30 December 2016

Whatever happened to the centre ground?


Over the Christmas week, CapX is republishing its favourite pieces from the past year. You can find the full list here.  

The golden rule of British politics is that elections are won on the centre ground. Even in today’s fractured age, if you ask voters to position themselves on the political spectrum, 45 per cent would put themselves bang in the centre. The further you move to the left or right, the fewer voters you find.

But if the political centre is such a popular place to be, why is it – in the words of a new report from the Social Market Foundation – so “barren”? Labour is in the hands of the Corbynites. The Cameroons are in disarray. The Lib Dems are in fragments. Looking at the three eminent centrists representing their parties at the report’s launch – Chuka Umunna, Nicky Morgan and Nick Clegg – I was reminded of David Cameron’s rueful parting shot in Parliament: these were the future, once.

So what happened to the centre ground – at least the version of it understood by, and prized by, Tony Blair, David Cameron and so many others? The SMF report, based on polling carried out by Opinium Research, attempted to find the answers. And they made uncomfortable reading for socialists and capitalists alike.

The first thing that became apparent once the researchers started talking to voters was that the labels “left-wing” and “right-wing” don’t really work any more.

Yes, they’re useful in gauging people’s views of themselves, and of politicians: for example, the fact that people see Jeremy Corbyn as further to the Left than Nigel Farage is to the Right is a pretty good indication that they’re not going to vote for him.


But when it comes to understanding what voters actually want, the left-right spectrum is much less useful. The fact that people tend to put themselves in the political centre doesn’t mean they’re neutral on every issue. It means they hold a stew of conflicting and sometimes violently held opinions, many of which cut across party lines.

It’s often been said, for example, that the public support re-nationalising the railways. Well, yes. And raising income taxes on higher earners, and ending zero-hours contracts. But they also support forcing welfare recipients into work, slashing immigration and introducing a British Bill of Rights. You could probably find quite a few people who like the idea of all six.


So how do we work out where the centre ground lies? Opinium’s approach was to poll people on their attitudes – what they thought about various policy issues, how they felt about Britain and its future.

The result, they found, was that the country broke down into eight separate “tribes”. The “Our Britain” grouping, for example, was “anti-immigration, thinks government should put Brits first at all costs, broadly isolationist in outlook”.


This tribe may think of themselves as more on the centre than on the right (52 per cent to 33 per cent) – but they were by far the heaviest supporters of Leave, and of UKIP. At the other end of the spectrum were the Democratic Socialists: pro-immigration, pro-welfare state, pro-redistribution and, of course, pro-Remain.

Using this framework, it becomes pretty obvious why Leave won the EU referendum – and why the Tories are in government.

By far the largest of the eight tribes are “Our Britain” and “Common Sense” – the latter share most of the former’s beliefs, but are a lot less vehement about them, as well as being a bit posher, more Southern and rather keener on lower taxes.

These are the only two tribes who voted to Leave – but since they make up 50 per cent of the population, their votes were crucial.

And critically for the Brexit negotiations, these are people who care much more about controlling immigration than questions of trade and tariffs: strikingly, remaining part of the single market after Brexit was the policy that both groups most strongly opposed.

The size of these tribes also helps to explain the state of the electoral map. Many of the “Our Britain” brigade have defected electorally from the Tories to UKIP. But the “Common Sense” brigade are natural Tories.

From that base, David Cameron was able to extend the Tories’ appeal to win over the “Free Liberals” (pro-market, pro-business, anti-welfare state, personally optimistic), “New Britain” (capitalist, pro-immigration, internationalist, compassionate) and “Swing Voter” (internationalist, low-tax, anti-benefits) camps. Theresa May’s version of that coalition may differ in the specifics, but not in the essentials.

If you’re a Labour leader of the Ed Miliband variety, by contrast, the picture looks a lot worse: even with the best campaign in the world, you’ve got a ceiling on people who share your world view of roughly 30 per cent.

And if you’re Jeremy Corbyn, you’re absolutely sunk. Only 15 per cent of “Progressive” voters – well-meaning, left-leaning professionals – prefer the Tories to Labour as a party. But far more of them prefer Theresa May as prime minister. Even the “Community” voters (Northern working-class types) who sit next to his “Democratic Socialists” only support him grudgingly, resenting among other things his fondness for immigration.

Indeed, listening to Chuka Umunna at yesterday’s launch, I became convinced that however bad Labour thinks its situation is, it’s actually worse. For the version of Labour that he and other centrists would like to (somehow) drag the party back to, a sort of updated version of the Blair/Brown model, is almost as electorally doomed as Corbyn’s.

That is because the faultline this report reveals is not between left and right, but closed and open – between an isolationist Britain and an internationalist one. On that score, the Camerons and Umunnas and Blairs are in one camp, but the population is in another.

When spelling out how to save Labour, for example, Umunna spoke of the need to “find a position on immigration that brings everyone together” – and to introduce proportional representation. Where are the votes in that? Labour is so busy congratulating itself for having shifted its position on immigration away from uncritical acceptance that it has yet to realise that its position and its rhetoric are still a million miles away from where the voters are.

In fact, the raw electoral arithmetic suggests that the next Labour leader who wins over enough of these tribes to become prime minister is likely to look a great deal closer to Nigel Farage than Tony Blair – not a Corbynite socialist, but a populist who is sceptical of big business and immigration alike, and who can pull enough of those “Our Britain” voters into his camp. (When I suggested this to Umunna in the Q&A session, he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about the idea.)

If you are a fan of the free market, this surely ought to be good news: Labour is drifting into irrelevance, and the Tories set fair for power.

Yet as mentioned above, there is reason for capitalists to be cautious, too.

Britain appears to have a built-in Conservative majority. But the voters that relies on are largely conservative with a small-c, too. They may favour low taxes. But they don’t necessarily a favour a small state, or free markets, or bracing Schumpeterian competition. In fact, they’re quite happy for the state to intervene to stop it – especially if the alternative is putting up with yet more immigration, or more bloody delays on the trains.

In other words, free-marketeers can’t just assume that people will accept their ideas and proposals as self-evidently a good thing – they have to show how they will directly benefit those tribes of voters that constitute the new centre ground. Otherwise they’ll find themselves in the same position as all those politicians who assumed that they stood firmly on the centre ground – only to find that it had shifted under their feet.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX. This article was originally published in September 2016.