Since the result of the EU Referendum was revealed, David Cameron has resigned to be replaced by the more right-wing Theresa May, whilst Jeremy Corbyn has tightened his grip on the Labour Party and dragged it further to the left of the political spectrum. This has left a noticeable gap in the centre of UK politics, which has, in recent years at least, been the area political parties are forced to pitch from if they are to win elections.
Despite his party having been reduced to just eight MPs at the 2015 General Election, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has been outspoken about how he believes that his party can fill the vacuum that has opened up in the political centre. On the opening day of the Liberal Democrat conference on Saturday, Farron invited moderates from the Conservative Party and the Labour Party to defect to the Liberal Democrats and aid them in occupying the centre ground.
“Across the range of British politics we now see populists of the far left and the far right getting hold their parties. There are people who are liberals in the Labour party and people in the Conservative party who will be feeling increasingly uncomfortable about the direction of their party. My simple offer to those liberals in other parties is, do you know what, maybe it’s time to join a liberal party.” Tim Farron speaking on Saturday.
Ultimately, Farron seems to believe that the vacuum opening up in the supposed centre of British politics is one which can easily be filled by the Liberal Democrats. His argument is that moderates from the Conservatives and Labour must both be displeased enough with the direction of their party that they would be interested in the opportunity to defect to a party of the centre.
But, after the Brexit vote, does the political centre remain the same? The result of the EU Referendum would suggest that perhaps it doesn’t, making Farron’s job rather difficult. Brexit was a vote totally against the political establishment (i.e. those who ordinarily make up the political centre), suggesting that the centre which Farron talks about is no more. But, it must be remembered that the referendum was fought in a totally different way to a normal general election, with debate being based more around emotive arguments on patriotism, sovereignty, and immigration than economic and fact-based arguments. One would expect that come the next general election, there will be at least some shift back to debate on an economic level, although at this early stage it is hard to say how much.
A recent report by the think tank the Social Market Foundation (SMF), analysed where UK voters see themselves falling on the political spectrum, and where they see certain high-profile politicians on the political spectrum.
SMF began by asking respondents whether they identified as centrist, right, or left. The good news for Farron and the Liberal Democrats is that 45% of respondents placed themselves on the centre, compared to 25% on the left and 30% on the right. This suggests that their is a broad group of people with centrist views who Farron can pitch to.
What’s more, when asked where on the political spectrum they would place Farron, a majority of respondents answered that they would place him on the centre as well. This suggests that he is indeed in the perfect place to hoover up the voters who consider themselves centrist and have nowhere else to go.
However, these figures are complicated by several factors.
Firstly, although respondent’s identify as right, left, or centrist, many of them hold a much more convoluted set of political views. For example, over 60% of respondents said that they supported a ban on zero hour contracts, which would typically be said to be a left-wing policy, given that it was a centrepiece of Ed Miliband’s manifesto during the 2015 general election. However, there is also support of more than 60% for reducing immigration to a level below 100,000; which would typically be seen as a right-wing policy. Therefore, the measure of how the respondents identify politically isn’t a particularly useful one. Instead, SMF divided the respondents into eight different groups depending on their support for various policies. The two largest groups comprise around half the electorate, and are clearly on the right of the political spectrum. These are people who mostly voted for Brexit and support a significant reduction in immigration. As a result, there is no chance of them voting for Farron or the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, despite the vacuum in the political centre, it does not look as though there would be space for the Liberal Democrats to win a majority at a general election. Suggesting that Farron is wrong to suggest that the Lib Dems are capable of becoming the new party of the centre.
However, there are four groups in the centre of the political spectrum — both centre-right and centre-left. These are people who generally voted to Remain in the EU, and support Britain’s continued membership of the single market. Many of this group might ordinarily vote Conservative, yet they are slightly anxious about the direction their party is travelling. This centrist group also comprises a relatively large group of voters who would ordinarily vote Labour, however they feel that Jeremy Corbyn is too left-wing. These are the voters who are now up for grabs, and who Farron should be doing his utmost to court.
Given that most consider him the most centrist of the party leaders, he would seem to be in the ideal position to make inroads into this group. However, almost half of respondents said that they didn’t know enough about Farron to attempt to place him on the political spectrum. This has to change if he is to be successful.
Finally, as long as Britain retains a First-Past-The-Post electoral system, Farron and the Lib Dems will be severely hampered. To put it frankly, why vote for a party that has little chance of winning?
Many of those in the political centre who would ordinarily vote Conservative or Labour are looking for a reason to split from their party, for a variety of reasons. However, this won’t happen without electoral reform. Therefore, the time is right for Farron to launch a new argument for reform of Britain’s electoral system.
Overall, Farron seemingly has the ability to occupy the centre-ground of British politics. However, his problem is that voters know so little about him. With the Lib Dems only having eight MPs, Farron doesn’t even get a weekly question in Prime Minister’s Questions, so it is hard to see how this lack of recognition is going to change any time soon.
If Farron is serious about occupy the centre then he must act soon to rapidly build his profile around the country, particularly in areas where there was strong support for Remain, and areas where support for Corbyn’s Labour and May’s Conservatives is ebbing.
Farron occupying the centre is certainly possible, but it is undoubtedly going to take a long, long time.