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.

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 What used to be a race to the centre has been replaced by a determination to stay off it – there lies the politics of compromise.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

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.

Anthony Painter is a political writer, commentator and researcher. His new book Left Without A Future? is published by Arcadia Books in November.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.