They say that the political centre ground has been vacated creating a big opportunity for so-called ‘centrist’ political forces to make big gains by re-occupying it. But is that true?
There are reasons why the centre ground has been vacated. And they do not bode well for those who approach that space in the same way that they have approached it in the past.
The main shift that we are seeing everywhere in the political landscape is a voting population that has had it to the back teeth with the status quo. Major issues that affect people’s lives are not being addressed by mainstream politicians. This has opened the ground for those perceived to be insurgents.
As we outlined in our end of year blog last year, it doesn’t matters much what ideology those insurgents have. The most important factor is not detailed policy but the ability to create a feeling of being able to break with the status quo and a seeming determination to tackle aggressively the perceived issues of the day (immigration, falling living standards, precarious employment, etc).
This has led both to the rise of new parties as we have seen in Italy, France, Spain, and so on. And to mainstream parties moving to more extreme versions of their traditional positions – as we are seeing in the UK with Labour moving to the far left and the Conservatives moving ever further to the right – a situation that more or less mirrors what is happening in the US.
In an essentially two-party system, like that of the UK and the US, this vacates the centre ground. But it would be a mistake to believe that this is a vacuum waiting to be filled by anyone who tries to reclaim it. In any two-party system, when the main parties move towards extremes, their supporters move with them.
They become so terrified that ‘the other side’ might win an election that they double down on voting for their preferred option. Voting for a third party trying to occupy the centre becomes too risky as it may simply be a wasted vote that simply serves to let ‘the other side’ in.
That is why I believe that no party ‘centrist’ or otherwise, can be successful in today’s political landscape unless it meets these criteria:
- It must be credibly seen to be radical and disruptive. Bringing forward fresh, new ideas to old and intractable issues.
- It must have an effective leader fit for our media dominated world. One who authentically embodies the spirit of insurgency, is seen to be strong enough to upend the status quo and is largely untainted by previous association with the establishment.
- It must be able to communicate effectively, concisely and theatrically to capture people’s emotions rather than trying to engage them in complex policy discussion.
- It must be clear on which constituency it is appealing to and ensure that its ‘package’ is clearly directed at that constituency.
- It must have a credible chance of winning.
- Once in power, it needs to move quickly with a couple of headline-grabbing policies that can deliver rapid impact.
Whether we look at Donald Trump’s Republicans, Matteo Salvini’s La Lega, Macron’s Republique En Marche, Trudeau’s Canadian Liberals, or the myriad others who are having success, they all fulfil most if not all of these characteristics.
As a recent article in the Financial Times about Donald Trump’s continued voter appeal put it: “Public opinion is not shaped by details, it is shaped by optics.”
Peter Arnold says
A good posting, and I agree with your six criteria. However, I do not agree that the UK is still a two-party state. There are at least five parties consistently competing for people’s votes. In my sixty years of active politics I have witnessed and experienced the change from “either-or” to “which is the least worst option?” You may believe that the LibDems, Greens and UKIP are out for the count, but for those of us who have campaigned in the communities where people live, we know that the old allegiance to either the Tories or Labour fractured some time ago and has not been fixed since. In my experience, voters are looking for politicians who understand their concerns and campaign on them, and whose active work in the community builds trust. We live in a multi-party and occasional democracy, the system is broken and needs fixing, people have little trust in any politician, and the country is crying out for a radical, reformist and trustworthy group of campaigning politicians who are actively and loudly committed to fundamental change in the UK. No party, in my opinion, meets these criteria at the moment, let alone your six to fix. We need a new political movement based on Liberalism as its creed, and using participatory democracy as its method to achieve its objectives.
Joe Zammit-Lucia says
“I do not agree that the UK is still a two-party state”
Thanks Pater. Good comments. The issue in my view is not the fact of having third, fourth and fifth parties but that it is difficult for them to get significant electoral traction in the first-past-the-post system unless they are geographically concentrated (SNP, Plaid, DUP, etc). At the moment, as you suggest, there is no third party that has the necessary combination of capabilities to challenge the two main parties on a national basis and succeed in the first-past-the-post system. We can but hope that that will change..
Gordon Lishman says
I’m not convinced that the LibDems are listening, but you are quite right. You mention the Canadian Liberal Party which is an example the Party is interested in following but I’m not sure it has grasped the key differences – it has the advantage of being a traditional governing party in a system which has been Liberals versus others. More widely, it seems to me that Boris Johnson is positioning himself as the leader of an insurgent party rather than as a Conservative Party Leader which would be a major threat if Brexit fails.
‘It must be able to communicate effectively, concisely and theatrically to capture people’s emotions rather than trying to engage them in complex policy discussion.’
Not sure I can condone this entirely, the terms of comunication are good but emotional decision making can lead to fanaticism, would it not be better to simplify and speak without jargon. We want an intelligent, informed electorate not an angry (or pick another emotion) mob.
Joe Zammit-Lucia says
Thank you Ryan.
I’m not sure why ‘emotion’ is so often associated with anger and mob rule. Hope, love, empathy, pride, these are also emotions.
Politics deals with human beings and we are fundamentally emotional creatures with a rational overlay. People vote according to how they feel about a candidate or a party.
We explore all this in detail in our book “The Death of Liberal Democracy?”
David Porter says
To be successful, should the party also have a plan to address voters’ expectations – in the context of government, one day, not being able to run a big overdraft?
Joe Zammit-Lucia says
Yes. Not having a ballooning deficit is, no doubt, an aim. It is quite challenging to achieve it in practice when everyone is clamouring for more money for the NHS, defense, education, social care and everything else.
Lorenzo Cherin says
I think this is an article in which Joe writes in a way that is credible precisely because he is in the so called centre ground, the radical centre. He is right, but the party he and I belong to is suffering from not being happy to be that, and not having a leadership ready to take up the challenge either. Sir Vince is excellent but is not new or exciting. Jo Swinson is able yet is not new and is too interested in the political correct Trudeau agenda which is increasingly loathed in Canada and is anything but liberal or Liberal when with mandates dictating to lecturers what they must say. To win, the Liberal Democrats need to represent those who do not like the nonsense of the extremes, that means bleeding heart liberalism is as non starter as laissez fairism…