All those who claim to be wise in politics tell you that a leader and his party must seek the centre ground to be successful. In one sense this is obvious,if it means that a party may have to extend its coalition of support well beyond its comfort zone, its original idea or heartlands in order to construct a winning majority.
There are, however, at least two major flaws in the proposition that a party should always seek the centre ground. The first has been pointed out by those who think instead a party should seek the common ground. It may be that the centre ground is not as popular as some ground to the right or left that is much more popular. These advisers say the leader should seek out that common ground, and not worry if it is to the right or left in common parlance. What matters is to satisfy majority opinion, or build a wider coalition of support for popular policies.
The second flaw is that the party and the country may not be starting out from somewhere near the centre. A winning party may inherit a situation where the centre has been wrenched to the left or the right as conventionally described. To get back to the true or mean centre ground may require a sharp move to right or left, depending on the starting position.
I do not think left and right mean very much any more. Certainly right wing is a much abused term, forming part of BBC and Guardian demonology. They tend to lump Hitler, anti German neo Nazis in Greece, fundamentalist clerics, and UK Conservatives they don’t like all under the same term of abuse, as right wing. They seem to think there is something in common between authoritarians and free enterprise Conservatives, between Eurosceptics and religious social Conservatives, between tax cutters and those who think the state should spend more on law and order and defence. It’s all a great meaningless muddle.
I suggest instead the better terms to capture the debates and disagreements in modern UK democractic politics are these. There is an argument between those of us who want many more things to be decided by UK democracy rather than by EU bureaucracy, and those who want the UK to adopt more and more EU laws and controls. I have never understood why a belief in UK or English democracy is right wing, as it is a view I share with Tony Benn.
There is a disagreement between those of us who think economies and societies work better when individuals and families are left more of their income after tax to spend on looking after themselves and their loved ones, than if the state takes more of the money off them and then gives some back as benefits, and those who think the state should take more and give back more.
There is a disagreement between authoritiarians and libertarians. Some of us think we should have more of our freedoms back, whilst others think the state should control more to protect us from ourselves and our neighbours.
In each of these cases, finding the centre ground is not easy. Some of us would argue that the current state of play for the UK and England in the EU is now at an extreme. Successive treaties and years of transferring powers means the UK has lost a lot of its capacity for self government. We would say the centre ground lies way in the Eurosceptic direction. This would also seem to be the same for the common ground, judging by the polls of people’s attitudes to the extent of EU power. Having more democracy in the UK and England is popular.
Tax levels are at a high in the UK. Never have so many paid so much to partly pay for such a record high level of current public spending. You could argue that returning to the centre meant relieving the squeeze on individuals and companies that very high public spending has generated in recent years. Maybe we should regard Gordon Brown’s income tax and CGT rates as the centre ground? His top Income Tax rate of 40% was well below the current level, and far fewer people were in the 40% band. His CGT rate of 18% was well below the current 28%.
Many civil liberties have been taken away in recent years in the name of counter terrorism and being tough on crime. Is the current level of surveillance, detention and restriction really the norm or the centre ground?