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

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage