Peter Mandelson weighed into a long-standing debate on Monday. Photo: Getty
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Have we become more left-wing?

Where is the centre ground in British politics? A recent comment from Peter Mandelson, a once powerful and still perennial political figure, has sparked another round of answers to this eternal question.

Yesterday Peter Mandelson suggested the Labour Party are tacking too far to the left under Ed Miliband.

They must “not simply keep driving an agenda of our own regardless of the electorate’s views”, he declared. The electorate has not “moved to the left”, as Ed Miliband’s team have been credited with thinking.

A long-time Labour lieutenant, Mandelson was a minor secretary of state but central consigliere under Tony Blair in the 1990s. After a stint as European Commissioner in the mid-2000s following one scandal too many, he returned to frontline politics before the last election as once-nemesis Gordon Brown’s First Secretary of State and supposed saviour.

He has effectively been involved in every general election since 1987. If any political operative has a sense of the political centre, Mandelson may.

But, unsatisfied by his employment history, some noted bloggers today called for Mandelson to substantiate his claims. As one put it, “If winning the centre ground is so important I assume Mr Mandelson can measure it.....or locate it.....or identify it?”

He may not be able to, but recent research provides some insight into the issue – and dates back all the way to the 1950s.

The data substantiates the notion of a great ideological divide throughout the 1980s, as Margaret Thatcher took the Tory party away from something of a post-war consensus. 

Equally, the Labour Party remained far to the left of the electorate until 1997, when Tony Blair – and Mandelson – dragged the party towards the centre.

The chart also shows that we as voters move, albeit less than parties. In 1950 the electorate were more left-wing than in the late 1970s, when a decade of disruption allowed Thatcher to rise to power. By 1997 voters had swung back to the left as they soured on the right after nearly two decades of Conservative rule.

The academics behind this data go so far as to suggest the electorate move in precisely the opposite direction to the government. In other words, we begin to move away from the party we elected as soon as they start to do the things we elected them to do.

To return to Mandelson’s contention, there is some indication this has happened under the coalition. The electorate does appear to have moved slightly to the left.

This data shows that is exactly what we should expect. Politics – or at least the political mood – does appear to move in cycles.

 

[1] Party positions are calculated using their election manifestos. The electorate’s stance is determined from responses to a series of questions on issues such as taxes, unemployment, inequality and Europe.

 

This is a preview of May2015.com, an affiliated site launching later this year. You can find us on Twitter.

 

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories