Why should we bother with the centre ground?

Labour needs to remember that a party going to the electorate saying ‘I promise I’ve changed’ risks the electorate simply replying ‘so what?’

Nathan Akehurst
23 July 2015
Jeremy Corbyn

Corbyn's campaign is unsettling Labour's 'modernisers'. Flickr/Jason. Some rights reserved.

‘It might be the moral thing to look after those refugees, but we can’t let them in while we’ve got two million unemployed.’

-         Tim from Pudsey 

Tim, along with Nigel, Dave and Mike hit the headlines in an apocalyptic Guardian story on July 18 warning that ‘Labour’s lost voters may never return.’ The word ‘may’ allows easy doom-mongering – an asteroid may obliterate humankind tomorrow morning, and the assumption of the story is familiar. Apparently the centre ground is a centre-right one and parties must move closer to it in order to win in 2020. It is, of course, a badly-coded attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s shockingly successful leadership campaign.

Most arguments run by the Corbyn defence case (including my own) have gone something like this – ‘voters are turned off by parties that all look the same and, to win, Labour should stake out its own territory and fight a principled campaign.’ The answer to Mike from Croydon’s claim that ‘benefits have become a way of life’ would by this reading involve running a positive campaign based on the overwhelming data disproving the chimera of some feral class of scroungers. The answer to Tim (I hope I’m not the only one reminded of Tim in Ruislip) would involve a combination of human stories of migrants’ plight with debunking the notion of a link between unemployment and immigration.

That’s not what I’m dealing with here. I’m not interested in proving the viability of a left-wing pitch so much as disproving the viability of a centre-ground/centre-right pitch. Some work blending both themes together has already been done by Left Futures and Wings Over Scotland.

Electoral Calculus Graph

This graph, released by Electoral Calculus a few weeks after the General Election, is particularly instructive. With non-voters and first-time voters discounted, it details the shifting plates of party support in 2015, based on 100 representative voters. We can see that Labour has net-gained a voter – in spite of the Scottish wipeout, it increased its share of the vote by 1.5% between 2010 and 2015. Unsurprisingly, the biggest bulk of its new support came from Lib Dem transfers (masked by the fact that rightward-breaking Lib Dems were of far more assistance to the Conservatives in seats like Twickenham or Kingston & Surbiton.)

Therefore any sound electoral strategy means retaining these Lib Dems against a renewed left-Liberal challenge from Tim Farron, and the Greens competing for small l-liberal and small l-left votes. Despite the Lib Dems’ position as a centrist party, Lib Dem spinner Mark Pack reminds us that this is not quite the case. As such, issues like civil liberties, international social justice and EU membership can retain former Lib Dems as much, if not more than fiscal prudence. So can running local machines capable of campaigning seriously for more streetlights and fewer potholes; a strategy ruthlessly exploited by the Lib Dems and adopted by David Miliband in his following of the American community-organising model.

The ‘lost voters’

Then there’s the drift away from Labour. Three out of six of the drifters – yes, half – have gone to anti-austerity parties (the SNP and the Greens.) If half your ‘lost voters’ have chosen an option more left-wing than you, moving rightward suddenly seems a far less credible strategy.

In respect of votes lost to Ukip, an economic rightward shift would not help. Ukip voters who wanted spending cuts could simply have chosen the Tories. Any drift to Ukip will have been based principally on traditional right-wing values or on a general sense of ‘anti-establishmentism’. This genuinely doesn’t take much, I recall an often-cited incident in the Clacton by-election where Tory defector Douglas Carswell was the Ukip candidate, and a voter being interviewed said he was voting Ukip ‘because the Tory MP has done nothing for years.’ As far as the immigration argument goes, Labour engraved ‘controls on immigration’ into an eight-foot headstone and it didn’t help much. Beyond ritually chucking Eastern Europeans into the Channel, there’s really not much more they can do to assuage this type of voter – particularly when opposition to immigration is higher in areas where there are fewer immigrants. The only way to win back former Ukip voters would have to involve offering a clearly opposed pitch rather than a package that accepts many of their assumptions.

