Where does the political centre lie?

We hear a lot from Labour MPs about how the only way to win the next General Election is to take the “centre ground” — not to be seen as a left-wing party. Jeremy Corbyn, then, as a “hard left” politician, is the last thing the Labour Party needs, so the reasoning goes. Labour need to take the centre.

What is this centre?

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The political centre in the UK is defined as the midpoint between Labour and Conservative policy. If Labour think the top tax rate should be 60% and the Conservatives think it should be 40%, then the centrist position on this question is that it should be 50%.

The problem is, as soon as you take up the centre ground, the centre shifts away from you. And this is what Labour have been doing ever since the ascendency of Tony Blair. Say that, all right then, the top tax rate should be 50%, and suddenly the centrist position is that it should be 45%. Accept that, and the centrist rate becomes 42.5%. And so, inevitably, we proceed to 40% by the Bolzano–Weierstrass method of setting tax rates.

This the the problem with being centrist. There is no such thing as an inherently centrist position, because the centre moves whenever you do.

The Conservative party, understanding this, have simply stood firm on essentially all their policy goals — refused to compromise on tax-rates, benefit cuts, funding cuts, and so on. And Labour, seeking this mythical ground, have converged more and more closely on the Conservative position — which is why, I have argued, they lost the last election. They didn’t present an alternative to Tory policies, just a different and less competent-seeming group of people to implement them.

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That is why, I argue, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a Labour leader is good news for the party. Unless his own party deliberately undermine him (and I wouldn’t put it past them), a Corbyn-led party will stand for specific, recognisable policies that are distinct from those offered by the Conservatives.

Whether or not you like the Corbyn policies, I think you have to agree that this is a good thing. It gives the electorate, for the first time in many years, an actual choice. Among other things, it means that if the Conservatives win the next election against a true Labour-party slate of policies, they will have a genuine mandate — a real sense that the country has chosen their policies rather than an alternative.

(Speaking as one who prefers taking money from rich people over taking it from poor people, I hope that the Conservatives don’t win next time. But even if they do, I will be happier if their policies are implemented on the basis of an expressed preference from the population.)

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Of course the irony here is that when presented with choices of policies, rather than of political parties, there is a pretty uniform trend for most people to prefer the more progressive option (or the more “left wing” option if you prefer). Most UK citizens support a higher top tax rate, rent controls, renationalised railways, a higher mandatory minimum wage, the abolition of tuition fees, etc. Yet experience shows that those same people vote in Conservative governments, who are opposed to all these things.

Why? I can only see one reason: because the other major political party (Labour) has not offered them the policies they want. (As I’ve noted before, the Scottish people did choose those policies, when offered them by a party that the rest of the UK couldn’t vote for.)

What does all this mean?

Just this. Labour should abandon their doomed quest for “the centre”, and figure out what they actually stand for. In some areas, it will be the things that Jeremy Corbyn supports. In others, it won’t. That’s fine. I don’t think Corbyn is some mythical saviour who’s got it all figured out, in fact I think he is dead wrong on several important issues. But I do think he’s a valuable catalyst for forcing a long-overdue rethink from a party that had completely lost its political compass – and even its sense that it ought to have a political compass.

I want all the political parties (Conservative and Lib Dem as well as Labour) to start with what they believe, and then go on from there to see if they can win an election on that basis. I am simply not interested in a party that wants to win an election, and will tailor its values to what it thinks will achieve that.

 

22 responses to “Where does the political centre lie?

  1. Pingback: Interesting Links for 17-09-2015 | Made from Truth and Lies

  2. Well, lookee here. Turns out a new study by the British Election Study concludes that Labour did not lose the last election because they were seen as too left-wing — if anything, the opposite was the case.

    Which, yes, is exactly what I’ve been saying.

  3. There is no political center. There can’t be because of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem.

    When Tory Blairites talk about the center, they’re just proposing not to terrify the electorate with proposals to return to the economic policies and conditions of the 1970s. And that’s why they’ll depose Corbyn well before the next elections.

  4. The political centre in the UK is defined as the midpoint between Labour and Conservative policy

    The whole article is based on this idea, but it is wrong.

    The political centre is based on the average (presumably mean or median) of the views of the electorate, not of the parties.

    The idea being that if we assume that the electorate is distributed in such a way that they are clustered around the average, then whoever manages to position themselves in the centre (actually, just past it) will get most votes.

    Hence you see currently the Tories moving leftwards: if they can position themselves just to the left of the average, they will have a commanding majority.

    But it’s simply not the case that ‘as soon as you take up the centre ground, the centre shifts away from you’.

    That would be like saying that if you are 100 miles east of Paris and I am 100 miles west of it, then if I move towards you, Paris shifts.

