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John Hustings: Defining the centre ground

John Hustings is a regular visitor to ConservativeHome.

It's the issues, not the policies, that matter

There is a lot of muddled thinking regarding the concept of a "centre ground" in politics. VirtuallyJohnhustings2 everyone accepts that it is desirable to be positioned on the centre -- or more importantly, to be perceived as on the centre -- but few have any real understanding about what it means. We have the general sense that it is advantageous because it allows us to present ourselves as reasonable and moderate, in contrast to our opponents, who will be perceived by the public as extreme or even dangerous. It is a natural, understandable instinct for people to feel safer in trusting those they consider to be part of the mainstream.

We also know that, as Conservatives, we haven't been very good at presenting ourselves as centrists. Even if our views on issues resonate with the public, we still manage to find ourselves pigeonholed as far to the right -- and out of the mainstream -- in contrast to the warm, cuddly and caring Lib Dems (who advocate such "mainstream" policies as extending the vote to prisoners).

There is also the dilemma that while the public want their political leaders to be generally mainstream, they also want them to be able to make tough, difficult decisions (one of Mrs Thatcher's chief attractions was that she was seen as a woman who "gets things done"). Taking a "mid-point centre" position on every issue would be politically disastrous; there are many issues over which it is absolutely necessary to take a firm stand one way or the other: I don't know what the mid-point centre position on ID Cards would be, for example, but it doesn't seem to me desirable to advocate it.

Was Michael Howard on the "centre ground" or did he "lurch to the right"?

In order to reinvent ourselves in the minds of the public as centrists -- crucial to winning elections -- we must learn the lessons of past failures.

While Michael Howard did achieve modest gains at the last election -- and he has been rightly credited with uniting the party at an extremely difficult time -- it has become common consensus that he "lurched to the right" in the election run-up as part of an attempt to rally core supporters. It has been assumed that it was being "too right-wing" which caused the Tories' eventual defeat.

There is little doubt that Michael Howard was perceived as right-wing and thus very much not on the centre ground. Polls published in September illustrated this problem. When people were asked their opinions as to where Michael Howard stood on the left-right axis, he was viewed as far to the right on the political spectrum, even by his own supporters. Anthony Wells' Polling Report blog used a numerical scale averaging polls conducted by both YouGov and ICM. On this scale, very left-wing was counted as -100, left-wing as -67, slightly left of centre as -33, centre as 0, slightly right of centre at +33 and so on.

The Conservative Party was seen as slightly right of centre at +34, while Michael Howard was placed at +42 by Conservative voters, and an even more extreme +62 and +65 by Lib Dem and Labour voters.

When one considers that the average voter places himself somewhere quite close to the centre, it suggests that Michael Howard's Conservatives were viewed as extreme and well out of touch with the public's sympathies.

But was Michael Howard really very right-wing?

I believe the assumption that he was deserves a bit of scrutiny.

Let us recall the Conservatives' 2005 election manifesto, and most especially the 10 words we were asked to remember:

More Police

Cleaner Hospitals

Lower Taxes

School Discipline

Controlled Immigration

The first thing that becomes apparent to me is that there is absolutely nothing contentious about any of these promises. I hardly think that Labour were advocating "less police, dirtier hospitals, higher taxes, school indiscipline and uncontrolled immigration" (even if that is in practice what they would provide). Needless to say, there is nothing radical here; there is nothing even to argue over. So there is no great political divide presented; no clash of worldviews. There is a clear emphasis instead on the Conservatives being able to manage things better than Labour can.

The 2005 election manifesto looks for all the world like the product of a moderniser (indeed it is, since we know that David Cameron wrote it). It certainly doesn't sound like it is inspired by the writings of Hayek or Friedman. It wouldn't appear to embody "unreconstructed Thatcherism".

Michael Howard was not even offering to cut taxes. The "less taxes" commitment actually refers to increasing spending at a slightly slower rate than Labour. Whatever this is, it isn't radical. It's actually very moderate; one might even think it "centrist".

So why was Michael Howard viewed as so extremely right-wing when the platform he campaigned on was for all intents and purposes a centrist one?

