Sorry, Matthew, but there’s a Centre Party already – Johnson’s Conservatives

3 May

It’s easier to define what the centre ground of politics isn’t than what it is.  So here goes.

It’s not the same territory in one generation as in the next: political landscapes change – sometimes because of a volcanic eruption, like the financial crash; sometimes more slowly, because of eroding attitudes (on eugenics, say, or over women).

Nor is it found by picking some point halfway between that held by the two main parties.  Most voters aren’t engaged with them in the first place, or with politics at all.

Polling will help you to find it, but the map it provides is confusing – at least to political afficiandos.  For example, most voters are broadly pro-NHS but anti-immigration.  Does that make them Left or Right?

Those two examples help to find the answer – as close to one as we can get, anyway.  Voters lean Left on economics and Right on culture. To their being anti-migration (though less than they were) and pro-health service, we add the following.

English voters are also: patriotic, pro-lockdown, anti-racist, pro-armed forces and supportive of public spending over tax cuts (if forced to choose).

They are somewhat isolationist, pro-Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, unsupportive of the aid budget when push comes to shove, punitive on crime, and paralysed over housing, where the interests of different generations net out.

Centrist voters, like a lot of others, are also closer to teachers than Ministers, at least if they have children of school age – a headache for reforming Ministers of all parties.

They are pro-environment, but in a certain way: our columnist James Frayne has suggested that there is a consensus for improving food safety, animal welfare, protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing the use of plastic.

(Welsh voters are broadly the same; Scottish ones are divided over patriotism and, as the inter-SNP dispute over trans has demonstrated, probably a bit more to the Right on culture, as well as rather more to the Left on economics.)

James himself, whose fortnightly column on this site we call “Far from Notting Hill”, isn’t himself a million miles away from where this centre currently is.

If you wanted to pick out some issues that give the flavour of it, you could do worse than the following: hospital parking charges, pet kidnappings, the proposed Football Superleague, and the decline of high streets (which doesn’t stop those who complain using Amazon).

This ground was getting bigger, like a widening land enclosure, before Brexit; and leaving the EU has allowed it to become even bigger.  You can see where all this is going.

Theresa May, under the guidance of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had first dibs at occupying this territory – or, if you distrust the metaphor of ground, winning the support of these voters – remember “citizens of nowhere”, and all that.

She made a botch of the job, and Boris Johnson had a second go.  Do you want to go Left on economics?  If so, you’ll welcome his government’s proposed Corporation Tax rises, the record borrowing, the superdeduction for manufacturing, the net zero commitments.

Do you want to go Right on culture?  There’s less for you here, given the quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy.  Even so, you can rely on Johnson not to “take a knee”, unlike Keir Starmer; and to commission the Sewell Report; and to protect statues.

We are over five hundred words into this article, and haven’t yet deployed those two reverberating words: “Red Wall”.  But now we have, that the Conservatives hold, say, Burnley, Redcar and West Bromwich East says something about this new centre and who lives in it.

Whatever this week’s local, Mayoral, Scottish and Wesh elections may bring, these voters are Johnson’s to lose – if Starmer can’t grab enough of them: he has done nothing to date to suggest that he can.

If you want to know why this is so, consider the three most coherent alternatives to today’s Johnsonian centre party.  First, one that begins by being to the right of it on economics.

It would be for a smaller state, free markets, lower taxes and personal freedom.  This outlook is likely to drag it to left on culture: for example, it would not be uncomfortable with the present immigration policy, and not always exercised by “woke”.

It members might include: Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Matt Ridley, Steve Baker, Lee Rowley, Sam Bowman, Crispin Blunt and our columnists Ryan Bourne, Emily Carver and Dan Hannan.

We see no reason why it shouldn’t include economically liberal former Remainers other than Truss – such as, talking of this site columnists, David Gauke.  Or, if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, George Osborne.

Next up, a party that starts by being to the left on culture.  This already exists.  It’s called the Labour Party.  It’s Dawn Butler going on about “racial gatekeepers” and Nadia Whittome refusing to condemn the Bristol rioters.

It’s Angela Rayner claiming that the former husband of the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool was once a banker in the Cayman Islands.  (He was a barrister and the head of banking supervision at the islands’ Monetary Authority.)

It’s Zarah Sultana calling on prisoners to be prioritised for Covid vaccinations, and Labour voting against the Crime and Policing Bill.  It’s Starmer himself taking a knee in his office rather than in public – so seeking both to placate his party’s left while also hoping no-one else notices.

Finally, we turn to a party that begins by being to the right on culture: a successor to the Brexit Party.  The Conservatives may be leaving a gap for it here with their new immigration policy.

