The idea of a centre ground in politics, where elections are won and lost, is a persistent one, especially here in Britain (and England in particular) and in the United States. Winning politicians are said to "triangulate" a political position in this centre ground; notable exemplars of this idea were Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. David Cameron is supposed to have rescued the Conservative Party from oblivion using this strategy in 2010 to turning it into the UK's largest party, if not outright victory. Now, in Britain, there is a lot of talk about it, and what political strategy each of the three established main parties (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat) should be; take this article, Both the Tory and Labour leaders need lessons in politcal geometry by Andrew Rawnsley. What to make of this?
This all starts with the idea that political views can be placed on a spectrum with the left at one end, the right at the other, and ground, the centre or middle, in between. Over the years I have repeatedly heard people claim that this idea is no longer a helpful analysis of modern politics. But it is remarkably persistent, and it appears to have been helpful to Messrs Clinton, Blair and Cameron. What seems to define the left-right spectrum is attitudes to social solidarity and the state. On the right there is a strong view that individuals are responsible for their own wellbeing, and that the state should do the minimum to help them, because such help is counterproductive. This view unites social conservatives, distrusting socialist values, and economic liberals. On the left there is a feeling that most people have little influence on their social outcomes, especially poorer people, and that they should band together, organised by the state to tilt the odds back in their favour.
And for all the talk about the differences between the political parties disappearing, it is very easy to see this fault-line separating the core followers and activists in the Conservative and Labour parties. Think of the last Labour government's attempt to get state supervision, through Primary Care Trusts, local authorities and other agencies to take a broader role in achieving social outcomes, like reducing "health inequalities". Compare this to Tory ministers who delight in dismantling this infrastructure in the name of austerity.
But elections are clearly won and lost by floating voters, who aren't convinced by the true believers of either party. Appealing to these voters makes the two main parties look very similar in terms of their election promises at least. Strange then that both parties seem currently more concerned to shore up their core votes and activists, rather than make a play for the centre. By this stage before Mr Blair's victory in 1997, he and Gordon Brown were challenging the party's core supporters by, for example, signing up to the Conservative austerity policies and promising not to raise income tax. Similarly Mr Cameron was doing photo ops in the Arctic with huskies to show his concern for global warming well before the 2010 election.
But the political priorities have changed. Neither party has made its activists so desperate for power by being out of office for a decade that they will sign up for anything. Labour needs to nurture the anger felt its supporter by the current government's austerity policies, especially amongst those claiming benefits and those employed, or formerly employed, in the public sector. The Conservatives are shaken by the rise of the distinctly right wing Ukip, who are stealing away its core activists, even if they are also pulling in actual votes from elsewhere too. Both parties will need its foot-soldiers when the next general election arises in 2015.
But there may also be a bit of a problem for those chasing votes in the centre: the centre itself is fragmenting. This is suggested by some survey work reported in The Economist a couple of weeks ago, here. On the one side are those whose living standards are being squeezed (one definition of the "squeezed middle" of which much has been talked). These people are not just those in the direct line of fire of cuts, but those who were not particularly well off, and are now finding that their income is frozen while prices keep going up. These voters are open to Labour's rhetoric about the government's failed economic policies, and ideas for kick-starting it with things such as a temporary cut in VAT. A second group of centrist voters are not badly affected in their personal living standards, and are much more convinced by the government's line that austerity is a necessary evil, following the irresponsible profligacy (by both government and individuals) that occurred under the last government. Each side seems to be doing a reasonable job of appealing to one of these two groups, but not headway in appealing to both. This does not add up to a winning majority for either party.
The big unknown is how the economy will be faring in 2015, as this could influence the balance between these groups. The Conservatives hope that the current fragile recovery continues, inflation falls and people feel that things are getting better; they will then be less willing to risk any change in economic policy. If economic stagnation predominates, Labour narrative might get stronger, though. No doubt both parties are keeping their powder dry to see how things shape up. The Conservative fall back will probably be to persuade the squeezed middle that Labour's policies will mean higher taxes for them. Labour might do a Blair and say that they will adopt the government's current spending plans except for some carefully chosen minor exceptions, and so reassure the better off middle. Of these I think the Conservatives will be the more credible, and combined with Mr Cameron's politically well crafted policy on Europe, the party will do much better than people currently expect.
And what of the Liberal Democrats? They do not have a heartland in either left or right, but it is wrong to suggest, as Nick Clegg is prone to, that it has an ideological affinity to centrist voters, as the centre is not a coherent ideological group. The big problem for them is that they are very much on the government side of the economic debate, and will struggle to appeal to the squeezed middle, though banging on about raised income tax thresholds is meant to neutralise this. But the collateral damage that the Labour and Conservative party's do to each other in the campaign could help them. They can try to develop the idea that centre voters are better off backing a centre party, which moderates the left or right through coalition, rather than trusting the main party ideologues to stick to their manifestos. So far though, that line of argument seems to be getting little traction.