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8 July 2014updated 23 Jul 2021 6:10am

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.

By Harry Lambert

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?”

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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. 

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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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