Which means that it would be likely to pick up more voters outside London and the Greater South-East, which in turn would drag it leftwards on economics.

This is the ground that Nigel Farage occupied, that his Reform UK party is now trying to recover under Richard Tice, and that a mass of others are sniffing around: Reclaim (that bloke from Question Time), the Heritage Party, the SDP (no relation; not really).

In electoral terms, this new Labour Party would be best off junking its efforts in provincial working-class seats altogether, and competing with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for the urban, university-educated and ethnic minority vote. Think Bristol West.

Our new economically liberal party could begin by diving into the blue heartlands from which city workers commute into the capital.  Think St Albans.

And the various revamp parties would try to paint the Red Wall purple, where voters may have backed one of the two main ones, but have no love for either of them. Think, say…well, anywhere within it.

We apologise for coming so late to the cause of this article: Matthew Parris’ column in last Saturday’s Times, where he yearned for a “sober, moderate, intelligent and morally reputable centre party”, and asked “where is it”?

He’s right that the Conservatives’ grip on the centre will weaken sooner or later: because another volcanic eruption blows it apart, or it sinks below the sea…or Johnson blows himself up or sinks instead.

But he’s mistaken about what the centre is.  Or, more precisely, he identifies it with himself.  But many sober, moderate, intelligent and reputable voters backed the Tories in 2019, if only for want of anything else – and still do, it seems.

The real centre isn’t where Matthew or ConservativeHome or anyone else wants it to be.  It’s where it is, as cited above.  Johnson’s bottom squats on it, and he’s no intention of moving.

Nathen Allen: Starmer’s efforts to make Labour seem patriotic aren’t fooling anyone

15 Apr

Nathen Allen is a Young Voices UK contributor and the chairman of the London Universities Conservatives.

It’s odd, somehow, to hear a Labour leader talking up Britain and its institutions so far from a general election. Paying tribute to the late Duke of Edinburgh, Keir Starmer described the monarchy as “the one institution for which the faith of the British people has never faltered.” He may have stopped short of an explicit endorsement of the monarchy, but Starmer is engaged in a concerted effort to make his party seem inviting to British patriots once again.

Before Starmer, every five years or so, Labour would rediscover that actually liking the country you want to lead is electorally useful. It’s as if Newton had only ever remembered the concept of gravity every time he accidentally dropped a Golden Delicious. But, apparently, the obvious and repetitive nature of it all isn’t going to stop Starmer from trying his damndest to establish Labour as a patriotic alternative to the Conservative party. Of course, it’s far too late for him—and Labour itself— to realise this.

Starmer’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn was constantly accused of hating Britain. He refused to sing the national anthem. He allegedly sympathised with terrorists. There were even fears he would hand over the Falklands to Argentina. So it‘s not surprising that Starmer is looking to rebrand Labour—but his efforts to make his party seem more patriotic are doomed to fail.

Take his recent campaign to make Labour comfortable displaying the Union Jack, for example—a small first step. It was a disaster. The Welsh Labour Health Minister decried the idea of “Tory flag-waving” and a Labour staffer even suggested it would lead to a similar event to the storming of the US Capitol Building in Britain. This belief that waving the flag is to be a Tory is one the Conservative party will surely be happy to monopolise in the mind of the electorate.

The problem Labour continues to misunderstand is that voters aren’t stupid. We know that if you have to force yourself to feel comfortable displaying the flag of your country, then you can’t reasonably be expected to uphold the other more complex cultural institutions in Britain. And those are institutions Brits make clear—time and again—that they care about.

Furthermore, Starmer shows no action on the Union – he’s consistently passive on the issue. Contrast that with the positive and public effort the Conservatives are making with recent announcements in the defence review to procure technology and equipment from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (as well as new plans by the Government to boost transport connections across the UK). Even during the period when Starmer has had ample opportunity to fight against what many have viewed as Conservative threats to the union, he has failed.

During the controversy over the Northern Ireland Protocol, he simply fell flat. He has completely failed to position himself as a viable unionist alternative to the Tories in Scotland, an area once famous as a Labour heartland and one where current polling has suggested a growing unionist majority in an independence referendum. Of course, that’s where the Tories, not Labour, will take the lead.

Even in London, Sadiq Khan is attempting to create a commission to target “controversial” historical statues. Despite the wide opposition to this move throughout the country, with 79 per cent of people believing we shouldn’t attempt to rewrite history and 69 per cent saying they are proud of UK history overall, Labour cannot pretend that actions of those like Khan are separate from Starmer’s leadership.

