The main political parties are battling for the mantle of backward-looking politics, writes Robert Philpot

Theresa May’s first speech to the Conservative party conference as prime minister constituted an audacious landgrab as she attempted to portray the Tories as the party of the working class and claim that her government represented the ‘new centre-ground’ of British politics.

But there is nothing novel about politicians claiming to have identified a new location for the political centre. Ed Miliband was similarly confident that he had done so, although last year’s general election showed that claim to be rather hollow.

In the former Labour leader’s defence he had drawn inspiration for his belief from the experience of Margaret Thatcher, along with Tony Blair the most electorally successful prime minister of modern times. Her sense that, amid industrial chaos and economic failure, Britain’s centre of political gravity was shifting to the right proved an acute one and ushered in a government which, over nearly two decades, capitalised on and encouraged that shift. Miliband saw in the financial crisis a similar shift, but this time to the left.

For Miliband, what was inspiring about Thatcher was that – despite the rather modest nature of the Tory manifesto in 1979 – she promised a complete break with the past. Indeed, Thatcher and her political mentor, Keith Joseph, rejected the very notion of the centre-ground, the latter describing it as ‘the lowest common denominator obtained from a calculus of assumed electoral expediency’, preferring instead ‘the common ground’, a position defined more by its identification of points of agreement with public opinion than with reference to the middle ground between the parties. It is thus inherently populist, as the appalled reaction of much of the Tory old guard to Thatcher’s attacks on immigration and the unions in the run-up to the 1979 election demonstrated.

Miliband’s gamble failed where Thatcher’s succeeded because there was much more evidence of public opinion edging rightwards in the 1970s than there was of voters moving to the left in the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The former Labour leader was correct that concerns about inequality and an intolerance of tax-dodging by wealthy individuals and multinational corporations had grown, but so too had anger about welfare benefits and immigration. Miliband was thus happy to align himself with the voters on the former but queasy about doing so in the case of the latter.

But he also failed because elections are not simply, or even mostly, decided by voters – most of whom, despite having myriad differing opinions, place themselves in the centre or only slightly to the left or right of it – weighing up policy positions. Instead, as Peter Kellner has suggested, ‘they judge parties and politicians not on their manifestos but on their character. Are they competent? Honest? Strong in a crisis? Likely to keep their promises?’ While Thatcher convinced the voters on this score in 1979, Miliband was unable to.

The prime minister’s new centre-ground, with its populist hotch-potch of socially conservative and economically leftwing rhetoric, certainly is, as the former Labour leader and his supporters have modestly suggested, very much the territory which Miliband was marking out. Both bear the classic hallmark of the populist: the moralistic attempt to identify a ‘pure people’ and a ‘corrupt elite’, with the latter being responsible for the woes of the former. For Miliband, the problem was, as he put it in 2011, ‘an economy and a society too often rewarding not the right people with the right values, but the wrong people with the wrong values.’ The culprits were ‘the people at the top taking unjustified rewards’, ‘the closed circles of Britain’, and the ‘predators [who] are just interested in the fast buck, taking what they can’.

May sang from a similar hymnsheet, describing ‘a sense – deep, profound and let’s face it often justified – that many people have today that the world works well for a privileged few, but not for them’. Those at fault were just as amorphous: ‘people in positions of power [who] behave as though they have more in common with international elites’ and those who regard themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ but are in fact ‘citizens of nowhere’.

The problem for Labour is that, although the economic woes of the ‘left behind’ are frequently seen as the drivers of the populist revolt which manifested itself on 23 June, this is too simple an explanation. As Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris suggest in a recent study of populism in Europe, ‘Populist parties did receive significantly greater support among the less well-off (reporting difficulties in making ends meet) and among those with experience of unemployment, supporting the economic insecurity interpretation. But other measures do not consistently confirm the claim that populist support is due to resentment of economic inequality and social deprivation; for example, in terms of occupational class, populist voting was strongest among the petty bourgeoisie, not unskilled manual workers.’ Populists, they went on to argue, received significantly less support among welfare benefit recipients and those living in urban areas. Instead, they found, populist support was driven by a ‘backlash’ against progressive cultural change and closely correlated to ‘anti-immigrant attitudes, mistrust of global and national governance, support for authoritarian values, and left-right ideological self-placement’. Studies of the Brexit result suggest similar findings: as Michael Ashcroft wrote of his polling, ‘By large majorities, voters who saw multiculturalism, feminism, the Green movement, globalisation and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the EU; those who saw them as a force for ill voted by even larger majorities to leave.’

Unchallenged, the prime minister is thus likely to be more successful than Miliband: she is evidently at home exploiting and stoking the politics of the ‘cultural backlash’. Unlike the former Labour leader, she is faced with an opponent who few see as a credible occupant of No 10 or steward of the economy. Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, of course, point to the fact that on some issues – such as his call for rail renationalisation – public opinion is strongly on his side. But this is a totally vacuous position. Ashcroft’s study of why, despite apparently being in tune with the voters on issues such as crime and immigration, the Tories still lost the 2005 general election defeat concluded, ‘The Conservative party’s problem is its brand … the brand problem means that the most robust, coherent, principled and attractive Conservative policies will have no impact on the voters.’ Under Corbyn, Labour’s brand – already dented by the Miliband-era assaults on the party’s record in government – has been comprehensively trashed: its members of parliament branded traitors, its former leaders attacked as war criminals, and its councillors abused by the leader’s far-left outriders.

As May’s conference speech demonstrated, the traditional divisions between left and right are being superseded by new ones. On one side, there are those who adhere to a politics which is open, optimistic and future-focused; on the other those who cling to one which is closed, pessimistic and backward-looking. David Cameron’s departure, and his successor’s appeasement of the Tory right, leaves the former territory unoccupied. Labour can, and under Corbyn almost certainly will, choose to compete with the Tories and the United Kingdom Independence party territory on the crowded ground of the latter. The referendum result suggests the electoral, if not the moral, logic of this.

But, aside from the damage that it will do to the country, both in terms of the health of its economy and the cohesion of its society, this is a position which will be of declining political salience. As the Economist’s Jeremy Cliffe argued last year in a paper for Policy Network, Britain’s future is a cosmopolitan one. As in the United States, its growing ethnic minority population, the rise of its cities and increase in the number of graduates is creating ‘a more plural, open, fast-moving, post-industrial country where the political assumptions that held true for the postwar decades no longer do so’.

In the light of Brexit, that future looks to have slipped from view, but the forces which Cliffe identified will not be stopped by 23 June or Britain leaving the European Union. Indeed, demographic changes – principally the increase in the number of graduates – will strengthen them, producing a population which is more socially liberal, internationalist and pro-immigration. Herein lies Labour’s opportunity, but also its challenge. Young people, Cliffe was told by social attitudes researchers, are less sentimental about institutions such as the NHS and are more economically moderate than their elders. This is not the territory on which either the prime minister and Corbyn have chosen to pitch their tents; over time, their parties may find the ground shifting beneath them.


Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress