Allan Massie: Battle for Britain in centre ground

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne leaves the stage at the Conservative Party Conference. Picture: Getty
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne leaves the stage at the Conservative Party Conference. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

Cameron can be prime minister after the next election, but only if he refuses to allow Ukip to distract him, writes Allan Massie

The economic recovery may be under way, though it is still fragile and few are yet feeling the benefit. Nevertheless it has put a spring in George Osborne’s step. Meanwhile, to the surprise of many, the Tory crackdown on welfare seems to command majority support, no matter how contentious some measures such as the bedroom tax and the latest proposals affecting the long-term unemployed may be. To cap it all, Labour is perceived to be moving leftwards, and Ed Miliband has even been using the word “Socialism”. What’s not to like? – from the Tory point of view.

Well, there are the opinion polls for a start. Two recent YouGov ones have given Labour a lead of 11 points immediately after its conference when Miliband promised to freeze energy prices, and six points during the Tory one. This is bad enough, especially since the in-built pro-Labour bias of our electoral system means the Tories have to be several points ahead of Labour even to be the largest party in the Commons (as they are now), but still without an overall majority.

Then there is Ukip. The same polls give it 13 per cent of the vote. It would win few, if any, seats, on that figure, but it would bite deeply into the Tory vote, and almost certainly cost them seats. Now it is true that, no matter how well Ukip may do in next summer’s European election, it is likely that many who now say they will vote for it will drift away when it comes to the Cameron-or-Miliband crunch. Even so, the Tories can’t count on this. A fair number of those former Tory voters who defected to Ukip hate the Prime Minister; would a sufficient number of them swallow their dislike and vote Tory, even while holding their nose?

On the right wing of the Tory Party there is some appetite for a Tory-Ukip pact, or at least an informal one in particular constituencies. If the Tories stand at 33 per cent and Ukip at 13, then adding the two scores together would surely produce the longed-for overall majority; even if not all Ukip voters could be delivered, enough of them might be to bring the Tories up to 40 per cent. So the reasoning – for want of a better word – goes.

It is, however, wishful thinking. David Cameron has dismissed the idea of any pact with Ukip, and is quite right to have done so. The polls support him. One YouGov survey has indicated that a quarter of those now prepared to vote Tory wouldn’t do so if the party shook hands with Ukip. The losses would outweigh the gains, and those they lost would vote either Labour or Liberal Democrat; that is, for parties that will be represented in the next House of Commons…

Short of a pact, the temptation for some Tories is to tack to the right, hoping to appease Ukip and win back defectors. So, for instance, we have Home Secretary Theresa May apparently promising to repeal the Human Rights Act. This is not only wrong in itself, since that act is the citizen’s best defence against government injustice and the over-mighty state; it is also foolish. Her promise would cost the party votes. Could any liberal Tory vote for a party that proclaimed its indifference to human rights?

The suggestion is not only wrong; it’s politically foolish. The Tories are unlikely to win an overall majority in 2015. David Cameron realises this, though he can’t admit it publicly. But it is known that he has been discussing the renewal of the coalition with the Liberal Democrats – who will never agree to scrapping the Human Rights Act. So May’s promise or threat is so much hot air.

The Tory dilemma is easily stated. They are in danger of losing the support of some of their traditional voters on the Right, who, angry and disappointed, are attracted to Ukip. But any move to woo them back to the Tory camp will dismay others who will not find it possible to vote for a party bent on appeasing Nigel Farage. But, if easily stated, the dilemma is devilish hard to solve.

Elections are won or lost on the centre ground. This is a truism. Of course the centre ground itself may shift. Very evidently it did so in 1945, when Labour won the biggest victory in the party’s history. It did so because majority opinion was then in favour of socialism and what we now call social justice. More arguably it did so, moving rightwards, in 1979. Four years later, Margaret Thatcher won her second and greatest victory. This was partly because of what we came to call “the Falklands effect”, but principally because Labour had abandoned the centre ground, a move that split the party.

Today there is no evidence that majority opinion is moving to the Right. If anything it is drifting leftwards, though it should be said that Ed Miliband’s socialism is no more than pale pink. What is evident is a disintegration of the Right. Ukip may, as some have suggested, be a party that attracts people who don’t like the modern world, a gathering-place for the disaffected, but it can do considerable damage to the Conservative party by luring voters away. However, that is nothing to the damage it could do by persuading the Tory leadership to appease it. Every step towards Ukip is a step away from the centre ground, and likely to lose more voters than it wins back.

Cameron can be prime minister after the General Election only if he holds his nerve and refuses to abandon the centre ground. If he surrenders that to Miliband, he’s lost. Both the Tories and Labour are now minority parties, in the sense that neither looks capable of attracting more than four voters in ten. But to move away from the centre is to appeal to a still smaller minority. The best hope for the Tories is to hold steady, and to trust that the economic recovery is real and sufficiently strong to lead to improving living standards for the majority. Many feel that they belong to “the squeezed middle”, whose champion Miliband claims to be. They are the people whose votes will determine the result of the next election. At the moment, it seems more of them are inclined to vote Labour. So they are the people whose votes the Tories have to win. The real contest is as ever, on the centre ground. The Tories will lose, and deserve to lose, if they allow Ukip to distract them.