Partly I believe it was a personality problem. Michael Howard, though no doubt a very charming fellow in private, has a slightly domineering public persona and this shouldn't be discounted as a factor in his unpopularity. But there was also the focus on immigration.

It has come to be accepted that the Conservatives were both wrong in their rhetoric on immigration (in particular Bob Spink's "what part of send them back don't you understand?") and in their heavy focus on this issue. I believe this part of the analysis is quite correct. But few have fully comprehended why the Tories focused so strongly on immigration. There has been the assumption that Howard focused on immigration because he's right-wing and that's just what right-wingers do. I will question whether immigration really is a right-wing issue in a moment. But first I'd like to suggest what I believe is the real reason for why the Tories focused so heavily on this one issue.

Firstly, it was the one area in which the Tories were leading in the polls. Indeed, it was the only main policy area in which we had a lead over Labour. (Those who believe that our immigration policy was wrong and resulted in our defeat should consider this. Would the Tories have won on the exact same platform minus the immigration policy?) It is a quite understandable temptation to wish to emphasise one's own obvious strengths; a temptation we were unable to resist.

Secondly, the undue focus on immigration was a direct result of having such a policy-lite manifesto. On most other issues our policies were either insufficiently different from Labours' to emphasise, or we were too afraid to mention the differences that did exist because we had little faith in our ability to persuade the public of the merits of our policies. In other words, on everything other than immigration we were running away from the argument.

Let's now question whether controlling immigration really is a right-wing policy. Was immigration really a "core vote" issue? Was it part of a so-called "dog-whistle" tactic designed to rally natural supporters but no-one else?

The extent of the Conservatives' lead on this one issue suggests not (their lead came in spite of the Conservatives' general unpopularity). Successive polls indicate that 80 per cent, including 52 per cent from ethnic minority communities, want to see much tougher immigration controls (see Migration Watch UK for details). The point is: supporters of all parties want immigration controlled; there is no left-right divide on this issue. Controlling immigration commands overwhelming support across the board.

Perversely, however, David Cameron's abandonment of Michael Howard's one manifestly popular policy has been portrayed as a movement towards the centre! If anything demonstrates just how out of touch our political elites are it is this.

If anything should be a "centre ground policy" then it should've been Michael Howard's immigration policy. Except it wasn't, because immigration simply isn't a centre-ground policy area. What do I mean by this? Well, although immigration is an important issue to a lot of people, it simply isn't an election-deciding issue in the same way that health, education and the economy are. The Tories were trailing on health, education and the economy in all of the pre-election polls. One policy lead was simply not enough to compensate for trailing in other important policy areas.

Institutional Defeatism and the Abandonment of Centre Ground Issues

Janet Daley recently published a (very short) pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies in which she wrote of the defeatist mindset which has taken hold of many in the Conservative Party. After interviewing several Tory MPs she discovered that they:

"..tended to err on the side of retrenchment from what are often seen as traditional Conservative objectives such as reducing the role of the state. There also seemed to be an assumption among politicians that, particularly with regard to the public services, talk of a smaller state frightened voters who saw it either as code for cut-backs in provision or for privatisation. There was little appetite for educating public opinion in the realities of, for example, European models of health care provision which were based on mixed funding or government-regulated social insurance."

Conservatives in recent years have become so reluctant to address misconceptions that retreating from traditional positions has become an almost habitual process. Some subjects -- such as the rise in single-motherhood -- have become virtually taboo. This is an extremely worrying tendency because many of the biggest problems that our society faces require traditional conservative solutions to stand any chance of being addressed. If the Conservative Party -- out of sheer cowardice -- does not advocate the proper solutions, then no-one will. Further, it means that the case we have to offer is often simply not heard and people will become ever more ignorant that there even exist alternative perspectives to the ones currently in vogue. This will make it all the harder to make the case at a later date if ever a brave politician decides that he/she wants to confront -- not run away from -- the important issues.

