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In search of the centre ground

Summary:
In the FT, Robert Shrimsley writes: Starmer is leading his party back to the centre ground and has positioned it where it needs to be and patently was not under Jeremy Corbyn….The problem in contesting the centre ground is that you do actually have to fight for it and the Tories will not lightly surrender. This poses the question: what is this centre ground, and how can it be said that the Tories occupy it? It’s a puzzle. We could define the centre ground as being what the median voter believes. But the majority of voters want a £15ph minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich, and nationalization of railways and utilities. From this perspective, Starmer is leading his party away from the centre ground which Corbyn and McDonnell claimed – a ground which the Tories don’t occupy.

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In the FT, Robert Shrimsley writes:

Starmer is leading his party back to the centre ground and has positioned it where it needs to be and patently was not under Jeremy Corbyn….The problem in contesting the centre ground is that you do actually have to fight for it and the Tories will not lightly surrender.

This poses the question: what is this centre ground, and how can it be said that the Tories occupy it?

It’s a puzzle.

We could define the centre ground as being what the median voter believes. But the majority of voters want a £15ph minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich, and nationalization of railways and utilities. From this perspective, Starmer is leading his party away from the centre ground which Corbyn and McDonnell claimed – a ground which the Tories don’t occupy.

Clearly, Shrimsley doesn’t have this conception of the centre ground in mind.

But there’s another. It arises from the theory of valence politics.

This says that voters don’t judge parties by the entirety of their manifestos, which only cranks and obsessives read. Instead, they judge parties, and especially leaders, by their performance on what they care about most.

On this view it can be said that Corbyn abandoned the centre ground, despite having many policies popular with the median voter. Median voters saw him as unpatriotic and as unable or unwilling to get Brexit done, defects which outweighed his attractive economic policies. Johnson could thus seize the centre ground in 2019.

But there’s more to valence politics than this. As Peter Kellner has said, valence voters

judge parties and politicians not on their manifestos but on their character. Are they competent? Honest? Strong in a crisis? Likely to keep their promises?

Johnson does not occupy the centre ground on these criteria. But then, nor does Starmer. As Kellner wrote recently: “the average ‘valence’ scores of the two parties are dreadful.”

On this conception, then, nobody in England commands the centre ground.

And, perhaps, nor could they. Median voter theory assumes that voters are distributed along one dimension – traditionally left and right – and so there is some kind of centre: the theory is closely analogous to Hotelling’s Law.  But this might be changing. If voters are divided along other dimensions, such as culture or age, the centre ground becomes much harder to define – which is perhaps why the Lib Dems and ChangeUK lost so heavily at the last election. In 2019, Labour won among under-39 year-olds but lost heavily among older voters. It won the younger median voter but lost the older one. What does the centre ground mean here?

How, then, can Shrimsley be writing anything other than utter guff?

Simple. There’s a third conception of the centre ground.

Which is just the status quo, and minor tweaks thereto. Swamp-5-3-_960px

In the 60s and 70s, for example, the centre ground believed that utilities should be publicly owned. By the late 90s, it believed they should be privately held. And before 2016 the centre ground supported UK membership of EU single market. Now, it opposes them. It is in this sense that “Starmer is leading his party back to the centre ground” – by abandoning support for freedom of movement.

Centrism, then, is parasitic and deferential to the existing order.

These different conceptions of the centre ground explain the intellectual trajectory of centrists during my adulthood.  In 1983 the SDP manifesto wanted a fiscal stimulus to cut unemployment and raise welfare benefits, increased foreign aid and “a major extension of profit sharing and worker share-ownership.” Centrists today are just gimps for billionaires.

This transformation happened because the SDP were using a median voter conception of the centre ground; they tried to split the difference between left and right as they existed at the time. Today, though, centrists see no need to stake out a defined position between left and right. “Moderation” means accepting the status quo.

When columnists like Shrimsley speak of the centre ground, therefore, what they mean is merely “something that doesn’t scare me”.

From this perspective, Starmer is indeed returning to the centre ground, by not challenging the existing capitalist order. However, it is one thing to actively argue for the status quo and another to merely passively accept it without intellectual effort, as Starmer is doing. Worse still, defending capitalism when it is delivering rising living standards and better jobs (as centrists could plausibly claim in the 90s) is very different from defending it when it has delivered a generation of crisis, rentierism, and stagnation. The centre ground is now just a fetid swamp.

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