also a nation whose relative needs are at least as great as those of the six counties – abandoned his normally restrained tone to describe the deal as a "bung" for Northern Ireland. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was also sharply critical of the deal’s lack of concern for financial fairness across the UK. In doing so, she rather blithely ignored the fact that the Barnett Formula, out of which Scotland has long done rather well, never had much to do with fairness anyway. But we could hardly expect the Scottish National Party First Minister to do anything but criticise both the Conservatives and the current functioning of the UK.

Beyond the depressingly predictable short-term politics, the long-term consequences of the Tory-DUP deal are much less foreseeable. It is quite something to threaten the integrity of the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act. Perhaps everything will work out OK. But it is concerning that, for the current government, short-term political survival appears all-important, even at potential cost to the long-term stability and integrity of the state.

But one thing is clear. The political unity of the UK is breaking down. British party politics is in retreat, possibly even existential decay. This not to say that political parties as a whole are in decline. But the political ties that bind across the UK are.

The DUP deal comes after the second general election in a row where four different parties have come first in the four nations of the UK, something which had never happened before 2015. But perhaps even more significantly, the 2017 election was one where the campaigns across the four nations were perhaps less connected than ever before.

Of course, Northern Ireland’s party and electoral politics have long been largely separate from those on the mainland. But Ulster Unionist MPs long took the Tory whip at Westminster. Even after that practice ceased in the 1970s, some vestigial links between the parties remained, while there were also loose ties between the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Labour. But in 2017, both these Northern Irish parties had their last Commons representation eliminated.

In Scotland, 2017 saw the SNP lose some ground; the main unionist parties are, it seems, back in the game. But even to stage their partial comeback, the unionist parties had to fight – albeit with some success – on the SNP’s turf, focusing the general election campaign in Scotland heavily around the issue of a potential second independence referendum.

Even in Wales, Labour’s 26th successive general election victory was achieved in a very different way to the previous 25. The party campaigned almost exclusively as Welsh Labour. The main face and voice of the campaign was Carwyn Jones, with Jeremy Corbyn almost invisible in official campaign materials. Immediately post-election, Conservatives responded to their failure by calling for the creation of a clear Welsh Conservative leader.

Read more: Did Carwyn Jones win Wales for Labour  - or Jeremy Corbyn?

Yet these four increasingly separate political arenas still exist within one state. The UK was always an odd entity: what James Mitchell astutely termed a "state of unions", with the minority nations grafted on in distinct and even contradictory ways to the English core. The politics of the four nations are drifting apart, yet circumstances will still sometimes mean that they have to intersect. In the current instance, the parliamentary arithmetic means the Tories having to work with a party that celebrates a form of "Britishness" viewed increasingly with baffled incomprehension, if not outright revulsion, by the majority of Conservatives, even, on the British mainland. In turn, the Tories and other parties, as well as the news-media, are having to deal with sudden relevance of a party whose concerns and traditions they understand very little of.

Expect more of this incomprehension, not less, in the post-2017 general election world. 

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

0800 7318496