by Josh Hitchens
We’re just over half way through this parliament and a definite shift to both sides of the political spectrum has taken place over the past two and a bit years. On the right we have the rise of UKIP and the return to prominence for conservative Conservatives. On the left New Labour is well and truly buried as Red Ed steers Labour back to its left wing roots.
This has left some bitter and others concerned. On Labour’s side, Lord Mandelson, Blair and John Reid have all had their parting shots as New Labour is confined to the past. Yet despite these interventions, Miiband looks assured. He is popular with the grassroots and the Backbenchers. They know he stands for what they do. Occasionally he has to have a go at capitalism or promote a farfetched idea of massive government projects and state intervention such as the Job’s guarantee scheme, which would essentially nationalise the employment market. But on the whole he has a clear cut left wing identity and the party likes it.
So his new found identity for Labour is popular with the grassroots and his political peers and so far he leads in the polls. Good news all round. Well, perhaps not. The truth is that much of Labour’s lead in the poll is founded more in popular dissatisfaction with the Tory party than any belief that Labour is a credible alternative. This is what Tony Blair was alluding to when he warned against Labour becoming a party of protest. The truth is that most swing voters are centre ground, which is why they swing! Jumping to a political extreme, even when the right is struggling is shortsighted, it will affirm his position and appease his own party, but will be unlikely to attract the centre ground voters needed to win an election.
On the other side of the fence, the story is quite different. Cameron was determined to lead a return to one nation Conservatism, a detoxified Blairite vision of Conservatism. Slowly since becoming prime minister this new approach heralded by Cameron’s inner circle as the new trendy future of the Conservative party has fallen into disarray. The calls for a return to the right have been unrelenting, but unsuccessful. That was until the local elections this year. Suddenly the Tory MP’s that before argued out of political conviction for a more right wing approach realised that they would almost certainly lose their seats unless they could stop UKIP splitting their share of the vote.
All of a sudden a referendum on the EU was offered, followed by senior Cabinet ministers lining up to question, both privately and publically, the prime minister’s leadership over Europe and equal marriage. Theresa May has even muted at a withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights. Yes it seems that the Conservative party is finally firmly on a rightwards trajectory.
This ideological shift is likely to prove even more disastrous than Red Ed’s shift to the left. This is not due to a lack of support for the right, as demonstrated by UKIP lately there is a sizable body of voters pining for a more hard line right wing party. The danger in the Tory’s shift is that there is a perception that the grassroots and backbenchers are driving the change and that Mr Cameron is simply being carried along. This gives the impression that Cameron is being pushed into corners and being bullied into accepting policies. This makes him look weak and gives the impression that his bold shift to the right is, in fact, a feeble attempt to appease his would be assassins.
So, for the two main parties the return of political polarisation will be of little benefit. So not good news for the Conservatives and Labour, but what a relief for the public. The common complaint ‘they’re all the same anyway’ simply does not hold true anymore. There are real, tangible differences between the two parties and their ideologies. While this has always been the case it is more evident now than ever. Politics feels more exciting than is has in years.
This sense of excitement originates partially from the unknown quantities of a coalition government and the rise of a fourth party, but mainly from the clash of ideas. No longer is the debate over subsections of government white papers or the small details of legislation. No, now there is a real debate over the ideology that should be behind governing this country. On the one hand there is the Tory’s advocating choice over Europe, free markets, light regulation, welfare reform and growth from the bottom up. On the other side is Labour advocating big state investment, government involvement and regulation to reform what they see as an unfair system and invest and borrow Britain into growth. This distinction is the clearest it’s been for a long time. Britain now has a real choice and that’s good for democracy and good for Britain.