Peter Mandelson delivers a speech at the Policy Network conference held in the Science Museum last week. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The centre ground isn't where Peter Mandelson thinks it is

The claim that Labour has moved too far to the left is based on a misreading of public opinion. 

There has been no more vociferous critic of Labour's direction in recent years than Peter Mandelson. In an interview in the new issue of Progress, he repeats a familiar charge against Ed Miliband (albeit without mentioning him by name): that he has vacated the centre ground in pursuit of an imaginary left-wing majority. 

Those who don’t give their political loyalty automatically to left or right – whose votes, therefore, are up for grabs – are a greater segment of the electorate now than they were when New Labour was being created in the 1990s. Therefore, it is even more important now to win the centre-ground to win electoral victory. Just as it is essential still to win on leadership and the economy, and to demonstrate that we are a party of conscience and reform that will talk to people’s values and concerns, not simply keep driving an agenda of our own regardless of the electorate’s views. That is why I get frustrated sometimes when people argue now that the country has moved to the left, therefore if we are more unambiguously leftwing and raise our ideological vigour, we are more likely to win the next election. 

For "people", read Miliband and his supporters. 

It is an echo of the point made by Tony Blair in his article for the centenary edition of the New Statesman last year, in which he wrote: "The paradox of the financial crisis is that, despite being widely held to have been caused by under-regulated markets, it has not brought a decisive shift to the left. But what might happen is that the left believes such a shift has occurred and behaves accordingly." Blair is likely to repeat this warning when he delivers the Philip Gould Lecture on 21 July to mark the 20th anniversary of his election as Labour leader. 

For the former PM and Mandelson, remaining in the centre ground means, among other things, refusing to support higher taxes on the rich, avoiding policies that could be attacked as "anti-business" and advocating increased use of the private sector in public services. Labour's leftwards trajectory is, they argue, one of the main reasons why it may struggle to win next year. 

The party has certainly moved to the left under Miliband, but it is wrong to suggest that it is now further from the centre. As I’ve noted before, if the Labour leader is a "socialist", so are most of the public. Around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a compulsory living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities (actually putting them well to the left of Labour leader). 

The insight that defines Miliband's project is less that the centre has moved leftwards since the financial crisis, but that it was further to the left to begin with. It was New Labour's failure to accurately reflect public opinion that led to the loss of five million votes between 1997 and 2010. Too often, for Blair and Mandelson (as for others), the "centre ground" simply means "policies that I support". 

While voters continue to lean right on issues such as immigration, the deficit and welfare, Labour's stances have reflected this. It has pledged to reduce low-skilled migration (and apologised for refusing to impose transitional controls) and has promised to eliminate the current deficit by the end of the next parliament. The only welfare cut that it has committed to reversing is the unpopular "bedroom tax". 

Labour needs to do more to improve its credibility as a government-in-waiting, to win back economic trust, and to attract voters with a vision of national renewal. But the suggestion that this can only be achieved on a Blairite policy platform remains devoid of evidence. 

 

See more:

Have we become more left-wing? (8 July 2014)

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

0800 7318496