The future of the left since 1884

The forgotten centre

The Tories' Red Wall obsession will come back to bite, writes Billy Hancock.



Since the dramatic collapse of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’, political analysis has become fixated with the battle to win over ‘leave voting’, ‘traditionally Labour’ and ‘working-class’ voters.

But Labour, the Conservatives and the mainstream media have offered little attention to the other tranche of British voters who are also questioning their political allegiances. The liberal conservative, pro-European, moderate wing of British politics has fallen a long way since its days in the sun under David Cameron and the coalition governments – and now appears to be bordering on political irrelevance as the Red Wall narrative dominates analysis.

Contrary to their recent media coverage hiatus, these voters have not disappeared. Thirty-four per cent of UK voters identify with the ‘centre’ than the ‘left’ (24 per cent) or ‘right’ (25 per cent) of politics. Forty-one per cent of Conservatives voted remain in the EU referendum. By 2019, the Tories managed to win just 19 per cent of the remain vote.

It is generally accepted that since Boris Johnson’s rise to power, the Conservative party and its core messaging has largely shifted to the right. This is most clearly demonstrated by its divorce with prominent liberal and pro-European MPs and ministers, including Phillip Hammond, Ken Clarke, Rory Stewart and Amber Rudd. These parliamentarians, alongside former party leaders David Cameron and John Major, have not held back in their criticism of the current government and prime minister. Ken Clarke even described the cabinet as “the most right-wing cabinet any Conservative party has ever produced”.

The Conservative party has often successfully sold itself to the centre ground through its image of competent and stable leadership as well as economic astuteness. However this reputation will likely be tarnished by its flirtation with a no deal Brexit, objectively below par handling of Covid and its authoritarian inclinations highlighted by the illegal proroguing of parliament and the recent crime and policing bill.

Evidently, these disgruntled centrists did not leave the Tories in significant enough numbers to influence the outcome in 2019. However, the true scale of resentment is likely to have been disguised by the Corbyn phenomenon. For many voters, any unease with Johnson and Brexit will have been negated by a fear of Corbyn’s radical image and socialist economic proposals.

This key anti-Corbyn dynamic was consistently and clearly recorded by pollsters, particularly the Lord Ashcroft polls, in the run up to the election.

For the ex-Tory centrists who did decide to switch allegiances in 2019, the Liberal Democrats were likely seen as a more appropriate and comfortable vehicle for their unease with Boris/Brexit compared with Corbyn’s Labour. However, as Starmer continues to steer Labour’s image away from its more radical wing, the Corbyn shaped roadblock repelling these moderates will, perhaps gradually, be removed.

This is strongly endorsed by the latest MRP poll, the most detailed electoral analysis since 2019, which showed that 24.7 per cent of people who voted for the Lib Dems in 2019 (almost a million people) would now vote Labour. This dwarfs any other movement between major parties recorded in the polls since 2019.

Labour must be mindful of this opportunity to harness more support from the centre ground. This is particularly pertinent in the current context, as the dominance of Covid-19 on politics begins to (hopefully) wane, providing space for Starmer to remould the party’s image and vision for the country. Any policy offerings must remain economically credible, internationalist and conceivable. But most importantly, Labour must be seen as a realistic, governable alternative to the Tories, which is more difficult than it seems when you have been out of power for over a decade.

Understandably, regaining Red Wall support is at the forefront of Labour’s consciousness. This can be seen in the efforts to reassociate the party with patriotism and the unsubtle avoidance of any anti-Brexit rhetoric. But this should not necessarily be seen as incompatible with efforts to attract support from the liberal/centre ground: the recommendations made by Sally Gimson in her recent Fabian pamphlet to reconnect with Red Wall voters, including the regional devolvement of power and extensive green energy developments, are likely to be as popular with liberals from Bath as they are with Brexiteers from Bassetlaw.

The importance of a broad electoral appeal encompassing the centre ground was underlined by Joe Biden’s victory in the US election. And perhaps it needs restating that despite growing fears of populism and authoritarianism, the world’s other prominent western democracies – France, Germany and Canada – are all ran by moderate leaders and governments that are built on support from the centre ground.

If Labour wants to win a majority in 2024, simply regaining Red Wall votes will not be sufficient. But the Conservatives’ desertion of the centre ground simplifies the arduous task of piecing together a successful electoral coalition.

Billy Hancock

Billy Hancock is a Young Fabian, finance associate and Labour activist.


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