Do people want a new centrist party?

Seven Labour MPs have resigned the party whip. It’s not clear what they plan to do next but many commentators assume that the formation of a new centrist party will be the eventual outcome

Is there a market for a new centrist party though? Nick Barlow thinks not. He wrote a piece on ‘the centrist fallacy’ last year in which he looked at data from the British Election Survey. He found that most people think their own political views are in the centre ground even when they are not. So lots of people might say they would support a centrist party but wouldn’t actually like its policies when it came to an election. He also found that, based on the questions in the BES, the electorate skews to the left on economic issues and to the right on social issues.

The FT’s John Burn-Murdoch plotted the same data on a single chart last year, which clearly shows a lump of voters in the top left hand corner – socially conservative and economically left-wing.


As a sense check on this, other studies using different questions from the BES have given similar results. A YouGov survey in 2015 found majority support for economically left-wing and socially right-wing policies.

A study by Populus for the Legatum Institute gave a similar picture, with majority socially conservative attitudes coupled with an antipathy to free-market capitalism that the survey’s sponsors found somewhat disheartening.

In this sense, politics has been out of step with the voters for some time. The general direction of policy has seen a shift from top left to bottom right. It has shifted to the right economically and to the left on social issues. Think of the state in postwar Britain. It was very much top left. It flogged and executed criminals, forced men into the army and punished people for being gay. It also nationalised entire industries, built social housing, set up a free health service and provided free milk and orange juice for children. Today’s state looks very different. It doesn’t flog people any more but it’s flogged off a lot of what it once used to run.

As David Goodhart said, the liberal wings of both political traditions triumphed over the last thirty years:

What if a lot of people feel that there’s no point in voting because whoever you vote for you get the same old mix of economic liberalism and social liberalism – Margaret Thatcher tempered by Roy Jenkins.

The two liberalisms – the 1960s (social) and 1980s (economic) – have dominated politics for a generation.

Or, as American political scientist Alan Wolfe put it:

The right won the economic war, the left won the cultural war.

Looking at where the UK public is, though, a lot of people may wish it had been the other way around, or at least that the victories had not been quite so complete.

As you might expect, politicians fall closer to their party position than many of the voters. Jon Mellon and Chris Prosser from the BES team found that parliamentary candidates from the Labour Party fell into the bottom left quadrant, economically left and socially liberal, while the Conservative candidates clustered towards the top right quadrant, economically right and socially conservative. This pattern is pretty much consistent over several elections.

If there is a politically vacant space, then, it is in that top left hand box. Politics and politicians have taken policy in a direction that many of these voters don’t like. The Conservative Party successfully appealed to them on the basis of socially conservative rhetoric, even though the party’s main thrust was economic. It still comes as a surprise to many people when you tell them that Margaret Thatcher abolished corporal punishment in schools, in between privatising stuff and busting the unions. The Labour Party appealed to the top left with socialist rhetoric, even as it left much in place from the Thatcher/Major years and enthusiastically embraced PFI.

Eventually people started to notice but the two-party system and the utter ineptitude of parties like the BNP that tried to appeal to top left voters ensured that any electoral threat was kept under control until the lid blew off in the EU referendum.

So might the aftermath of the EU referendum completely realign politics? Are we all Leavers or Remainers now?

Well it’s probably a bit more complicated than that.

Paula Surridge has looked at the BES data in the context of the Brexit vote. I have plotted her results on a grid, similar to the one John Burn Murdoch did. (I have used ‘socially conservative’ and ‘socially liberal’ rather than authoritarian and libertarian as I think these terms express the divide more clearly.)

A two-dimensional view of UK political attitudes

Over the last 25 years, the political centre of gravity has shifted slightly to the economic left and the socially liberal but the overall skew is still towards the left on economic issues and to the conservative on social issues.

The most striking finding, though, is that among Tory and Labour voters there was very little difference in attitudes on economic issues between voters supporting the same political party. Labour Leave voters are no more left-wing than Labour Remain voters. Conservative Leave voters are no more right-wing than Conservative Remain voters. The differentiator in the EU referendum was the cultural/social attitudes. The socially conservative tended to vote Leave while the socially liberal were more likely to vote Remain. Eric Kaufman’s research found similar results.

The assumption that support for Remain is a ‘centrist’ attitude may be somewhat flawed. There are many on the left who are opposed to leaving the EU, such as Clive Lewis, who resigned from the front bench to oppose Article 50. The emergence of Another Europe, which sprang from the Remain wing of Momentum, and the number of anti-Brexit resolutions from Labour constituencies shows that charges of ‘Blairism’ against Labour Remainers are way wide of the mark. Would Brexit on its own be enough to make people switch their support to a new party? In two-party Britain with its tribal allegiances, any new party needs a massive momentum if it is to have a hope of breaking the mold. It is unlikely that many Labour members and voters will see a new party as the answer.