  5. T asserts: The political centre is based on the average (presumably mean or median) of the views of the electorate, not of the parties.

    I wish it were so. But I see no evidence that it is. Ever since Labour started shifting rightwards under Blair, the “centre” has moved rightward with it. That is the only reason anyone was able to make the ludicrous claim that “Red Ed” Miliband was “too far to the left”.

  6. But I see no evidence that it is. Ever since Labour started shifting rightwards under Blair, the “centre” has moved rightward with it

    But if that were the case, why did New Labour bother with all those focus groups, trying to find out what the ‘average voter’ thoguht abotu things and then making that their policy?

    If the ‘centre’ they were chasing was to do with parties, then they could have saved all that money and just read the conservative manifesto to determine what their policies should be.

    But they didn’t: because they weren’t chasing the Conservatives, they were chasing the (possibly mythical) ‘average voter’. And they were obsessed with it; it was the entire premise of a sitcom, that policies were announced simply because they were close to the ‘centre’ of the opinion of focus groups.

    And note, for example, that if they were chasing the Conservatives, then when the Conservatives spun way off to the right on, say, immigration in the mid-2000s, then Labour should have followed them. But they didn’t; Labour immigration policy remained the same throughout the Blair and early Brown years, while Tory immigration policy varied wildly over that time, from ;a bit right’ to ‘crazy right’. If the hypothesis that Labour tried to split the difference between the parties were correct, then they should have followed the Conservatives, right? So when the Tories went into the 2005 election with a much more right-wing immigration policy than they had in 2001, you would have expected Labour’s to be a bit more right-wing (to split the difference).

    But it wasn’t: it was the same as in 2001.

    Labour only changed their immigration policy in the run-up to the 2010 election — moving rightwards at a time when the Conservatives had themselves moved leftwards from their position in 2005, the exact opposite of what the ‘split the difference between the parties’ hypothesis would suggest!

    And why did Labour change their immigration policy for the 2010 election? Because the opinion polls showed attitudes to immigration among the electorate becoming more right-wing.

    In other words: Labour, when they were trying to get to ‘the centre’ weren’t chasing the Tories; what the Tories did was irrelevant. What Labour were chasing was opinion polls.

    When the attitude of the electorate moved left, Labour moved left; when it moved right, as it did on immigration in the second half of the decade, they moved right.

    And, note, it moved right even though the Tories had moved left form where they were in 2005 . And why did the Tories move left? Because they were chasing ‘the centre”, ie, the average view of the electorate as expressed in opinion polls and focus groups, which they had been way to the right of in 2005.

    Conclusion: ‘chasing the centre’, at least as practised by UK political parties over the last couple of decades, is not about splitting the different between your party’s policy’s and the other’s; it is about obsessively following opinion polls and trying to position yourself exactly where the opinion polls say the centre of public opinion is (and if public opinion shifts, following it).

    And swearing a lot in a Scottish accent, of course.

  7. I take your point. But what forms public opinion if not the arguments of the political parties? So Labour say 60%, the Conservatives say 40%, and the man in the street thinks, “Hmm, I suppose the middle figure is the wise course, let’s say 50%.” The Labour say “Aha, the man in the street likes 50%, let’s adopt that.” But then the next time people are polled, they think “I suppose the middle figure is the wise course, let’s say 45%”. And so it continues.

  8. But what forms public opinion if not the arguments of the political parties?

    Well, lots of things. People’s experience of life, and work. People’s sense of fairness and justice and their moral values. People’s perceptions of whether society seems to be doing okay, or getting worse; of how safe, or dangerous the state of the world is.

    Sure, political parties’ arguments are part of it, but do you really think people are such mindless sheep that on every issue they just split the difference between the two most extreme opinions they are told?

    I don’t.

    And, indeed, that idea totally fails to explain the not-unheard-of phenomenon whereby public opinion on an issue can be to the right (or left) of both parties’ positions; arguably, the centre of public opinion on immigration is at the moment to the right of both main parties. How would that work if people just formed their opinions by splitting the difference?

  9. Sure, political parties’ arguments are part of it, but do you really think people are such mindless sheep that on every issue they just split the difference between the two most extreme opinions they are told?

    I think this is true of enough people to shift perception of where the centre is, yes.

  10. I think this is true of enough people to shift perception of where the centre is, yes.

    And is it true of you, or are you superior to the common herd?

  11. I suspect the very fact that I am thinking about these issues and writing about them suggests that in this respect I am superior to (i.e. think more than) what you designate “the common herd”.

