Saturday, 25 April 2015

Reaching out to centrist voters now is good tactics. Strategy it ain’t

Happily, Labour has had a very good fortnight. Since my last election piece two weeks ago, Miliband’s personal ratings have jumped up and the Tory campaign has blundered from unforced error to unforced error. Bookies and polls now put him as neck and neck with Cameron as next PM, not lagging way behind as before.

The final piece of this recovery in both results and performance, last weekend, was a quite unexpected outreach programme from Labour to the centre ground, of which more later.

After the last election, the new prime minister, formerly known for his husky-cuddling and his “greenest government ever” shtick suddenly remembered his back benchers and became, for the most part, a much more traditional kind of Tory.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in his Europe policy, where he essentially caved in to the more rabid Eurosceptic elements in his own party, in the hope of stemming the flow of voters and defecting MPs to UKIP. If, as some are predicting, UKIP ends up the election having lost Thanet South and with merely a couple of MPs, he will surely look back on this decision to pander to their agenda as one of the utmost folly.

That game is not only dangerous for Britain, it is poor internal politics for Cameron: after all, his (almost universally pro-EU) big business backers can hardly be delighted at the prospect of an EU referendum. But in any event, it is not hard to paint the Tories as having lurched into a right-wing caricature of themselves.

On the other hand Miliband, for the majority of his tenure as leader, has often given the impression of being more mindful of his party at large than of the electorate outside, with the result that Labour’s policy agenda has mostly languished in its comfort zone on the soft left. There was one brief flicker of hope that Labour would once again embrace a broad church, around the time of Miliband’s 2013 “One Nation” conference speech: but in policy terms One Nation turned out, for the most part, to be a slogan, and little more.

Politics is a lot like the game of squash: those who dominate the centre of the court tend to dominate the game.

But, for most of the last five years, bizarrely, the centre ground has been sitting there, unloved, waiting for someone to claim it. “Take me, I’m yours,” it has been saying, forlornly. “I could be good to you.”

Last weekend this strange parlour game came to an end or, at least, seemed to. In an interview with the Observer, Miliband dusted off the One Nation motif again and reached out to centrist voters.

“I am a politician of the left,” he said, “but I am positioned where the mainstream of politics is positioned. I am on the centre ground of politics.”

It is good tactics, because the Tories have left an open goal by their over-the-top attacks on Miliband. People see him in the TV debates, and think, “you know, he’s not half as bad as they say he is”. By putting himself forward as a centrist, he can show the Tories up for fools and liars.

He may even sway a few stray swing voters; there are genuinely people who think about politics once every five years, if that, and may not even have really thought about Miliband at all, until now. As Progress’ Richard Angell points out, the outcome of the election still hangs on the ability of the two main parties to steal votes from the other.

These things are good. But they will change little. Opinion-formers, those who take their politics more seriously, will not buy that Miliband is suddenly the high priest of a broad church, any more than they think putting the economy at the centre of the manifesto will make them buy the idea that Labour is now serious about fiscal probity.

In the end it is difficult not to be delighted at the appearance of this seemingly Damascene conversion to the political centre. After the last five years, we see it like Dr Johnson’s dog walking on its hind legs: it is not so much that it has been done well, but that it has been done at all.

However churlish it may be to say so, though, one thing is nonetheless crashingly obvious: Labour should have been taking this stance since it left office, not a few weeks before polling day.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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