The Center Ground is disappearing, and the Tories will suffer the most for it
The upcoming local elections could see the Conservatives lose 600 seats. Granted, many of these were soft wins taken from Labour from a dying Brown government. Plus, mid-term elections are never much fun for governments. Much like the European Elections, they allow even party members to put the boot in without doing any real damage.
But these elections matter to Cameron for two reasons.
Firstly, they risk reigniting talk about his leadership. This week’s downgrade of the UK’s credit rating by Fitch does more too hurt Osborne than Cameron, but it still happened on his watch. The Tories are, after all, meant to be the party of economic growth. Many Tory MPs in marginal seats must already looking uneasily at 2015 and wondering if they’ll still be in a job at the end of it. They’ll blame Cameron and his programme (or lack of one) for it.
Eastleigh helped reverse the decline in moral for the Lib Dems, but has had the opposite effect for the Tories. This was precisely the sort of seat the Tories needed to win if they are to have any hope in 2015. Not only failing to win, but coming third, was arguably the biggest dent in Cameron’s leadership credentials since failing to win a majority on 2010. Cameron knows he’s going to get a drubbing next week. The only question is how bad.
But this brings me on the second concern for Cameron, and it goes further than one set of elections, because it risks striking at the very heart of Cameron’s vision; the Center Ground is shrinking.
The strategy adopted by the Cameron team in the run up to 2010 was based on three critical assumptions; firstly, that ideology was dead. Secondly, party loyalty would guarantee the Tories the Center Right vote. And thirdly, cosmopolitan/metropolitan views were becoming the norm. The salient trend, it was believed, was that the centre ground was expanding, and that that was all that mattered. But all three, to varying extents, have been shown to be wrong.
Ideology is not dead, it’s just evolved. People don’t identify themselves as Marxists or Fascists anymore, but they do still attach collective labels to their ideas. The death of Thatcher has seen the re-emergence of the word ‘Thatcherite’ on the political scene, even by sitting Conservative MPs. The socialism of yesteryear is dead and buried, but the name lives on in a new form, one which would perhaps be better described as European style social-democrat in policy. Libertarian is another broad term but one in which many people, especially younger voters, are associating themselves with. And none of these new ideological fault lines come anywhere near what could be described as the centre ground. Even for the non-political geeks, the centre ground is a distant speck on the horizon. The same person can be rather Right Wing when it comes to crime, immigration and Europe, but rather Left Wing on the NHS, bashing ‘the rich’, and social housing.
Arguably the biggest miscalculation by the Cameroons was to assume that the Centre Right vote would always be Conservative, and that subsequently, policy should focus on attracting Orange Book Liberals and Blue Labour. UKIP, for all their blunders and short comings, have shattered this idea. The Tory High Command used to take comfort in the fact that UKIP were a one trick pony, that they could be safely ignored. But streams of former Tory voters showed that loyalty to values and ideals can trump loyalty to party. Even the promise of an In-Out EU referendum failed to stop the wound. And again, its not centrists voters who are leaving. The typical UKIP member will be concerned about immigration, spending, Europe, crime, defence… the sort of issues the Tory strategists hoped people didn’t care about anymore.
This brings me on to my final point. Tory strategists are not alone in assuming everybody thinks like they do. We all do it. It’s comforting and validating when we find somebody who agrees with us. But the Westminster bubble is especially bad for it. What matters to a cosseted, upper middle class political caste is a world away from the concerns of an average voter. As I talked about recently, a large cause of the disconnect between politician and voter is that an increasing percentage of our elected officials come from, and reside in, the same socio-economic group. And this is very much a centre ground caste. People in this group really do care about the sustainability of food packaging. They really do think that international aid should be ringfenced. The really do think that concerns about immigration can and should be ignored. An upper-middle class, centrist echo chamber has been created. When the only people you see and speak to think like you do, it’s inevitable that your world view will become a little warped.
Tory strategists are only belatedly coming around to the idea that their vision of Britain differs sharply from those of traditional conservative voters.
The silver lining to all this is that Labour have their own problems. They can fire up their base in the Northern cities by simply not being Tories, but they are struggling to make headway in the South of England and affluent suburbs. A humiliating fourth place in Eastleigh should have been a wake up call. The Lib Dems for their part look like retreating to their strongholds in the South West in 2015, with a few redoubts scattered across the South and Midlands.
The centrist voter is not extinct, but they count for a lot less than the parties used to think they did.