Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Are elections always won from the centre ground?

Lord Saatchi says not, saying that Margaret Thatcher disproved the "dinner party myth." Iain Dale disagrees, arguing that the 1979 manifesto on which Thatcher won was much more centrist than is generally supposed.

So who's right? Well, I'm going to sit on the fence for the time being and say I have some sympathy with both points of view.

In his pamphlet published yesterday, In Praise of Ideology, Lord Saatchi said people were losing faith in politics because there was so little difference between the parties. In the light of the declining turnout at recent elections, it is very hard to argue against this standpoint.

"The pragmatism of the centre ground turns politics into a commodity market - because pragmatism leads to opportunism, which leads to cynicism. People can spot a left/right 'positioning exercise' a mile off. The motive for these moves is too transparent. Voters always suspected that politicians would 'say anything to get elected'. Now they know it's true."

On the other hand, I do agree with Dale when he says that David Cameron needs to continue his move towards the centre ground, because of the particular electoral circustamces in which his party now finds itself.

"You cannot win purely with the support of your own core voters. Instead you have to appeal to a wider body. This is the lesson of the last 10 years in which the Conservatives have languished in opposition. Continually banging on about the same old message in the same old way is not going to appeal to those who find themselves disillusioned with politics and politicians."

Historically speaking, of course, the truth about elections is much more complex. While it is true to say that elections are not won from extreme positions, as Labour found in 1983 and the Tories in 2001, that is not the same as saying that the party with the most "centrist" position invariably wins.

If it was, I suspect the Liberals and their successor parties might have had a bit more success than they have had over the past 100 years!

My own view is that a political leader needs both the Saatchi approach and the Dale approach if you like, a clear ideology tempered by a willingness to compromise when necessary.

The lack of an ideological compass won't necessarily prevent David Cameron from becoming Prime Minister, as Tony Blair discovered. But it will prevent him from becoming a good one.

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james higham said...

David Cameron needs to continue his move towards the centre ground, because of the particular electoral circustamces in which his party now finds itself.

Not too far because then it just comes down to personalities.

skipper said...

It's always difficult to define what the centre ground is. I think it's usually what the government of the day has managed to create as a consensus but this is still vague; e.g Thatcher created a low tax tight money consensus but did not extend it to include a restrictive policy on social matters. However well over three quarters of voters define themselves as believing in centre ground ideas, so appealing to them-and maybe it's a guess in the end- is a sure fire election winner.

RedEye said...

A party can get away with moving to the right, or left, of centre (or even moving to the centre to the right or left) depending on circumstances. The Attlee government's creation of the welfare state and NHS probably wouldn't have been possible but for the Second World War (when, as Peter Hennessy said, 'Never before had Disraeli's two nations been bought into such intimate and enduring proximity'), the inclusion of Labour ministers such as Attlee in the coalition government made the party look more credible, the Army Bureau of Current Affairs and revulsion against the means test.

Similarly, had the Tories won an Autumn 1978 GE (which they might have, as the late John Golding notes in his posthumously published memoir, Hammer of the Left), Thatcher wouldn't have had the Winter of Discontent to use to her advantage. Had it happened to her, and not Callaghan, it would just have reinforced the image (created by the three day week) that the Tories couldn't work with the unions. As it was, the Winter of Discontent wrecked Labour's claim that it was the only party which could work with the unions.

Plus, of course, the 73 oil shock wrecked Keynesian welfare capitalism (as did the misreading of Keynes by politicians of both parties - they forgot that Keynes advocated deficit financing only in times of recession).