Pretty much anyone who knows anything about politics agrees that the way you win general elections in Britain is by convincing everyone that it is your party that occupies the centre ground, and that, by extension, the other lot are too far towards one of the extremes. There is, of course, a great deal of discussion about what exactly is meant by “centre ground” – I am attempting in this article to try and answer that not in absolute ideological terms (if such a thing can even be defined), but by what it means in realpolitik terms.
Tony Blair won three elections in a row. This is an uncomfortable fact for many on the Left and within the Labour Party generally these days. Blair’s cloudy legacy – Iraq, his bizarre post-prime ministerial career – doesn’t help anyone objectively evaluate why that was the case. There are some within Labour who want a repeat of their party circa ’95 verbatim, convinced it would win a general election by a stonking 150+ seat majority again as a result. But times move on and new ideas are called for – which doesn’t mean wishing to re-open the coal mines again either qualifies for this or is a good idea generally. But I digress: let’s look at why I think Blair really won all those elections, an arena Labour seems very far from conquering again any time soon.
It isn’t really a left or right thing; like I said at the top, it is about the centre, whatever that is conceived to be at the time of an election. There are a group of people in swing seats who at any given election time would be willing to vote either Tory or Labour depending on a variety of things, but mostly I think it comes down to gut instinct. In other words, they aren’t going to go through the fine details of each manifesto and say, “I like their tax policies slightly better – it’s got to be Labour”. Or at least 99.9% won’t do that.
Instead it will be a general feeling that’s ever so hard to define about which side will be better at running the country. The reason this is difficult to pin down exactly is because so many factors play into generating this feeling. So the Corbynistas do have a genuine point when they say that people didn’t like Miliband in a way that was impossible to overcome, and that this factor contributed heavily to the loss in May, as opposed to any ideas of his being too left-wing. What they’re wrong about is that some of those left-wing ideas – or at least the feelings about the Labour Party that they generated in swing voters – were a genuine factor in the loss as well.
Some say that this whole thing is somehow strictly down to the way in which the Murdoch press blows, but I have to call this once and for all as simply not true: it is astounding the stupidity people will credit those who disagree with them with having. A lot of the press simply reads public mood and then flows with it, as opposed to the other way around. They are scared of the masses, not convinced they can tell them what to think. It’s a push and pull thing, for sure, but the idea that any section of the press can just tell people what to think or do is absurd (if you want a recent example, look at the bile delivered towards the House of Lords this week from all sections of the press and then examine how little the public cares in the slightest).
So here’s the challenge to Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes: if you can convince the person in Hove who has a £750k house and is worried about the mortgage; who is socially liberal and would prefer to vote Labour if they felt that was a safe bet; if you can convince enough of these people that your ideas are sound, Labour can win the next election. But that is an incredibly hard thing to do – the Tories just have to scare that person enough to default vote for them as a counter-balance. Your lot have to inspire genuine enthusiasm in these people to get them to place their X for you. Again, very difficult to do. Just ask Tony Blair.