The mainstream flows through the centre ground

The centre ground is where a democratic politician supposedly aspires to be. It is their promised land, the only place where they can win an election. Pollsters, hack politicians and even hackier journalists will all tell you that is the sweet spot, El Dorado, Tír na nÓg, the Magic Mountain, whatever clichéd mystical and charmed place that springs to mind. When the hyberbole drops a notch, empirical weight is thrown in, typically in the form of focus groups. The more sophisticated proponents of the conventional wisdom might seek to measure and calibrate these responses, and, taking into account a nation’s history, its political institutions, its demographics and various cultural signifiers, will then say “Voila! There is your centre ground”.

What’s more, you can only arrive at this point by being part of the political mainstream. If you’re not in this mainstream, you’re usually just some weird, pathetic outlier. If you think, for example, that prison isn’t effective, the pollster will play you some video and say, “See these voters in the focus groups responding positively to a right wing politician saying he wants to hang ‘em and flog ‘em, and abandon hope of reforming the penal system.” To suggest that the public could be mistaken or dirigible enough to radically change their mind about something is taken as an insult, on their behalf, to their intelligence. But is this kind of allegation more the work of political commentators with skin in the game than political scientists?

Currently we have a broad consensus concerning public policy, a consensus that is most entrenched in the corridors of power and the most pervasive media. In this consensus, we have a free market, neoliberal, right wing (call it what you will) economics and a liberal, tolerant, permissive (call it what you will) social policy. It is further assumed that this national consensus doesn’t really shift, and that it is pointless trying. However, if the public really was fixed in one place, all those decades spent conditioning voters with political messaging has been futile and quixotic. Media proprietors are merely disinterested figures who love newspapers and television, their endorsements merely personal expressions of opinion and not exhortations to their readers and viewers to do likewise. And extending the remit of this argument further, all those hundreds of billions spent annually on advertising is all for nothing, because the individual is too autonomous to be easily bought.

All of which naturally brings us to the conclusion of the Labour leadership contest. This weekend we will find out who will be their standard bearer to take the fight to the government over the next five years. During a long summer campaign, the notion of what constitutes the British mainstream has apparently been turned on its head, as Jeremy Corbyn appears likely to come out on top. His surge has taken purveyors of conventional political wisdom by surprise. Some of his opponents have said that his elevation to the leadership would be a disaster, ostensibly because Labour was rejected by the voters in May for being too left wing. Labour, they say, should occupy the hallowed centre ground, and not waste time “campaigning against the public”. Because it is imperative that Labour reassure voters that they “can trust Labour with the public finances”.

This is the conventional mainstream analysis. It has clearly been rejected by many members of the Labour Party, old and new, perhaps because it entails acquiescence in the Tory narrative about the economy. Moreover, the massive support Corbyn has been able to marshal in this leadership campaign rather suggests he might possibly be the mainstream, as this blog suggested last month. Some of his ideas have been criticised by highly respected figures, and he toys with some proposals that it is not tenable for Britain to seriously entertain considering, but on the central issue of austerity he is largely aligned with those who can claim to have won the intellectual argument (even if they haven’t been able to influence the policy so much, but that is another matter).

It’s not long ago that British politics was being talked about as becoming an ideology free zone, the contention being that the market economy, socially liberal consensus was now settled, and that the political arguments were anchored around that consensus. The recourse to focus groups has had a significant effect on political messaging. It is here where ideas are tested. People have been invited to vote for managers rather than politicians advocating for ideas and governing philosophies.

But here’s the thing. The prevailing status quo is an ideology, and while it has enjoyed a cross party stranglehold on political power, its monopoly on the centre ground is contingent on its ability to deliver. The people aren’t agitating for a revolution, but a lot of them are now receptive to new ideas, and ideas are coming from multiple angles. The centre ground is in fact there to shaped and moulded, a point understood by a possible opponent for Jeremy Corbyn in 2020, who is spearheading an agenda to redefine the relationship between the individual and the state, one that will be characterised by significantly reduced levels of taxes and spending.

What all of this essentially comes down to is a battle over political language. As has been pointed out, control of political language tends to translate into a greater ability to win power and implement policies. The economic right has controlled the political language for over a generation, even 25 years after Margaret Thatcher was defenestrated by her own party, and has remained remarkably resilient since the 2008 global financial crisis. The “moderates” in the Labour Party have accepted this for many years, even though it has ultimately had a severely detrimental effect on their fortunes. For the more they chased this supposed centre ground where they thought they would be safe, the more the Tories pulled it further to the right. Now they are disconnected, unloved, and apparently incapable of finding a language to connect with voters, including their traditional base. They might have put themselves in existential danger.

Enter Jeremy Corbyn. He himself has been depicted as the threat to Labour’s long-term existence, when he hasn’t been dismissed as a throwback whose ideas were debunked years ago. For his part, he has argued that some of his policy ideas would be considered mainstream in Germany. And that’s the point. The mainstream is many things – nebulous, pliable, shifting. What it certainly isn’t is permanently fixed. Former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich ran for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States in 2004 and 2008, and was largely derided and dismissed as “loony left”, even though he campaigned on a platform quite similar to the one Bernie Sanders is currently having success with for the 2016 election. During one debate when a voter told him he was sympathetic to his ideas but balked at the thought of supporting him because he was widely agreed to be unelectable, Kucinich replied “I’m electable if you’ll vote for me”. Same goes for Corbyn, but we’ll have to see if the Labour Party chooses him first tomorrow.

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