  12. ”why did New Labour bother with all those focus groups, trying to find out what the ‘average voter’ thoguht abotu things and then making that their policy? If the ‘centre’ they were chasing was to do with parties, then they could have saved all that money and just read the conservative manifesto to determine what their policies should be… But they didn’t: because they weren’t chasing the Conservatives, they were chasing the (possibly mythical) ‘average voter’.”

    That may be what they said they were doing. But why would Labour spin doctors waste time worrying about where dyed-in-the-wool Tory voters were at? What possible use could it be to them? What they were doing with the focus groups was focusing, targetting the soft Tory vote, trying to ascertain what they could do to win those people over. They just called them the ‘centre’ because it sounded better.

    The Tories tried the strategy first, back in the Eighties. Back-of-an-envelope notions like ‘right to buy’ became flagship policies based on the reception they had in those focus groups. Labour then essentially did it back to them in the Nineties and Noughties.

    Two results came from this. First, as Mike’s already essentially said, the result has been a supposed ‘centre’ that’s well to the right of public opinion on almost every issue. Their political compasses haven’t been lost, they’re just set to a North that isn’t where North is. But also, the results have been remarkably similar for both parties – short-term gains yielding to long-term losses. The policy overlooks the adage about fair-weather friends.

    The stories admittedly aren’t identical. When everyone else deserted the Tories they fell back on a residual core vote, which could then determine party policy to suit itself and made it increasingly insular. It was analogous to the Republicans and the Tea Party, a classic downward spiral. With Labour they essentially lost their identity to the point that even they seemed unsure what they stood for any more. This reached its residual culmination in Harriet Harman trying to make a bold statement about what Labour stood for by abstaining on the Welfare bill. Corbyn’s unexpected sweeping the polls is obviously an attempt to turn this around. Time will tell whether this succeeds.

    Regarding how people form their political views, clearly they don’t just copy them from politicians. Asked if they trust or respect politicans, and most people’s reaction is derisory. But what individual politicians might say is different from the sum total of what they say. This sets what the political spectrum is, and people often get a sense of what is possible from where that spectrum lies. What there is political will for is taken to be like some law of physics.

    Notably even supposedly-so-hard-left Corbyn is agreeing the deficit must be cut. This is a baseless position. We’ve had deficits of comparative sizes in the past without anyone even thinking to mention it much, and should there be a sustained period of economic growth it would just go away of its own accord. But that’s not an idea that’s expressed within the political spectrum.

  13. Repetition of “stood for”. Okay, the subject is someone else’s now…

  14. This reached its residual culmination in Harriet Harman trying to make a bold statement about what Labour stood for by abstaining on the Welfare bill.

    A horribly true statement that could have served as the epitaph for Labour had it not instead provoked the membership to the point where it elected Corbyn. If ever a party leader has clearly and visibly stated “I have no idea what I am for”, that was the moment.

  15. It just made no sense on any level. If she really thought Labour needed to become a bunch of heartless right-wing bas… sorry centrists, she should have supported the Bill. if she wanted to give the impression the opposition in some way opposed the government, she should have voted against it. What she did was a meaningless mishmash which satisfied nobody. As I said at the time, she didn’t even have the courage of her lack of convictions.

  16. Pingback: Tim Farron, Lib Dems and the Political Centre Ground | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  17. I can think of another explanation for the fact that the electorate say they like left-wing policies and then vote for right-wing parties, besides the one Mike offers (i.e., that they didn’t have a credible left-wing party to vote for). It could be that although they *say* they like those policies, they aren’t actually willing to vote for them. How could that happen? Well, for instance, they could be afraid that implementing them would mean higher taxes, and care more about their own financial welfare than they like to admit to pollsters.

    (Of course “they” are not a homogeneous mass, and if it looks like I’m suggesting they are it’s only because I’m too lazy and/or incompetent to be clearer :-).)

  18. It could be that although they *say* they like those policies, they aren’t actually willing to vote for them. How could that happen? Well, for instance, they could be afraid that implementing them would mean higher taxes, and care more about their own financial welfare than they like to admit to pollsters

    You make them sound selfish by writing about ‘their own financial welfare’. But if a left-wing government gets in, implements all the ‘free owl’ policies, and thereby tanks the economy, that hurts everybody.

    People voting on the basis of who they perceive to be more competent economically are not voting out of self-interest; it is in the interests of everybody that the government be economically competent.

  19. We’ve had deficits of comparative sizes in the past without anyone even thinking to mention it much, and should there be a sustained period of economic growth it would just go away of its own accord

    Well yes, but the problem is that nobody can guarantee a sustained period of economic growth, and there could be another global recession just around the corner (say within the next five years or so) and so it makes sense to try to plan for the worst-case scenario, rather than hope that things will work out for the best (one could argue that’s what Brown was doing: he believed his own hype about having ‘abolished boom and bust’ and therefore was happy to run up a deficit on the grounds that he thoguht growth would continue, thus making it affordable).

