Cameron is right: the common ground is not the centre ground

Outside the Westminster wrestling ring and town hall terrains, there is no left-wing or right-wing.

There’s been no shortage of opinion on how David Cameron should lead and direct the Conservative Party over the last few days. And even less scarce are the various calls for turning and lurching that would resemble a new disco dance routine were he to take heed. However Cameron's public response has been to stay firmly on message. Amongst all these cliches, I can’t help wondering if I am alone in thinking: 'I agree with Dave?'

In his Sunday Telegraph article, Cameron maintained that what he cares about are the needs of the "ordinary people". He also rightly acknowledged that the common ground is not the same as the lowest common denominator. This may point to both a savviness about the current public mood and a deeper astuteness of leadership that rises above the demands from his party grassroots.

Before I go on, I just want to make it clear, I’m not a natural Cameroon by any means. My impression of Cameron during the 2010 election was accurately represented by the election advert spoofs of him intensely gazing outwards from the sky blue backdrop with the caption "Vote Conservative. Or I will kill this kitten." In other words, I found the - similarly intense - promise of a new brand of progressive Conservatism slightly nauseating, if not altogether spurious.

However, as with any reality TV gameshow, which politics unfortunately often resembles, the true test of determination is one which withstands time in the hot seat – something David Cameron must know much about. And actually, political manoeuvring is, by definition, anything other than staying on course.

Last week, the Daily Telegraph ran an editorial with the standfirst, "A new path to prosperity is the only means by which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor can return the Tories to favour". That is just the type of shortsighted viewpoint which leads to complacency in the better times and crisis in the worse. A healthier economy might dampen the volume, but it won’t erase memories of expenses scandals, various cases of "inappropriate" conduct, or one-off events such as "plebgate" and "pastygate".

But what do the public want? Well for starters, 'the public' are disillusioned with politics and distrusting of politicians. According to Lord Ashcroft, three quarters of those who supported UKIP in Eastleigh said their vote was a protest vote out of discontent with the main parties. They (and why do political commentators always refer to the public as a separate body? More like we) have ideals of fairness that correlate with perceptions of recognition, responsibility, but also responsiveness – of a system that will be on our side no matter which side we are on, and that will safeguard our opportunities in times of plenty and in times of misfortune. It might all sound a bit Rawlsian but actually this as simple as it gets for the 'ordinary' voter (or eligible-but-can’t-be-bothered-non-voter) who only engages with politics once every four years.

So the common ground isn’t the middle ground, although the terms are often used interchangeably, something I have been guilty of in the past. It is not about the "bell curve of voters in the middle" as Bernard Jenkins put it. Indeed, it is about disrupting the status quo of adversarial politics for one which requires deeper thought and questioning of mainstream assumptions. It is recognising that my ordinary isn’t your ordinary, but respecting that there are ways of making policy which can recognise and respect both. And actually, this doesn’t have to be confrontational. It could be consensual. I’m not saying that we have absolutely no need for the more conventional political jostling at appropriate points in the legislative and scrutiny process. But the current culture of politics prioritises this over all other types of dialogue. Politicians do not always need to be carved from the same mould just because the media thrive best on stories about rebels and ridicule.

Outside the Westminster wrestling ring and town hall terrains, there is no left-wing or right-wing – on this also I agree with Dave. If Ed Miliband stole the Conservatives’ clothes when quoting Disraeli’s "one nation" back in the autumn, perhaps Cameron deliberately took a swipe back by referencing the common ground. Whilst he linked the phrase to Keith Joseph (probably as an olive branch to the dedicated readers of the Torygraph) it is also resonant of the "common good" attributed to Michael Sandel, one of the more recently proclaimed gurus of the Labour Party. This narrative promotes a moral argument for a political and economic vision which transcends party politics and draws instead on values, shared responsibility and civic engagement. A coincidence or something more from the man whose mind is set on opening the doors of a party once seen as restricted to the fox hunting, land-owning elite?

It is types not unlike these calling for the shotguns now. So, will Cameron really be fending off a leadership challenge in the next few months? I think not. Realistically no one other than him could respectably lead the Conservatives through the 2015 election. Abandoning his carefully crafted principles around international aid or the NHS would make him a laughing stock, rather than a conviction politician. And I also don’t begrudge him having a long-term vision. But perhaps this long term vision isn’t just about jobs, education and house building. Perhaps it is in recognition of the fact that politics itself might be changing.

Caroline Macfarland is managing director of ResPublica

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street on February 27, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Macfarland is manging director of ResPublica

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change