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The polls remain deadlocked, but who’s winning the battle of ideas?

Both Labour and the Tories can boast of moving the centre ground in their favour. But it is perhaps Ukip that has had the greatest influence. 

By George Eaton

Elections determine who holds office but they only partly determine who holds power. The struggle for intellectual and political supremacy is waged over decades, not years. Truly successful leaders govern from beyond the grave by forcing their successors to retain their reforms. In recent British history, two prime ministers, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, have achieved this distinction. Both changed the political culture in ways that their opponents, even with triple-figure majorities, were unwilling or unable to reverse. The welfare state and the NHS established by Attlee survived successive Conservative prime ministers; not one of Thatcher’s privatisations was overturned by Labour. Asked at a dinner in Hampshire in 2002 what she considered to be her greatest achievement, the former Tory PM replied: “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”

The challenge for today’s leaders is to similarly move the “Overton window” – the term used by political theorists to describe the range of policies that are acceptable to the public. Even before a vote has been cast, the winners and the losers in this task have been determined by the contents of the parties’ manifestos; the ideas included and those discarded.

In his statement on the day of Thatcher’s death in April 2013, Ed Miliband praised her for moving “the centre ground of British politics”. Like her, the Labour leader has argued that his party must seek not merely to hold power but to make its values and its ideas the “common sense of our age”.

There are, however, unambiguous limits to his ambition. Miliband has no interest in the reversal of Thatcher’s privatisations, the restoration of capital controls or a return to 1970s-style taxation. The ideas that were most discredited by Labour’s 18 years in opposition – such as unilateral nuclear disarmament, mass nationalisation and the repeal of the anti-trade union laws – have not been revived.

But Miliband can still claim credit for moving the centre leftwards since 2010. Measures such as a 50p tax rate and a mansion tax are no longer viewed as radical. The Labour leader’s emphasis on living standards has encouraged the Tories not to merely retain but to increase the minimum wage. It is doubtful that the coalition government would have banned exclusive zero-hours contracts or capped payday loan charges without his interventions on these subjects. The political consensus around the NHS is similarly a mark of the left’s success. No prominent Conservative dares to challenge the principle of a free health service and David Cameron has been forced to promise £8bn more in funding (albeit without saying where the money would come from). 

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“In opposition, you move to the centre,” George Osborne is fond of remarking. “In government, you move the centre.” Despite the concessions described above, the Chancellor can declare victory on several fronts. That Labour’s manifesto opened with a page devoted to fiscal responsibility was a tribute to his relentless focus on the deficit. To appease the austerians, the opposition has pledged to reduce borrowing every year and to eliminate the current deficit by the end of the next parliament. Labour’s fiscal rules grant it the freedom to borrow for investment but Miliband, fearful of his party’s profligate reputation, has lacked the confidence to make an explicit case for doing so. Just as New Labour redistributed by stealth (a strategy that Miliband denounced), so it seems that he would invest by stealth.

Osborne has similarly succeeded in redefining the debate over welfare. With the exception of the bedroom tax (which many Tories privately concede was a mistake), Labour has not pledged to reverse any of the Chancellor’s social security cuts. It has promised to retain the £26,000 household benefit cap, the limit on total welfare spending and the means-testing of child benefit.

The party that has moved the Overton window the furthest, however, is Ukip. Without the rise of the Farageists, it is doubtful that Cameron would have promised an in/out EU referendum. Should the Conservative Party return to opposition, it would no longer be surprising if its new leader simply advocated withdrawal. Against the expectations of Nigel Farage, Miliband did not match the Tories’ referendum promise. Yet the Eurosceptic zeitgeist has forced him to promise a vote if any further powers are transferred (an event that he believes is unlikely). Labour has been inhibited from arguing for the “ever closer union”, without which many believe social democracy can be no longer be achieved at the national level.

Ukip is not the only cause of the shift rightwards in the immigration debate but it is one of the most important. All three of the main parties are now committed to imposing strict limits on migrants’ right to claim benefits (Nick Clegg has said he has “no problem” with the Tories’ proposed four-year waiting period) and to reducing the number of low-skilled arrivals. None dares to consider the amnesty for illegal immigrants proposed by the Lib Dems in 2010. Ideas such as introducing quotas for EU migrants and expelling foreign graduates were ultimately rejected by the Tories but that they have entered mainstream debate is change enough.

Just as no leader will be able to claim arithmetical victory after the election, no leader will be able to claim intellectual victory. The state is advancing in some areas as it retreats in others. Should this new era of hung politics endure, the UK may never again be led by figures in the mould of Attlee and Thatcher, those who enact a pure union of policy and philosophy. The true test for the next government will not be whether it retains office but whether it forces its opponents to change.

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
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