Young voters and non-voters

What about those not shown on this graph? They will include 2020’s first-time voters. The current 18-34s decisively vote Labour, SNP and Green. The younger they get, the more pronounced their left-wing habits are. There is no reason to suggest that will change among those that come of age between now and 2020, and equally there is no reason why the current 18-34s will shift their voting habits.

Then there are the non-voters. Much was made of Ukip coming 617 votes away from Labour in the Heywood and Middleton by-election. The headlines masked how that was achieved – the centre-right and far-right vote broke away from the Tories, Lib Dems and BNP to support Ukip, while thousands of Labour voters didn’t bother to turn out. This mirrors the situation in most Labour heartlands, where the Ukip challenge is accentuated principally by apathy.

Even in ultra-marginal seats like Southampton Itchen, turnout hovered at around 62% (compared to highs of 80+% in some of the SNP gains in Scotland.) Something needs to activate these non-voters, and given that they have been sloughing off for fifteen years or so, that something is surely not Blairism or Milibandism.

One might also point to the BME voters who have abandoned Labour. It’s simple to point to ‘bourgeoisfication’ of migrant communities as a factor, but that elides the sheer number of middle- and upper-class BME voters still tied to Labour. What you hear more often in BME-heavy areas is more familiar – ‘they’re all the same/ they don’t represent us.’ This interview with a BME anti-austerity candidate who came second against Labour fits into this theme.

Of course, much of this might break against the peculiarities of First-Past-the-Post. Tim from Pudsey might not be Joe the Plumber to Britain, but he may be more of a bellweather in Pudsey. Any campaign hoping to win a swing seat will have to engage in several years of very targeted campaigning (no, bussing up a hundred volunteers two weeks before the election doesn’t count, sorry). There would need to be an extended process of building campaigns and having conversations to stitch together a winning group of voters and in most places an insurgent campaign is at least nominally capable of doing that even without winning many of the incumbent’s supporters over. But a party cannot speak to Pudsey and pretend it is speaking to the length and breadth of Britain, or its message will be as confused in Pudsey as it is in the nation. It’s also worth remembering the scale of cheers Jeremy Corbyn got in the studio audience when the BBC held their Labour leadership debate in ultra-marginal Nuneaton.

This is not for a moment to say that there should not be serious thought by anyone in power about how to win over former Conservative voters. It is to say, however, that somewhere a calculation has to be made that admits at least one tranche of people are probably going to be lost. There seems no reason why losing a tranche of soft Tories would be more or less damaging. 

The use of ‘may’ in the Guardian story should be highlighted again; everyone talking about 2020 is gazing into crystal balls to an extent. Anything could happen. Pudsey may spontaneously implode. A renewed Tory Party under Theresa May may decide to declare martial law in Southampton Itchen. The SNP may annex Cumbria. So this analysis is not a road map to 2020. It is a reminder that snake-oil salesmen are everywhere, and those who argue that a centre-right strategy is the only credible one are among them. It is, however, a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the alternative is not defined sharply and soon, then of course the prevailing view will remain unchallenged.

Answering the oldest question in politics

It is also instructive to remember that Labour have had some agenda-setting power. Even while being a relatively ineffective and febrile opposition, they managed to hog the debate on phone-hacking, force the Tories to make increasingly back-of-a-fag-packet NHS spending commitments and on pushing Ukip into opposing the bedroom tax! Labour’s general weaknesses cloud the fact that on left-populist issues pushed with iron messaging discipline, they have come out strongly. There is no reason to suspect that the ‘centre’ pitch could be made in a similarly persuasive way – chiefly because it is a vindication rather than an argument. A party going to the electorate saying ‘I promise I’ve changed’ risks the electorate simply replying ‘so what?’

Therein lies the problem. The danger of Tim from Pudsey is that he leads us to a wrongheaded strategy of homeopathy politics – injecting ourselves with a weakened version of whatever the opposing discourse is in the hope that it will act as some sort of debased vaccine against the opposition. In the process, we have nothing to say to those who ask the oldest question in politics – ‘why should I bother voting for you?’

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