As mayor of the nation’s capital, Khan’s actions threaten monuments and symbolism in a national consciousness in ways other regional politicians simply can’t. They will and they have affected the image of the Labour party throughout the country, tainting it with a further image of hating the nation and its history. Starmer could, as party leader, attempt to reel in Khan, but as a man famous for indecision, it seems obvious he won’t. And even then, the damage Khan has wrought is already burnt into the public mind.

Here’s the problem undergirding it all: Many Labour politicians, rather than accept what the people of Britain believe, would rather engage in a student-style debate over social theory.

As Baroness Chakrabarti recently put it, Labour should be trying to “change the narrative” on patriotism. It’s a condescending statement, implying the average voter loves their country for the wrong reasons. But it’s indicative of a deeper truth about the Labour party: It simply cannot accept it has to be representative of what voters want, because the majority of its beliefs are fundamentally in opposition to how the average Briton outside London sees the world.

To paraphrase Orwell’s famous line, the Labour Party might be the only place where politicians hate their own nationality. They’re constantly trying to create new, unwanted ideas of patriotism, just to make it easier on themselves to pretend to be “patriotic.” But it’s clearly a farce.

The numbers make it clear. The Labour Party has been behind in the polls by around 13 points— and that deficit expands to 25 points when it comes to working-class voters. Here’s why. According to YouGov, 88 per cent of Conservative voters describe themselves as patriotic. This number was 61 per cent of the general population, a large voting base Starmer aims to regain from the Tories. It’s exactly why he’ll fail.

The Labour strategist Philip Gould once said after Labour’s defeat during the 1992 election that “Labour lost because it was still the party of the winter of discontent”. For the lost Labour seats of the Red Wall, Labour is simply still the party of Britain-bashing and university Marxists—Starmer can’t change that, no matter how hard he tries.

New and old reasons for flying the flag

25 Mar

Come with ConservativeHome for a stroll along Whitehall.  Do you see that Union flag above the Treasury, and do you know why it’s there?  Because of Gordon Brown.

In his first Commons statement as Prime Minister, Brown declared that he would lift the restrictions that barred the Union flag from flying above government buildings for more than 18 days a year.  The date explains his decision.  That statement was made on July 5 2007.  Five days earlier, Islamist terrorists had attempted a mass atrocity at Glasgow airport.

Brown’s initiative was an aspect of the focus in Westminster and Whitehall at the time on integration: flying the flag would help to unite the country.  It is worth pondering what he did in the wake of last week’s consequential BBC interview of Robert Jenrick.

“Your flag is not up to the size of Government interview measurements,” Charlie Stayt, a BBC Breakfast presenter, said to the Housing Secretary as an interview ended.  “We’ve seen it every day, haven’t we?” he added to his co-presenter, Naga Munchetty, who was interjecting “always a flag”.

There was a rumpus, and now comes the news that whereas Brown allowed government buildings to fly the flag each day, Oliver Dowden will require them to.  It’s remarkable what a single interview can achieve.

One might react to the Culture Secretary’s decision by wondering if the presenters had a point.  Englishness and understatedness are bound up together, and seldom more so than when it comes to patriotism.  There’s no need to make an exhibition of it in order to show that we have it, and that Ministers are now seldom filmed at work without a Union flag is cynical and exploitative.

Our view is that, whatever may be said of this take, it neglects the context: the way in which Munchetty turned her head away in scorn, for example, as she added: “there’s a picture of the Queen there as well”.

But do you see what we did there?  Englishness and understatement, we wrote.  But the point Brown was making was about Britishness.  The sum of his argument was that amidst a new terrorist threat, much of it from people who had been born or raised here, we needed to rally round what the flag is – a symbol of our common nationhood and identity.

Both now face a new though democratically pursued, non-violent threat: Scottish nationalism.  Flying the Union flag above a building is a response to it.  So would be putting it on a plaque in a facility in Scotland financed by the Shared Prosperity Fund.

That the BBC is the British Broadcasting Corporation has been said often enough for us not to repeat it at length, but one would hope that its presenters understand it.  If enough of them don’t, and show it, their disdain will be self-defeating.  Public support for the Corporation will fall and the licence fee will end sooner.

There is a bigger context.  It is easy for the part of the the UK that has over 80 per cent of the population to assume that it’s the whole – to bask, as it were, in the superiority of numbers, get complacent, and take our country for granted.

Broadly speaking, this is what has been happening (Northern Ireland’s peculiar circumstances aside) since Margo MacDonald won the Glasgow Govan by-election for the SNP in 1973.  There is a case for the devolution settlement in Scotland that Brown co-crafted and one against, but it is incontrovertible that, if one’s measure is the stability of the Union, it has failed.

