Ok, let’s get this left/right political spectrum thing sorted out. Some people believe that the centre ground has shifted, especially since Thatcher, and that is certainly one way of looking at it, but I’m not convinced. You see, the evidence of 2015’s election just doesn’t support that explanation. Labour did not lose because they were too left wing (the very thought! Hilarious!!), they lost because they were unable to articulate any coherent alternative to the policies of the incumbents. And the statistician in me rebels at the idea of this free floating centre anyway. That’s just not the way a spectrum tends to work. A spectrum can return a data set, that data set can be plotted as a graph, and plotting that graph will produce a bell curve. The top of the bell curve defines the centre. It’s where most people are. And where most people tend to stay.
Politics is a special case anyway. We long ago defined what were left wing and right wing ideas. By default that defines the centre. Now, let’s have a look at the last 50 years, which happens to be roughly my lifetime. When I was born a one year old centre left Labour government was in power. They had replaced a Tory govt. which was widely regarded as centrist. We’re talking about Harold MacMillan’s ‘One Nation’ Tories. In opposition the Tories shifted somewhat to the right. Fast forward to the two elections of 1974. I want to look at those because they are the first I can remember clearly plus, I would contend, that was the last time voters in the UK were offered any kind of balanced choice, centre left v. centre right. And they were both close, but the centre left edged it.
During those five years that Labour were in power they were pushed to the right. This was, I think, in large part due to a fashion (Friedmanism) which was influencing economic academia. Yes, the centre had shifted, but only amongst academic economists, not for real people. They (the economists) managed to push Labour from the centre left into the traditional centre, sometimes through their influence over bodies like the IMF (and what an interesting case study the IMF would make, today forcing policies on Greece that they openly admit they no longer believe in, but that will have to wait for another day). We all know what happened to the Tories during this period – Margaret Thatcher. She enthusiastically embraced that economic fashion, which we now call neoliberalism, and dragged the Tories all the way from the centre right, through the mainstream right, to the hard right in a single bound.
Now despite superficial appearances, hard right policies have never actually been that popular in the UK. This was amply demonstrated in the polls of the time. Mid-term she was the most unpopular PM since records began and with the Labour Party under Michael Foot moving to reoccupy the centre left, she was heading for a catastrophic defeat. It has since become axiomatic that her subsequent victory was due to Labour’s swing to the left, even amongst Labour Party members. But that’s simply not how it was. She won in 1983 for one reason and one reason only, the oldest refuge of her political fellow travellers, a good old-fashioned war. Labour could simply have stuck to their guns and waited for the electorate’s natural distaste for extremism to deliver government back to them in 1987. Instead they chose to buy her narrative and tear themselves apart in an orgy of self-recrimination (today’s party take note), ensuring they would be out of power for another decade. This erroneous belief – that they’d lost in ’83 by being too left wing – led them into moving to the right during that decade, and not just a little bit. They went from centre left, through the true centre, to the traditional centre right by the time Blair was elected. And by the time Brown was defeated, that trend having continued, they were firmly ensconced on the mainstream right.
Now all of this has been going on for so long, with so few voices in the mainstream media to contradict the notion that the centre has shifted dramatically, that we’ve all become used to it. But our own views, individually and as a collective polity, have not really shifted that much at all. Result? We have become progressively more alienated from the mainstream political parties. In May 2015 we were presented with a choice between centre right and hard right, when what many of us actually wanted was a left of centre alternative. The media portrayed Ed Milliband as that alternative, on the basis that he was slightly less right wing than his brother, but we instinctively knew it wasn’t true. The exception was, of course, Scotland. There was a left of centre alternative for Scottish voters, and they grabbed it with both hands. Alienated English working class voters had only the fake populism of UKIP to resort to, though many clearly did so. That won’t happen this time.
So has the election of Jeremy Corbyn really made Labour unelectable, as all the journalists and pundits have been so eager to insist for the last two years? I wouldn’t be so sure if I were you guys. Because although you keep telling us how people won’t vote for left wing policies, there was very little actual discussion of what those policies might be. All the criticisms were trivial. ‘Look at his clothes!’ ‘And look at this, we’ve managed to photoshop out the WW2 veteran he was helping to the Cenotaph, and it looks like he’s doing a jig!’ You know, anyone who’s old enough will immediately get this three word reference, but if you’re too young to remember 1983 just google the three words: Cenotaph, duffel coat. You will immediately see why this campaign is so eerily reminiscent of that one. With a few differences. No Falklands War, just the slow buyer’s remorse of Brexit. And May is no Margaret Thatcher. You can tell by the fear in her eyes. And now she’s backflipped on a manifesto policy, and denied that it was ever any different. What is that, some sort of bizarre ‘1984’ reference? But, as I was saying, like 1983 very little discussion of actual policies. Until, that is, some of Corbyn’s enemies inside the Shadow Cabinet unwittingly did him a favour by leaking theirs, and they turned out to be extremely popular! A lot of pollsters and pundits have got a lot of things very badly wrong in that time. A wise commentator might very well conclude that this was a time to step back, wait, watch and listen. Reorientate yourselves, reconnect with the real centre, then perhaps next time you won’t end up with quite so much egg on your faces.