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.


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Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.