ResPublica's Managing Director, Caroline Macfarland, on re-defining the centre ground
The end of party conference season marks the beginning of the slow march towards the next general election. Before the events of this autumn kicked off, it was proclaimed by many as the ‘sleepy season’ in the political cycle. The government’s mid-term, the commentators and lobbyists largely agreed, meant that this year would make for lacklustre gatherings with inward-looking speeches and little room for engagement.
As the conferences proceeded it became clear that this was far from the truth. Yes this ‘half-time’ period has been an opportunity for all three parties to reflect on the last two years in Coalition and opposition respectively. But it has also been a time for recalibration and innovation of ideas that will steer party narratives for the next general election. A time for rhetoric which sought to unite and inspire the grassroots members, but also make the rest of the country sit up and take notice. And so while Nick Clegg tried to reclaim his party base by saying 'sorry', the Labour and Conservative parties attempted to reclaim something much more significant and stake out the centre ground.
In this sense, party conferences really were a fertile ideas ground, in which both Labour and the Tories tried to paint the big picture that will be the basis for the policy ideas which feed into their 2015 election manifestos. And so Miliband turned to ‘one nation’ philosophy whilst Cameron and Osborne referred to aspiration and fairness.
Was this a desperate attempt from each party to try and steal the other’s clothes as a way to poach the floating vote? Or does it reflect a deeper shift in the politics of the centre, where each party have recognised the need to truly capture the middle-ground as their own in order to win the next election?
I would hope the latter, although it is hard to tell from the –perhaps deliberately – vague rhetoric. Certainly Miliband’s speech was noticeably policy light and Cameron's seemed more defensive of past policies than champion of future ones. The stage is now open for the party that wishes to be radical and innovative to stop talking and start acting.
In this respect, Ed Miliband missed a trick in calling simply for banking responsibility, a now tediously meaningless phrase that has been done to death. He could have instead moved beyond finger-pointing and led the charge for a transformation of the entire banking system, one which reconnects people with the concept of money and does not place undue power in the hands of financial intermediaries.
The familiar refrain of ‘hard work’ is another opportunity for each party to re-define the concept and nature of work in an economy where there are fewer jobs. This means marrying aspiration with opportunity, and moving against the grain of economic constraint towards other, non-traditional employment opportunities for those with the entrepreneurialism and drive to contribute to local as well as national economies.
And ownership: the appeal to ‘blue collar Britain’ must inevitably prove itself in terms of tangible asset ownership. It was perhaps a disservice by the Conservatives to position employee share ownership in a framework which pitted it against workers’ rights, and therefore overshadow the meaning and rewards of creating meaningful stakeholder capitalism. In addition, both parties neglected to draw upon the ever-growing potential of social investment as a way to align responsible recovery with a social economy.
With the polls as they stand, the next election could go either way. It is vital that each party follow through with policies which help paint the big picture, rather than just posturing for the floating vote. Otherwise, in Osborne’s own words, ‘people will be more let down by the reality than they were attracted by the pretence.’ One thing is for sure: the party which wins the next election will be the one which not only inhabits the centre-ground, but re-defines it.