Antifrank asks who will appeal best to centrist voters?
The centre ground of politics used to be very crowded. And with good reason. Roughly half the electorate sit in the middle stratum of electoral geology. In a YouGov poll taken just after the election, 13% described themselves as slightly left of centre, 19% described themselves as centre, 14% described themselves as slightly right of centre and a further 23% didn’t know where to place themselves (presumably they would regard themselves as having mixed left and right views). Elections will continue to be won and lost among these voters. Either they will be met on their ground or they will be persuaded to move onto different ground.
YouGov regularly asks the public to place parties on a left-right spectrum. The results up to July last year are shown in the graphic above.
The public in aggregate, incidentally, see themselves as pretty much in the dead centre. Up to now, the public in aggregate haven’t regarded the Labour party as being as leftwing as they have seen the Conservatives as being rightwing.
The empty centre
7 May 2015 has left the centre ground looking like a wasteland. The Lib Dems were reduced from 57 to 8 MPs, with relatively few seats even looking like plausible targets for 2020. The Conservatives long ago ditched the green crap. And despite Ed Miliband having aimed to engineer a move in the political centre ground towards the left, the reaction of the Labour party membership in the Labour leadership campaign has been to canter further leftwards in pursuit of a real alternative to austerity. For a group of voters who are supposedly assiduously and obsessively courted, centrist voters are lacking obvious representation right now, particularly those on the centre left.
In the post-election opinion poll referred to above, 31% of the public thought that Labour was slightly left of centre or centre (exactly the same percentage that thought Labour was fairly leftwing or very leftwing), but 44% of the public thought that Labour should aim to be slightly left of centre or centre. Among those who expressed an opinion, by a margin of nearly 2:1, the public thought that the next Labour leader should try to take the Labour party towards the centre politically rather than take it towards the left (more recent polling has been more equivocal on this last point, however). There is nothing obvious in any of the polling that suggests that the public wants Labour to turn to the left. Labour party members seem to believe that they know better.
That said, winning over these voters is not as simple as just plonking yourself as closely as possible to them. At the last election the Conservatives gathered a greater share of the vote than it had managed since 1992, yet they were the furthest distant from the average member of the public of Labour, the Lib Dems and themselves. The voters take many things into account other than how much they identify with policy.
This may sound like good news for a Labour party that is exiting stage left. It is not. In May, those other things led to the voters decisively preferring the Conservatives despite their greater ideological distance from the public in aggregate. That decisive preference in favour of the Conservatives will get still stronger, all other things being equal, if Labour withdraw further from the bulk of the voters.
This time around, the other relevant considerations may well have included the quality of the main party leaders, economic credibility and the wish to have a stable government. We may also have seen some voters deciding to stick with known quantities.
The relevant considerations in 2020 may be different. Right now it seems entirely possible that all of those will continue to weigh heavily on voters’ minds. Becoming more ideologically distant from the voters would only make Labour’s challenge harder.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Who is going to fill that gap? The answer isn’t obvious.
The Lib Dems are ideologically close to the average voter. They will hope to profit from any move to the fringes by Labour while being able to attack the Conservatives in government. But the Lib Dems’ closeness to the public’s views did not result in the public giving them their support in May. And the hammering they received will make it harder to get that support back where it counts. Voters who are motivated by choosing a government will not linger over the possibility of voting for them, new leader and new direction notwithstanding. The Lib Dems will only gain votes either by persuading voters that it is a costfree choice or by getting voters to conclude that both of the two main parties have drifted too far from the centre. Even then, such voters might well just decide to abstain.
After their experiences of government, the Lib Dems may wish to pitch themselves as a party of opposition. Indeed, they have already taunted Labour after the Welfare Bill fiasco with the tagline “Be part of the real Opposition”. This may be effective at picking up protest votes (though there is heavy competition for these now) and the votes of those who live in safe constituencies. Centrist voters in marginals who want to choose the next government will, however, be looking for something more constructive.
Can Labour offer them something more constructive? If Labour move leftwards, they will need to persuade a sizeable section of voters – from opposition – that their more hardline critique is worthy of trust in government and they will need to do so without frightening a similar sized section of voters into the arms of the Conservative party. Labour seem likely to embark on this strategy. I don’t fancy their chances if they do.
A different strategy might have been to offer a broad tent based around themes that all strands of left and centrist opinion could rally under. None of the three mainstream candidates for Labour leader have been able to articulate such themes and the opportunity is going begging. It seems unlikely now that the Labour party will take that chance in the next few years.
If the Labour party is not going to appeal to centrist and centre-left voters, preferring to broadcast a hard left message, might a breakaway party take up the slack? All things are possible but the prospect looks unlikely and past precedent is offputting. Establishing a new national party needs a clear message, big names, organisation, nerve and luck. Labour moderates do not seem to have any of these right now. The SDP was stronger on almost all of these counts in the early 1980s and still it ultimately failed to break the mould. Only two of the eight Lib Dem MPs were in the SDP. They are outnumbered by Conservative MPs with an SDP past.
Speaking of which, can the Conservatives extend their advantage with centrist voters? Unlike Labour, they certainly want to try. The summer budget showed George Osborne gleefully trying on progressive clothes for size.
The Conservatives face a different problem, which is that they have long been seen as further from the centre than either Labour or the Lib Dems, as can be seen from the diagram above. Changing longterm perceptions takes a lot of doing. At a time when the government is undertaking extensive spending cuts, are they really going to be able to achieve this? Also, this Parliament is going to be dominated by the referendum on EU membership. It would be highly surprising if traditional Conservative rightwingers are not heard at great length in this process, undermining any Tory attempts to colonise the middle ground further.
So far as the Conservatives are concerned, in the short term the question is a bit of a red herring. They don’t need centrist voters to identify with them. They only need them to continue voting for them in preference to other parties. Enough of these voters gave them their support on 7 May, however unenthusiastically. They would settle for that in 2020 as well.
In the longer term, however, we are looking at an unstable political landscape where the voters must choose between parties with prospectuses that do not enthuse them and a party with a prospectus that they do not believe will stand a chance of being implemented. This cannot last indefinitely. Sooner or later, the gap will be filled.