Also relevant here is the seemingly fanatical obsession among Tory "modernisers" with looking for similarities between the Conservatives' current predicament and that faced by Labour in the 90's. The analogy does not hold up for various reasons:

  • Right-wing ideas have not been discredited. Attempts to portray the likes of Norman Tebbit or Ann Widdecombe as right-wing equivalents of Tony Benn or Arthur Scargill are nasty and disingenuous. Tony Benn, though immensely popular as a public speaker, achieved nothing in government. Norman Tebbit, on the other hand, served in the most successful post-war British government and personally supervised the Trade Union reforms from which we still benefit. He is not some crazy ideologue whose ideas do not fit in in the real world. It is extremely distasteful that there are so-called Conservatives who should seek to portray him in this way.
  • Right-wing ideas have also demonstrably worked elsewhere in the world. Compare the economies   of low-tax USA, Hong-Kong, Singapore or Australia with the high-tax   Eurozone. Compare the socialist-governed India (post-independence) to the currently capitalist India. Take a look at the United States where social conservatives have succeeded in cutting the rate of abortion (something we have dismally failed to do). And so on. In contrast, left-wing dogmas have resulted in mass poverty and destruction across the world. Any comparison between the Thatcherite right and the old left is thus utterly fatuous.
  • Most important of all: Blair gave up things he himself no longer believed in. Price and income controls, nationalisation of industry etc, these ideas had been totally refuted. He wasn't making much of a sacrifice. There are plenty of absurd notions that Labour still cling on to because they have less obviously failed (like their absolutely deranged opposition to selection).

Traditional Tories like myself are being told we must make sacrifices to regain power, but those telling us to abandon our principles still believe in those principles themselves. As Janet Daley says, "There is a serious danger that...the modernising of the party's image...could simply be a cover for political cowardice and a retreat from what elected politicians personally believe to be right for the well-being of society".

Why is this such a bad thing?

I believe that this defeatist attitude is harmful in a number of ways:

  • The Party looks emasculated. People don't know what we believe anymore. Supporters feel   less enthusiastic about it. When those at the top don't know what we stand for, why should anyone else? Furthermore, we haven't really given up our past beliefs because we know they still work. Modernisation is therefore necessarily cosmetic and confusing.
  • Narcisstic reinventions of image (it didn't begin with Cameron) divert attention away from the   real problems that exist in the country. We become inward, narrow and cynical.
  • Instead of playing up our positives, we are always having to play down our negatives. The result of this is negative. Furthermore, we are unable to rebutt the misconceptions people have about our past beliefs because we're not supposed to believe in them anymore. On "Section 28" or "single mothers", for example, Tories are supposed to simply surrender the argument. The result of this is that the most negative perceptions are enforced as truth.
  • It results in in-fighting and division. We are not battling for the same team, we are battling each other. We have prominent Conservative MPs telling us that we are seen as "the nasty party"; this doesn't really help morale. (It also doesn't help if those of us who place doctrinal beliefs above tribal loyalty are dismissed as traitors.)
  • Most of all (and here is the connection with the overall thread of this essay) it leads to an abandonment of the centre-ground issues. Health, education and the economy are barely mentioned because we don't want to scare the horses. Because of this, all that is left for us to campaign on are fringe issues. Hence the reason why Michael Howard was perceived as a right-wing extremist while campaigning on a "modernising" platform.

Needless to say, this type of "movement to the centre" I believe to have been both unnecessary and unsuccessful. David Cameron appears to have learnt the wrong lesson of the last election campaign (the lazily accepted consensus that we were too right-wing) and is thus in line to repeat the same mistakes. Instead of setting out the case for lower taxes (as David Davis argued), he is merely seeking to allay fears. George Osborne says he wants to put "stability before tax cuts"; this is political code for, "don't worry we won't destroy the economy -- we'll be just like Labour". This approach is certainly not offering a positive reason to vote Conservative; indeed, it only reinforces the notion that Labour are more to be trusted on economic matters. On health we see the same thing. Cameron, in echoing Thatcher's "the NHS is safe in our hands", is saying, "don't worry we won't destroy all the hospitals -- we'll be just like Labour". Unless he really surprises me with his policy review, he won't actually have much else to say about health. On education, Cameron has sought to position himself in exactly the same position as Blair in the somewhat naive contention that since Blair is so admired around the country it will redound to the benefit of Cameron.