  20. That may be what they said they were doing. But why would Labour spin doctors waste time worrying about where dyed-in-the-wool Tory voters were at? What possible use could it be to them? What they were doing with the focus groups was focusing, targetting the soft Tory vote, trying to ascertain what they could do to win those people over. They just called them the ‘centre’ because it sounded better.

    Surely the reason to call them the centre is that they are in fact in the centre: there are the ‘dyed-in-the-wool Tory voters’ to the right of them, and Labour voters to the left?

    First, as Mike’s already essentially said, the result has been a supposed ‘centre’ that’s well to the right of public opinion on almost every issue

    But is it though? On welfare reform, for example, public opinion is pretty solidly in favour of cutting and capping benefits, which is exactly what this ‘centrist’ government is doing; so that seems to be a case where the ‘supposed “centre”‘ aligns with public opinion.

  21. ”Surely the reason to call them the centre is that they are in fact in the centre”

    Calling something a thing doesn’t make it that thing. I could call myself a Dutchman, it wouldn’t mean in that moment I would magically gain the ability to speak Dutch. First, it seems to me, you’re assuming the elctoral system accurately represents the population. But one of the many reasons for not accepting this is the multiple ways electoral boundaries get skewed by any party in power. The Tories are trying this now, but Labour do it as well when they get the chance.

    You’re also assuming political parties’ main purpose is to reflect public opinion in order to gain popularity. Again wrong. If political parties were reliant on members’ dues or public donations they’d be operating out of back sheds by this point. They have backers, and those backers get to call their tune. The incremental privatisation… sorry, outsourcing of public services is a classic case of something done in the face of public opinion because it suits private backers. Like most people I don’t want them to privatise the NHS any more. But I’m not going to pay them to stop. Whereas others are going to pay them to carry on.

    To be fair, the assumptions you’re making are commonly shared ones. Of course its in the main political parties’ interests to perpetuate them, as it gives us the idea we have some official say in the running of things. But also, it may just be neater and simpler to imagine it that way. The reason why many people like to colour-code politics, into ‘reds’ and ‘blues’ and so on, may be because it assumes politics is a linear spectrum analagous to the colour spectrum. It might be nice if it was true. But it isn’t.

    ”On welfare reform, for example, public opinion is pretty solidly in favour of cutting and capping benefits, which is exactly what this ‘centrist’ government is doing; so that seems to be a case where the ‘supposed “centre”‘ aligns with public opinion.”

    If they wanted to align themselves with public opinion they’d be renationalising the railways, keeping the NHS public, building more social housing and taxing the rich more. They’re not doing any of those things.

    Cutting benefits has come with a sustained “strivers vs. shirkers” rhetoric from the Tory party and right-wing media, which was of course necessary to see it through. Otherwise people might start asking why one of the world’s richest countries was leaving people to go hungry, or in some cases even starve. Something like the £93 million given annually in handouts to wealthy, and often tax-dodging corporations seems to get a whole lot less scrutiny. I find most people don’t even know its happening.

    ”Well yes, but the problem is that nobody can guarantee a sustained period of economic growth, and there could be another global recession just around the corner (say within the next five years or so) and so it makes sense to try to plan for the worst-case scenario”

    Brown was quite clearly setting himself up to fail with his grandiose “eliminated boom and bust” claim, that was obvious even at the time. But the linear opposite to this is no more sensible. For what you say to work you’d have to know how deep the next recession was going to be, otherwise how could you possibly know that you’d saved enough? Let’s remember the two European countries (bar Greece) who had the deepest recessions were Ireland and Spain, both of whom were running budget surpluses right up until the crash. Saying your economy can’t crash if it has a surplus is like saying your car can’t crash if it has a St. Christopher stuck up in it. It’s simply a superstition. It might feel comforting. But you’re probably better off feeling less comfortable and being more alert.

    But what I find most astonishing is that with all this insistence on the primacy of debt reduction and being ready for the next recession, no-one ever asks how the last one happened and what we could learn from it to prevent the next one. It’s like a bridge collapsing with cars on it, then deciding to rebuilt it in exactly the same way but asking cars to drive more quickly over it. Seriously, you’ve never considered the notion of prevention?

    This piece, from the Guardian a couple of days ago, is quite good on how high finance has seen only the most cosmetic reforms since the crash, making the markets “like playing Russian roulette with someone else’s head.” The author’s conclusion is that not only is it conceivable it could all happen again but is even more likely than last time, because this time they know full well they can fail and stick the bill on the rest of us. We are that someone else’s head.

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