Notwithstanding my article last week, it looks as if Jeremy Corbyn really is the front runner to win Labour’s leadership contest, after a YouGov poll published this morning. Also this week Conservative government ministers have been ramping up intemperate rhetoric on immigration and proposing foolish policies to curb it – in what looks like a calculated attempt to hold the far-right Ukip in check. Nobody seems interested in wooing Britain’s centre ground voters.
That YouGov poll, incidentally, is a proper public one, with open methodology. It shows that Mr Corbyn has 53% of the vote, enough to win on the first round. After distributions that would rise to 60% against Andy Burnham – though interestingly it shows that Yvette Cooper would attract disproportionate support from fourth-placed Liz Kendall, and almost enough for her to overhaul Mr Burnham. And yet, as also suggested by my article, she is not as well placed to stop Mr Corbyn – against her he would get 62% after distributions. Mr Corbyn is backed by 67% of trade union sign-ups and 55% of temporary members – and this is giving him a decisive edge.
The idea that political parties should woo centrist voters is scoffed at by Mr Corbyn’s supporters.They either believe that it is possible to work around them with a rainbow coalition of the left, including many who do not vote, or that momentum for a hard left candidate will build and sweep the pliable voters of the centre in. Evidence for both propositions comes from the SNP’s overwhelming success in Scotland, which followed a sharp tack by that party to the left, and the adoption of “anti-austerity” politics, the current touchstone of the hard left. Of course this shows a typical English failure to understand the politics of their island neighbours. The SNP’s foray to the political left was based on an iron grip on the political centre, and a narrative (all Scottish problems arise from Westminster rule) that appealed to both left and centre. Only last year the SNP were advocating cuts to corporate taxes.
Meanwhile the down-but-not-quite-out Liberal Democrats are also turning away from the centre. This month’s Liberator magazine pours scorn on the previous leadership’s attempt to woo centrist voters. The party must ignore these voters to build up a core vote much bigger than its current 8% of the electorate, the magazine suggests, echoing an attitude that is now widespread in the party. If Labour lurches to the left, Lib Dems hope that this will alienate liberal Labour supporters, allowing it to advance its base. But this is hardly attacking the centre ground.
The Greens and Ukip never were much interested in the political centre. They are attacking the main party bases, left and right (both at once in the case of Ukip).
Who, then, are the political centre? By definition they are not loyal to any particular party, or not loyal for long. They tend to dismiss ideological narratives. Instead they focus on more quotidian issues, such as the economy, public services and tax. And above all they prize competence and stability. They overwhelmingly plumped for Conservatives in England in May’s General Election. They questioned Labour’s economic competence, and especially the idea of a Labour government dependant on SNP support. They did not vote Lib Dem, since they thought this might let Labour in. Also the Lib Dems were thought to lack credibility, after their much publicised tangles over student tuition fees.
And that analysis offers us a clue about what is going on. There is little point in trying to woo these inconstant voters early in the cycle. The early years of a parliament are for shoring up your base. The Conservatives in particular are keeping their powder dry for an attack on the centre in due course. It is not as if centrist voters aren’t sceptical about immigration anyway. The party must weather a bruising EU referendum, which could undermine its reputation for competence. And the economy, upon which the party sets much store, looks a bit too similar to that of the country before the 2007 crisis for comfort. But the party’s managers must be quietly confident.
Even the Lib Dems focus on a liberal core vote does not preclude a bid for centrist voters in key seats when the time comes. They have a big job to do to convince voters that they are still in the game, but mid-term chaos in the main parties might well offer them an opening.
It is Labour that has real reason to worry. It now seems odds-on that Mr Corbyn will take the leadership. The poor political acumen of the party’s soft left has let him in. Firstly it was Ed Miliband’s changing of the rules for electing the party leader, which made it vulnerable to being taken over by the political fringe (centrist supporters are unlikely to be interested enough to take part in such an exercise). Next it was soft left MPs, in particular supporters of Mr Burnham, that let Mr Corbyn onto the ballot. And if Mr Burnham does manage to stop Mr Corbyn (alas Ms Cooper stands less chance), it will be a thoroughly compromised victory. Mr Burnham is already making concessions to the hard left.
It is very hard to see how Labour can make a rapid switch to the centre after this. The hard left narrative is not all nonsense, but idealism trumps all for them – and they are happier railing against abstract nouns rather than addressing the everyday troubles of ordinary working people. Mr Corbyn projects charisma but not competence. And even if he gets ejected from the leadership before the next election, it is hard to see how the party can present a credible face to the country as a serious alternative government.
It is hard to believe that not so long ago (even earlier this year) many thought that the Tory brand was so toxic that they would lose power, possibly for good. But Britain’s incompetent left have found a way to give the Tories new life.