This also raises questions for the strategies of the two main parties. At the last election, the Conservatives made a pitch for socially conservative working-class voters. Though its author is now much derided, the Erdington strategy did have some success, with some long-standing Labour seats like Mansfield going Tory.

Labour cannot hope to compete on social conservatism. Its activists wouldn’t wear it and the voters probably wouldn’t believe it. There is, however, some comfort for Labour in Paula Surridge’s research. She notes that the socially conservative/liberal divide is likely to modify previous political allegiances but also:

When political emphasis is placed on a traditional left-right divide, as in the 2017 general election, then voters’ positions on this divide are much more closely related to their behaviour.

In other words, the left-right divide is not dead yet. Major on the economic stuff and at least some voters will worry less about the cultural issues. Labour’s best defence against the Erdington strategy may therefore be to appeal to the voters in the top left box with economically left-wing policies.

But that still leaves the looming Brexit question. Is opposition to Brexit enough to attract voters to a new party? A recent survey by the transport union TSSA noted that Brexit is a much more important issue for Labour’s Remain voters for than its Leave voters:

Brexit energises Labour Remain voters far more than Labour Leave voters and this explains why Labour failing to oppose Brexit will have a far more significant impact on the Labour vote than if it actually opposes Brexit.

It found that support for Remain has increased among Labour voters from around two-thirds at the referendum to three-quarters now.

All of which suggests that a clearer Remain stance coupled with left-wing policies might just pull off a majority for Labour. It would keep the Remainers on side and get back enough of the voters in the top left box. Another Europe’s slogan, “Love Socialism, Hate Brexit” might be the way to go.

If that doesn’t happen, though, which it probably won’t, is Brexit alone enough to attract disaffected Labour and Tory voters to a new party? For the moment, we don’t know what the Labour rebels are planning (if they have a plan at all) or whether any Tories will join them. If they do form a new party, though, we will find out whether and how far Brexit has re-drawn our political map. At the moment their chances of success look slim. All the same, so many crazy things have happened over the last three years that I wouldn’t want to bet my house on it.


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18 Responses to Do people want a new centrist party?

  1. Dipper says:

    Where do these “socially liberal” and “social conservative” measurements come from? I read that Remainers are far more unlikely to have Leavers as friends and more likely to refuse to date Leavers than the other way round. It seems Social Liberals are far more conservative about their choice of friends than Social Conservatives.

  2. Simon Jones says:

    I’m just seeing a rerun of the SDP-Liberal Alliance. In the early 1980s,the SDP had the high media profile, the Liberals had the organisation on the ground and the political know-how. Despite the 2015 wipeout and the erosion of their council base, the Lib Dems do still have a national organisation and considerable strength in certain parts of the Country. The one poll I have seen that compared voting intentions with/without a “new Centrist party” saw most of its support coming from the Lib Dems – they went down from 10% to 6% while Tories and Labour went down 1 or 2%. Combined Centrist + Lib Dem was around 14. Certainly with FPTP it would be electoral suicide for a new party and the Lib Dems to stand against each other.

    It’s also worth noting that in the 83 election, all bar 6 of the 23 Alliance MPs were Liberals rather than SDP – the “centrist surge” pushed Liberal candidates over the line in what were their target seats (where they had built up local bases over a number of years) rather than elect MPs from a new party which had little local organisation

    • Dipper says:

      spot on I think Simon Jones. Centrist MPs + Lib Dems + 5 years = Lib Dems

      This question would look completely different if we had PR. That would lead to a lot more dynamics and nuances. Perhaps the place to start is with reforming the House of Lords. As a Leaver, I’d be quite keen on getting rid of that bunch of entitled ignorant sneering ego maniacs. Replacing them with a PR-based house elected out of cycle would enable an effective counter-weight to be voted in.

  3. D. says:

    I’ve never entirely understood how you can be elected an MP as a member of a political party, then resign from that party (either going independent or joining another party) and yet remain an MP? I would have expected that you would have to resign as an MP and stand again in a by-election?? Especially given how many people would – allegedly – vote for a dog as their MP so long as its rosette was the right colour…

    • Dave Timoney says:

      The answer to that question lies with Edmund Burke, not so much because we are in thrall to his claim that an MP should be independent (“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion”), but because his view crystallised the conventional wisdom at a time when the political system was moving from factions to parties.

      While Burke was actually arguing against patronage as much as representative democracy, his position was subsequently adopted as a defence against both the irresistible extension of the vote and the growing demand of party members for a greater say in the evolution of policy. Viewed over the longue durée, the cause of universal suffrage and party democracy has decisively won, but many MPs remain in the 18th century, hence the frequency with which they quote Burke. De facto, we now have 11 rotten boroughs in this Parliament.

