The Observer asked a number of commentators whether David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference last week, in which he staked a claim to the centre ground of politics, will reshape the political landscape. Here’s my response. All the responses (including ones from Michael Heseltine, Shirley Williams, Rob Ford and Stefan Collini) are in the Observer.
There is nothing new in ideological clothes-swapping. Under Tony Blair, New Labour won three successive elections with the help of “triangulation” – stealing one’s opponents’ policies so as to occupy the ‘middle ground’. Blair borrowed the idea from Bill Clinton. In the age of Corbynista Labour, David Cameron and George Osborne have in turn stolen it.
But whereas New Labour symbolised a fundamental shift in the character of social democracy, the Tory move is far more opportunistic. The strength of the Conservative party has always been its flexibility, its willingness to cut its ideological cloth according to political needs. Even that most ideological of prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher, was far more pragmatic than is often acknowledged.
If the Tories’ new strategy reveals no major shift in ideology, it does expose a paradox of contemporary politics. Occupying the middle ground might appear democratic, shaping policies according to public desire. Yet the rush over the past two decades by parties of all hues to occupy the middle ground has coincided with greater public disengagement with politics. The more parties have politically cross-dressed, the less their views seem to have been heard.
Why? Because, in reality, it is an approach that has shrunk the political sphere and eroded the democratic process. Instead of emerging organically from a particular vision of what society should be like, policies are arbitrarily stitched together as means of appealing to particular constituencies. And so, the electorate’s ability to choose is diminished. This is why, right across Europe, large sections of the public have rejected mainstream middle ground parties in favour of populists, of both right and left.
Occupying the middle ground may prove electorally appealing. It may also prove a Pyrrhic victory.
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