Wednesday, March 01, 2006

 

Centre Ground Analysed

All this discussion about Cameron, Blair and the Lib Dems 'crowding the centre ground' raises the question: what exactly it is? Most people define themselves as being in it and for a decade the Tories have been seen not to be so, but rather on 'its' periphery. And if you are not in it, so goes the received wisdom, you have no chance of winning a majority. Yet Margaret Thatcher challenged it and ruled for over a dedade. So it can be over-turned and new ideas are not always rejected just because they are new. Here's my take on what constitutes the centre ground:

1. The middle ground is essentially the broad consensus of the day. In the mid nineteenth century it would have featured such beliefs as: economic activity should be unhindered by government regulation; Britain has a God given right and duty to expand its Empire; and poor people can only rely on themselves to improve their lot in life. All those items disappeared from the consensus by the early decades of the 20th century.

2. What causes the consensus to change? a)persistent propaganda over a long period e.g. Labour Party and socialism; b) evidence that existing policies have failed e.g. nationalisation by the end of the seventies. c)events which change the context of politics e.g. the winter of discontent 1978-79 which appeared to show unions had too much power.

3. New ideas are constantly on the edges of the debate but mostly, they are kept where they are e.g. 'deep green' ideas urging the reduction of economic activity. But a powerful advocate and propitious circumstances can propell a new set of beliefs into the middle, centre ground or 'mainstream of politics'e.g. Thatcher in late seventies aided by the winter of discontent.

4. What ideas are moving into the centre ground at present? Most emphatically green ideas. Deep green is still too strong a brew for most voters but slowly the public is coming around to support: recycling, the pressing need to reduce CO2 emmissions and to preserve disappearing species. For the future I think restriction of cheap air-travel might well edge into the middle and become a feature of party programmes- most likely the Lib Dems at the moment- but who knows how quickly knowledge about the planet's dire predicament will become to be disseminated. The consensus at the moment accepts the need to restrict civil liberties in defence of terrorism but perhaps the current problems of related legislation reveals the limits are being reached. A new outrage would probably make further erosion possible and likely however.

5. Should all the main parties aim for the centre gound? Probably, if they seriously want to win power. But appearing too much like all the other parties could be a disadvantage. Parties need to add a few distinctive policies which catch the eye and win respect and support- rather as the Lib Dems did with their opposition to the Iraq War. The trick all politicians try to play is to anticipate those issues which are moving into the mainstream and then jump aboard them. That's why I think all the parties should alert themselves to the emerging agenda on the environment. The more practical reason for this is that if something is not done and very soon there will be nothing much left for politicians to fight over anyway.

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