Few things are more certain to get up Tony Blair's nose than the accusation that he has abandoned Labour's principles. He says it is all nonsense: witness all the money he is pumping into the public services, and the extra help he is giving poor families. However, the results of a new survey by YouGov suggest the Prime Minister should stop complaining. Yes, he is thought to have jettisoned his party's left-wing image. Indeed, the public now place him clearly to the right of Charles Kennedy. But far from being a political weakness, his perceived ideological location is an electoral strength - at least, for the time being.
Earlier this month, YouGov asked people throughout Britain where they placed themselves, and the three main parties' leaders, on a scale from "very left-wing" to "very right-wing". These are the main findings:
- Tony Blair is regarded by slightly more people to be right-of-centre (the view of 36 per cent) than left-of-centre (34 per cent).
- Kennedy, in contrast, is seen by far more people as being left-of-centre (44 per cent) than right-of-centre (10 per cent).
- Although more voters place themselves on the left (41 per cent) rather than the right (31 per cent), the key electoral fact is that a clear majority (58 per cent) regard themselves as moderates, ranging from "slightly left-of-centre" through "centre" to "slightly right-of-centre".
- Blair is placed in or near the centre by no fewer than 69 per cent of the electorate and Kennedy by 62 per cent - but Iain Duncan Smith by only 36 per cent.
- IDS is the only one of the three with a clear ideological profile: 70 per cent regard him as right-of-centre; two-thirds say he is "very" or "fairly" right-wing.
Those figures help to explain why the Conservatives remain in the doldrums, even though voters are increasingly disenchanted with the government. However frustrated parents, patients and commuters feel about the state of schools, hospitals and transport, they are reluctant to turn to an opposition that seems to inhabit a different political planet from theirs.
More detailed analysis of the figures provides a fuller picture of Britain's political landscape. The ideological position of each politician and group of voters is determined by giving each response a number, ranging from minus 100 points for "very left-wing", via 0 for centre, to plus 100 for "very right-wing".
Look first at the party leaders, with IDS, 49 points to the right, furthest from the centre; Kennedy 22 points to the left; and Blair very close to the fulcrum, just three points to the right. The Prime Minister enjoys the priceless asset of being close to the centre of gravity of Britain's floating voters - the one person in three who currently supports no party or who says "my vote depends on what happens between now and the election".
Now look at the supporters of each party. Kennedy enjoys an almost perfect match with Lib Dem voters. They are 23 points to the left, virtually identical to his 22 points. IDS does less well. Despite his attempts to present a compassionate, non-doctrinaire image, he is placed a worrying 16 points to the right of his supporters - and a devastating 52 points adrift of Britain's floating voters.
However, the leader who looks to be most completely at odds with his party's own voters is Blair. The gulf between his location, three points to the right, and that of Labour voters, who place themselves 33 points to the left, is a vast 36 points.
In fact, the news for Blair is not quite as bad as those figures suggest. The Prime Minister turns out to be something of a chameleon. This quality means he is open to criticism - how many politicians would boast that they change colour to match their background? - but it gives him an immense electoral advantage. He has persuaded a variety of people, with a range of different views, each to think that his views are similar to theirs. Among Labour voters who place themselves in the "centre", 71 per cent also think Blair is in the centre. Among those Labour voters who place themselves on the right (and there are more than a million of them), most also regard Blair as right-of-centre. Likewise, Labour supporters who define themselves as "slightly left-of-centre" tend to place Blair there, too.
This pattern breaks down among Labour voters who think of themselves as "very" or "fairly" left-wing. Just one in ten of this group also thinks of Blair in the same way. Almost half of all Labour left-wingers think he is either centre or right-of-centre. This means that around one in seven Labour voters has a real ideological quarrel with the Prime Minister. That is the price Tony Blair is paying for the politics of modernisation.
YouGov's figures show that, for now, he is gaining far more than he is losing from his stance. But tensions remain. How these will be resolved in the long run is one of the more intriguing questions raised by the new geography of left and right.
YouGov polled 1,723 electors throughout Britain online on 11 and 12 October. The raw data was weighted to match the demographic profile of all electors. Peter Kellner is chairman of YouGov