Many people are asking, given the austerity drive of this “party of the rich” led government, the effects of which are really going to hammer home come April of next year, whether Ed Miliband can lean to the left when challenging the government now and coming into the next election in 2015?
Whether or not he can, realistically, many commentators now believe he is pitching to the centre-ground; an assumption which has been made after Ed’s focus on “One Nation” during his conference speech earlier this month.
So political wisdom would tell us that Ed clearly sees a gap in the market worth pursuing on the centre, which leads us naturally to ask: where is Cameron situated these days?
Has he got the backs of the Tory left? At a recent event put on by the think tank IPPR, David Skelton of Policy Exchange pointed out that a large part of the so-called class of 2010 (who Cameron presides over) explicitly carry the message of looking to help the poor, those on low-incomes and the blue-collar “strivers”. To paraphrase William Hague, the compassion to reach out to everybody – in a way which characterised Tory One Nationism – is not a bolt-on extra, and exists right at the top of the Conservative party today.
But against this notion, Tim Bale of the University of Sussex, also speaking at the IPPR event, exemplified in his new essay, Whither the Tory Left, the rift between the LibDems and the Tories, that some like Nick Bowles were hoping to avoid, as evidence for the disappearance of the Tories’ left flank – to the extent that the Tories are without anyone to emphasise what unites the coalition parties rather than divides them.
For Bale, Cameron reverted back to (Thatcherite) type after the 2010 economic downturn and the Tory left has never really regained its ground.
So how does Cameron operate around the centre-ground? During the question and answer session at the IPPR Philip Blond, the director of Respublica, explained that the Tories have never won over the centre while pitching to the right. What instead Cameron tries to do today is drag the centre, kicking and screaming, to Thatcherism.
History is not on Cameron’s side here. In trying to spread privilege, as he said in his speech at Tory conference, he is trying to expose the all-important centre point of the electorate to a space it has never tried to occupy. He is not trying to redefine the centre, rather shift it right.
Others take a different view. In light of UKIP gains in popularity, nearing the Liberal Democrats and overtaking them in Wales, Brian Monteith wrote earlier this year that Cameron does not seek to “move this sandbank but sees it as a landing ground to plant his flag.” In other words, the centre for Cameron is the ends, shifting the right towards it will be the means of a majority.
Wiser people than myself, thus, see in Cameron all shades; he is clearly something of a rorschach test. So how is Ed Miliband going to challenge him?
Is One Nation a “land grab”? Is Ed’s pitch to an abandoned conservatism a cynical ploy? I don’t think so. Ed Miliband is practising a set of politics that he has pursued for some time now. He is not playing politics, he is equipped with a noble set of politics that Cameron has been unable to achieve – blamed, in no small part, on the confusion of his brand and the ultimate direction of the Conservative Party.
Once upon a time, civic conservatism was the high ideal of the Conservative Party, as spelled out by David Willetts. But now through the development of conservative (with a small ‘c’) themes, Ed has not simply taken over where the Conservatives were once a force to be reckoned with, but has started to flesh out his brand in areas where the Tories have already failed to deliver.
He has done this by being the Common Ground politician.
How we know Ed isn’t just “land-grabbing” is that the themes he is developing have been long brewing. By talking so movingly about his background during his speech feeds into an empathetic instinct that has been missing in politics for a long time.
As David Clark has recently pointed out, Thatcher, also a common ground politician (hard to imagine in hindsight), used ideas of freedom and individualism to win the support of many traditional Labour voters in the late 1970s. Similarly, Ed brings with him another narrative of social patriotism and egalitarian populism to broaden his appeal in the next election.
The mood music is in full swing, we need solid economic soundings, but Ed is going the right way about winning his masses. Perceived wisdom says you need to woo the centre to win the day, but if Ed can find the common ground, by proving that his, and not Cameron’s, philosophy and vision is substantive, then we can be in a good place to fight the election in 2015.