      • KidTempo says:

        While I would agree with the first half of your 2nd paragraph, I have to disagree with the second. Parties have replaced the landowner factions as pushers of patronage in the political system – the party leaderships (influenced by large party donors, think tanks, and other vested interests) are just as guilty of dropping in their preferred (and unquestionably loyal) candidates into safe seats, confident that they will be selected by the local party and elected by constituents who always vote for the rosette not the person. These are today’s rotten boroughs.

        A return to the principles of Burke would be strongly welcomed.

  4. Staberinde says:

    Any political party needs three things to have a chance of success: MPs, an army of activists and money. The IG has the MPs, the LibDems have the activists and the new Blair-backed centre party with no name (launching soon) has the money. It was the lack of MPs which did for UKIP and the lack of funds which stops the LibDems breaking through. An alliance with the SNP would be a wise step.

  5. Phoenix44 says:

    The data on how important Brexit is to voters is wrong. Remain are much more energised because they think we will leave and that upsets them. Leave voters believe we will leave, so are much less concerned about the issue. We see a similar effect in views on immigration. If the prevailing sentiment changed – that Brexit will be blocked – voters attitudes would reverse.

  6. Zhou Fang says:

    The mistake you are making is that the position of the origin in these graphs is essentially arbitrary. It’s not valid to look at them and say ‘people are mostly ‘socially conservative/economically left’, because you are applying a judgement there. Whereas the actual base data is more prosaic. On the authoritarian scale what we basically have is averaging over the below, people are more likely to agree than disagree with the following:

    1) Young people don’t have enough respect for traditional values
    2) Censorship is necessary to uphold moral values
    3) We shouldn’t be tolerant of those who lead unconventional lifestyles
    4) For some crime the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence
    5) People who break the law should be given stiffer sentences

    1. is a question about the age divide.
    2. depends a lot on your definition of censorship. For example, online moderation is potentially ‘censorship’, as is deplatforming of fascists.
    3. depends again on changing notions of ‘tolerant’ and ‘unconventional’. Who and what people think about on this question is significant, so again this is a social fragmentation question
    5. is a question *relative* to the current legal framework. A lenient society that prefers slightly more rigorous opposition to tax evasion would be marked as ‘conservative’ whereas a fascist society that prefers deviants be merely shot and not tortured would be marked as liberal.

    • Zhou Fang says:

      I will say though that ‘stopping benefits entirely for people who don’t accept an offer of employment’ is potentially a ‘radically centrist’ idea. It’s a bit confusing, to be honest, how it’s so popular, but overall it’s reminiscent to me of the getting-people-into-employment orientated welfare reforms of the Third Way centre-left, except presented in a more extreme way.

  7. Hugh Mann says:

    ” the utter ineptitude of parties like the BNP that tried to appeal to top left voters”

    The BNP got nearly a million votes, 6% of those cast, in the 2009 Euro elections. In quick succession they found that no bank would give them an account, then that the entire membership’s named and addresses had been ‘leaked’ and put online. Given that a BBC comedian, the late Jeremy Hardy, had expressed the view on-air that their members and supporters should be “shot in the back of the head”, and that this led to no sanctions against him, you can see that this wouldn’t exactly encourage activism.

    That “top left” was precisely the BNP vote target – IIRC one of their slogans was “We are the Labour Party your grandparents voted for”.

  8. Pingback: The Independent Group – Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill

  9. Yeah. From the little they have said about policy, I expect the Parliamentary Independent Group to end up in the region of the Lib Dem orange bookers – socially liberal but economically conservative. This is very much, as this blog shows, not the winning domain. I could be wrong, but the question of their unknown sponsorship (I don’t think we’ll ever know who funded the start up of this as it will always stay hidden) is ringing alarm bells. An enterprising journalist really should track this down. To be Frank.

  10. Anthony says:

    There appears to be some confusion in the article as to what the axes of this 2-D diagram are; references to the corners are contradictory. For example: post war Britain is described as top-right despite being economically left, which would put it top-left on the diagrams pictured.

  11. Anthony says:

    If you discuss the actions of UK governments in relation to their apparent or stated political positions, you need to understand that over the last 50 years such actions have been limited by the opposition. NHS spending and Defence spending both went counter to what you expect, because only Labour could ‘get away with’ cutting NHS funding, and only the Conservatives could get away with cutting defence expenditure. In each case the party in power could always suppress rebellion by its own MPs but was in danger from carefully choreographed public outrage by the opposition. I accept this might not be true in other countries.

  12. Fascinating post – thank you Rick – much food for thought. Minor point – think there is a typo in the following “parliamentary candidates from the Labour Party fell into the bottom left quadrant, economically left and socially liberal, while the Conservative candidates clustered towards the top left quadrant” – think the Con candidates cluster towards the top right quad (which is why the top left is free space – (or even the bottom right – socially liberal fans of an ordered free market – ordo liberalism in Germany). Cheers – H

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