The Strange Death of Centrist England?

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Politics is a capricious business. There’s a parallel universe somewhere in which the main political story of the day is prime minister David Miliband’s first 100 days, focussed on his surprisingly deft and humane handling of the migrant crisis. “Miliband is acting”, grumbles the Daily Mail, “like he’s head of the International Rescue Committee”. David Cameron is already safely ensconced back in Chipping Norton, and Boris Johnson is set to sweep the Tory leadership contest under a ‘True Blue’ banner. This parallel universe was not, of course, very far away: Ed Miliband’s slender winning margin over his brother of .65% has probably changed the course of British politics in the 2010s as significantly as did the 500 Floridian voters who opted for Bush over Gore did for the 2000s.

Jeremy Corbyn’s margin of victory this morning was, on its own terms, far more significant. Fully 59.5% of the hundreds of thousands of Labour votes cast were for the candidate who was a 100/1 outsider at the start of the contest. It’s an incredible story, and Corbyn and his team certainly deserve credit for it. But equally there’s no doubt that Corbyn was in the right place at the right time to capture the mood of the mass of party voters who, defying pundits’ predictions and party elders’ exhortations, sought to retrench rather than retreat from the party’s opposition to the Tory government’s austerity agenda.

This is a fairly common dynamic in primary politics; as I’ve written elsewhere, the rules of this leadership election and the resulting mass of engaged voters made the process feel a lot like Britain’s first prime ministerial primary, something which Corbyn’s ultimate victory only confirms. The difference is that Corbyn has five years – rather than the five or so months that Barack Obama, for example, had in 2008 – to sell himself to the electorate, while defending himself from the extraordinary amount of muck-raking and -slinging from the right-wing press which is heading his way.

As a general rule I support anyone whom Rupert Murdoch doesn’t like, and I hope that Corbyn’s apparent good nature and sense of perspective serves him well in what will be character assassination by a thousand newspaper cuts over the course of the next half-decade. Yet Corbyn’s modest temperament is by no means matched by any sense of political or ideological moderation. This may make Prime Minister’s Questions exciting, but augurs poorly for giving the British electorate a reasonable palate of options when choosing a government in 2020. This is not only true on the Labour side: ironically, the style and scale of Corbyn’s victory may also nudge grassroot Tory voters to go big in their replacement of David Cameron, who has announced his pretirement [sic; TM], and choose a far-right favourite.

Throw in the mostly-thrown-out Liberal Democrats and you have – for the next five years, and likely longer – a perfect storm for the sizeable centrist majority of English voters. They voted for Blair in 1997 (and again in 2001 and 2005) after he detoxified the hard left Labour brand. They demured in 2010, tacitly allowing the crown to fall in David Cameron’s lap, and were a little more certain of him in 2015 when he came against the lightweight younger Miliband. They (grumpily) want Britain to stay in the EU and (grudgingly) want Scotland to stay in the UK. They also care about the defence of the NHS and the re-nationalisation of the railways, but they want firm control of immigration, security and the deficit. They care not all that much either way about civil liberties or the environment, though, as with John Maynard Keynes, circumstances may force a change in mindset on those issues. The point is not the views described and ascribed here are morally, fiscally or politically correct, or even internally coherent (though they all perhaps share a fundamental small-c conservatism); the point is that they prevail in the public at large.

The ‘at large’ there is, of course, crucial. You’d be forgiven for thinking that, in the wake of Corbyn’s sensational victory, Britain is a fundamentally changed place, with red banners unfurled and clenched fists aloft. And there are indeed aspects of Corbyn’s win which are especially tantalising for those who hope for serious, substantial change: not least the appearance of new, primarily young voters. But reading public opinion from a party leadership election is a little like judging who football fans support by only surveying the away stand. And like travelling football fans, a party’s membership (even with the generous membership policy Ed Miliband introduced) are mostly the die-hard, the old firm, and often make the most noise. Whether they change the final result though is a different question altogether.

I could be wrong. Corbyn might become the eloquent voice of equality, fairness and compassion that Britain needs. His appeal north of the border might make the electoral math slightly easier in the south. Most importantly, voters who plumped for the Conservatives in 2015 for want of a reasonable centre-left alternative might see Corbyn as everything Ed Miliband wasn’t: authentic, clear, and strong-willed. Yet the hurdles to a Labour victory in 2020 – both mathematical and ideological – were already enormous, and it’s easy to see them as even higher this morning. The choice in 2020, between Jeremy Corbyn and a Conservative leader more right-wing than David Cameron, will be one that makes centrist voters – usually courted – feel oddly under-served.

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