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.