I think Cameron's entire strategy is motivated by some rather dubious notions over what constitutes the "centre ground". He believes that Blair is defined by the public as the absolute mid-point centre, and so if he fixes himself to Blair (as opposed to his party), then somehow he can define himself in the public eye as centrist. But this is just surrendering the centre ground -- and all the arguments that go with it -- to our opponents. If Neil Kinnock had fixed himself to Margaret Thatcher, what would've been the point in that?

Perhaps I'm naive in believing that democracy should be about setting out competing ideas and allowing the public to give their verdict on them. But the very fact that we've been so reluctant to do this in the past is what has led to our irrelevance, triviality and perceived extremism. Cameron hasn't realised this, and so has learnt the wrong lessons.

What seems slightly confusing is that he does seem to have set out on something of a reformist narrative, which goes something like the following: "Blair is a reformer in a party which is singularly incapable of the required reform. If you want real reform, you must vote Conservative."

But by abandoning vouchers for education (and ruling out selection generally) as well as dedicating himself to maintaining the NHS in its current structure, he really doesn't have any substance to match this narrative. In actual fact, the Conservatives are just as incapable of genuine reform as Labour. Labour can't reform public services because they are still wedded to Old Labour ideas; the Conservatives can't offer reform because they have little faith in their own ideas and are obsessed with aping Labour.

The Economy, Health and Education: The Real Centre Ground

The economy, health and education are the issues that matter most. They are the centre ground of British politics. The failures of William Hague and Michael Howard lay not in being either right-wing or left-wing but in failing to campaign and win on these crucial issues.

"Well", you might say, "easier said than done. The public don't trust the Tories on public services; they think we'll gut them. They don't trust us on the economy; they remember boom and bust, the unemployment of the '80s, Black Wednesday etc". This is all true. But it is equally true that we'll never win an election until we reverse these perceptions, not just play them down. This requires some degree of bravery, but caution got us nowhere last time -- as I've already observed -- it actually made us appear more extreme.

Decades of running away from the argument on tax, health and education have made people totally ignorant of the complexity of these issues, and no wonder: they only ever hear one side of the argument.

We can't out-Labour Labour. It is impossible for us to win on these crucial issues -- the centre ground of politics -- by offering to do the same thing as Labour. People won't trust us to "spend more". Rightly so: they know it goes against our principles. To win on these issues, then, we need to offer something different: real reform.

I believe it is possible to offer positive, popular and right-wing policies in these areas. I won't spell them out here. All I will say is that tax cuts and reform of public services have to be offered together. We can't argue for tax cuts without arguing for reform of public services, because otherwise people will conclude it means we will under-invest in them. Since people only understand the notion that "extra spending" provides improvements, it is necessary for us to offer an alternative vision for them not to reach such a conclusion.

Overview of policy

In arguing that these three policy areas be given pre-eminence in a campaign, I am in no way suggesting that other issues are unimportant. I am not suggesting, for example, that we should change longstanding Party policy on crime, immigration or Europe. On the contrary, I think our positions on these issues are generally great strengths -- and they have the potential to be extremely popular under a more image savvy leader like Cameron -- but they just do not seem to me to be where elections are won and lost. David Cameron needs to be careful that his attempt to broaden the Conservative Party's focus doesn't result in a watering down of its strengths. If we become soft on crime, weak on immigration and fuzzy on Europe we will just provide an incentive for natural conservatives not to vote or to vote for other parties. Attempts to purge the party of core supporters seems both nasty and counter-productive. It isn't core supporters who are to blame for the party's failures.

Furthermore, abandonment of such "core" positions combined with a reluctance to address what I have termed the "centre ground issues" will leave Cameron looking just as irrelevant and extreme as either Michael Howard or William Hague before him. As far as I'm concerned, if David Cameron runs an election campaign focusing solely on third world debt, global warming and synthetic phonics, he will look just as absurd or irrelevant as Michael Howard campaigning on immigration or William Hague on saving the pound. The point is that Hague and Howard looked extreme not because they were focusing on right-wing concerns, but because they failed to address the centre ground issues of British politics.


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