And if Ministers sit down for broadcasts with the Union flag, don’t worry about them using it for advantage.  The British people are wonderfully knowing, and can sniff out insincerity in a moment.

If Boris Johnson does so, for example, they will make a judgement about him and his party.  Ditto Keir Starmer.  Given the adolescent state of the left, in auto-protest against Britain’s history as a whole, the comparison is unlikely to be his advantage.  That may be rough justice on Starmer himself, but there you go.

Ultimately, the Jenrick saga is a reminder that patriotrism is not only a matter of duty but also one of taste.  If he had appeared in that interview wearing a small Union Flag badge on his lapel, even the most left-wing BBC presenter would be unlikely to have said a word.

If, on the other hand, he had appeared in the full Union Flag three-piece suit, complete with red white and blue top hat, even the most right-wing ConHome commenter would have assumed that he had either a) gone mad or b) was making a leadership bid, or both.  Or was preparing to fly himself from the bows of a warship.

Whether English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, we should get used to that taste being a bit broader, a bit more transatlantic-flavoured, than it used to be.  There are good reasons for it.

What the Red Wall really is. But why it’s also a mindset – not just geography

24 Mar

Since the Conservative Party won its huge majority in 2019, newspapers have devoted a huge amount of coverage to “Red Wall” voters, who were widely credited for delivering the decisive election result. The phrase has become synonymous with traditional/working-class Labour heartlands, particularly in the North, where people somehow decided Etonian Boris Johnson was the man for them two years ago.

How could this be? It seemed remarkable that voters that had historically rejected, even despised, the Conservatives had such a change of heart. Many Tories have spoken about the need to repay these voters; that they lent them their vote and so forth, hence the endless promises of “levelling up” in the North and other parts of the country. Labour, too, has been trying to win back “foundation seats”, a new term for the Red Wall, through a strategy that recommends “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”.

At the same time, increasing numbers of political pundits have pointed out that there’s been a tendency to generalise Red Wall voters, in terms of who they are and what sort of politics they go for. The Red Wall actually covers quite a large part of the UK, yet the term often treats voters across it as a homogeneous entity, all wanting the same things. Writing for The Critic, Lewis Baston says the “mythical wall was a way of making a patronising generalisation about a huge swathe of England (and a corner of Wales)”.

What’s interesting is how much the Red Wall definition evolved from when it was first coined by pollster James Kanagasooriam in August of 2019. He used it to describe a geographical stretch running from “N Wales into Merseyside, Warrington, Wigan, Manchester, Oldham, Barnsley, Nottingham and Doncaster”, whose constituents, based on education and economic factors, might be expected to vote Conservative but tended to go for the Labour Party.

In his 2020 blog, Anthony Wells, Director of Political Research at YouGov, says the reason many such areas vote the way they do is due to “cultural, historical and social hostility towards the Tories”. In former mining communities, for instance, “the legacy and memory of Thatcherism and the dismantling of industry in the North in the 1980s” has lingered. Merseyside is “still extremely unforgiving territory”, he writes.

But the Conservatives were able to break down many other barriers in 2017 and 2019, in parts of Lancashire, Country Durham and Derbyshire. The most obvious explanation for the Conservatives’ big majority was its message of getting “Brexit done”, which unified voters across the political spectrum. Many were also turned off by Jeremy Corbyn, who projected a lack of patriotism among other things. Clearly the Conservatives’ manifesto and messaging appealed to a lot of new demographics.

But here’s where it gets trickier as the Red Wall was not just about Brexit, or any of the other variables it is sometimes attributed to. As Baston points out there are lots of marginal seats in the Red Wall, such as Bury North, which has “only voted twice since 1955 for the party that has not won the popular vote (1979 and 2017).” So it cannot be taken as evidence of an epic Conservative breakthrough. Others point out that there has been a “long-term structural shift against Labour in these constituencies.”

Of course, the Conservatives should be proud of making headway in new areas, but the Red Wall narrative has become too simplistic. Furthermore, Kenan Malik made an interesting point when he wrote that, “the red wall is deployed less as a demographic description than as a cypher for a certain set of values that working-class people supposedly hold, a social conservatism about issues such as immigration, crime, welfare and patriotism.”

Increasingly it seems to me that people use the Red Wall as a synonym for a worldview. We might say, for instance, that the Red Wall voters like displays of patriotism, such as the union flag. But you could say that for lots of people around the country. Dare I say sometimes the Red Wall is used as a way of getting an “unfashionable” view across (“but I doubt the Red Wall is enjoying the latest BBC programming”), where others might be worried to say it themselves. Perhaps the Red Wall is more mindset than geography.