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Memo to Labour and the Tories: centrism hasn't been replaced - it's just been suspended

Once one party manages to unify pragmatic and more ideological support, the other will be locked out.

Ed Miliband and David Cameron during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, on June 4, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Two-thirds of the way through party conference season (or is it three-quarters now we have a four party system?) and the old political rules seem to be broken. What used to be a race to the centre has been replaced by a determination to stay off it – there lies the politics of compromise. Take Ed Miliband’s speech. In the old politics, it made no sense at all. In the new polar political world, it was brave but made complete sense. It worked in projecting Miliband. The question is whether this new polarity is a temporary or permanent state.
 
The only way the new political strategy makes sense is if both parties play ball. Once one manages to unify pragmatic and more ideological support, the other is locked out. It has become common to castigate Labour for pursuing what looks like a 35 per cent strategy. In fact, both parties are pursuing a 35 per cent strategy. Despite their rock bottom reputation , this leaves some ground to the Liberal Democrats. It is as if we have adopted proportional representation. But we have first-past-the-post so how does this make sense?
 
Marcus Roberts’ excellent analysis of how Labour can win 40 per cent of the vote by combining Labour’s 2010 support with Liberal Democrat refugees, new voters and non-voters, is an essential contribution to discussions about electoral strategy. It is optimistic but plausible – given opposition to the coalition’s brand of austerity. Reading between the lines, two things are notable. The 40 per cent is a ceiling, rather than a floor. And secondly, it is a one-off coalition. The internal tensions are so great – between liberal and reactionary forces – that it is almost certain not to survive a second road test in 2020. Those tensions make it very difficult to hold together even in 2015.
 
So what is making the old political strategy so difficult? Firstly, there is austerity. This induces the politics of choices. It is business or the consumer rather than business and the consumer. It is low taxes or better public services not both. It is those on better or those on worse incomes. The crossovers have gone. Politicians have to decide and where do they turn when such choices have to be made? It is to their core politics and values. Inevitably, this makes them sound more ideological than pragmatic. It amplifies antagonism across political divides. Pragmatism dissolves.
 
The second dynamic at play is party management. For the Conservatives, the UKIP threat is both making MPs and councillors jittery and it is empowering those in the party whose politics are aligned with UKIP. So instead of talking about the economy and living standards they are talking about an EU referendum. In Labour’s case, though he is firmly established as leader now, it took time for Miliband to get to this point. It is easy to forget that just over a week ago there were still rumblings about his leadership. Then there are the trade unions who, despite the party reform debate, do still pay the bills.
 
In other words, for both the Conservatives and Labour there are institutional barriers to pursuing the old political strategy. What this means is that the Liberal Democrats – despite a loss of trust – have a route back. Coalition politics could well be here for the rest of the decade – or more - as a result.
 
Finally, there is fragmentation. We are a far more politically divided nation. Putting together a coherent strategy without internal contradictions is more fraught so it’s safer to go for a smaller share of the vote as your opponents face the same difficulty. To get over 40 per cent, Labour needs a coalition that encompasses those who are anti-immigration and pragmatic about it, those who want low taxes and those who would be happy to see a bigger state, those who are pro and anti-EU, green voters and the cheapest energy at any costs voters, those who want to improve welfare and protect the most vulnerable and those who take a hardline stance on it. And so it goes on.
 
Politics is becoming a fully consumerised market. It’s not one nation at all. It’s a series of mini-tribes each with their consumer demands. These tribes are radicalised through the media and social media bubbles. ‘Give me what I want or I’m walking’ politics.
 
Decent policy-making suffers in this environment – price freezes and a move to a low carbon economy seem like compatible objectives, a married couples’ allowance seems like a good use of £700m. Long-termism suffers too. Cameron will use long-termist rhetoric but what on earth is long-termist about the Help to Buy scheme? It will stoke another housing bubble by shovelling billions of loan support subsidies into the very banks that got us into this mess and suck the state into the provision of mortgages – from which it will probably never be extracted.   
 
What happens in this environment is that parties overreach themselves. They drift towards a more populist politics – enthused with moralism and promising more than it can deliver– to hide the fact that they are politically locked in. Majoritarianism becomes about electoral sweeties. Over time a low trust environment becomes even lower trust as one betrayal follows another.
 
It was Bagehot who described democracy as government by discussion. That’s not the case in this politics of tribes. It is government by sectional interest and goodies. This is hidden by a debate over ‘cost of living’ which is just political cover for electoral bribes regardless of whether they make long-term sense.
 
Some will say it’s always been like that. Just as there is nothing new under the sun, there is a banal truth in this. In reality though, consumer socialism on the left and consumer conservatism on the right miss the really big national challenges that we face: how we spread power and opportunity, how we engage in a rapidly changing world context, our sense of ourselves and what we can be. Instead, politics becomes about the latest replay of whether we should tolerate the niqab, bickering over leaders’ debates in the election, and who can save voters a few pence here and there. It becomes small.
 
In fraught times, political leaders can rise to the challenge or they can shrink into a defensive ball. Merkel’s victory in Germany shows what happens when leaders rise, rather than retreat. She has sucked in the policies of both the SPD and the Greens and spat out the FDP in the process. She has become the embodiment of the new Germany. She marched onto the ground the SPD vacated in the mid-2000s and took credit for their reforms as a consequence.
 
Politics is perplexing in this new polar world. The old centripetal dynamic of British politics hasn’t been replaced. It’s just been temporarily suspended. What can’t be said with any certainty is when the suspension will be lifted. It will take a Merkel-like leader to free themselves of these shackles.  
 
Anthony Painter’s Left without a future? Social justice in anxious times is now available