A race to the centre

20 Jul 2013

Political apathy has been growing in the UK for years now, with voter turnout decreasing significantly since 1997- falling by almost 10%, and settling around the 60% mark during the 21st Century. There are a number of explanations provided as to why there has been increased apathy towards traditional politics, one of which could arguably be the merging of political parties in the centre ground, which in turn has resulted in a lack of choice and diversity for voters.

 

It seems a slightly weak argument when you hear it uttered in passing, “it does not matter who I vote for, all those politicians are the same,” however it may be a sound reason to abscond from voting. Normally it is propositioned by those who do not have a good knowledge of politics or do not have the time or interest to look at party policies in detail. But a lack of choice can be a valid reason not to vote, after all if one decides to participate and vote even though a party does not exactly match their beliefs, they may end up voting for policies that they do not support, something no voter really wants to do.

It seems as though Labour, the UK’s traditional left wing party, began the movement towards the centre ground following the “wilderness years” from 1979 to 1997, where the Conservatives dominated government and it was clear that something needed to change. Up stepped Tony Blair who transformed Labour into New Labour by laying out policy plans that would have seemed more at home in a Conservative manifesto than a Labour one. He made his party tougher on crime and punishment, and strove to achieve the so-called “Third Way” strategy, by attempting to pull in policies from the left and right of the political sphere. This was in an attempt to appeal to ‘middle England’, which had been a powerbase for the Conservatives for decades. However, it doesn’t seem a coincidence that voting turnout seems to have declined since this repositioning of one of the largest political parties in Britain to the political centre ground. Blair made the Labour Party more politically viable, but severely reduced choice for the electorate simultaneously.

Furthermore, after Tony Blair’s sweeping victory, the Conservatives assumed that they too had to progress towards the centre of the political ground if they were to reverse the gains made by New Labour. And indeed this acceptance of some forms of liberal policy is epitomised by the Coalition Government currently in power, as is the wider trend of a lack of choice which has resulted.

So that is where it all began, where all the choice went in British politics, the question is- is it a trend that is set to change, or can we expect more of the same in the future? Well, in the 2010 General Election at least, the synonymic trend continued, with political journalists such as Ivor Gaber noting that there was a distinct lack of policy detail in the coverage of the 2010 election due to the similarity of the messages all three parties had to lay out. There was a massive financial deficit that any future government had to handle, and the solution in the minds of the three main political parties was that spending cuts in some form or another had to be administered. There was no other realistic option for voters with regard to our economic future aside austerity.

There has been a leadership change since then however, with Ed Miliband being installed as the leader of the opposition and head of the Labour Party. We were told to believe that Miliband was a socialist at his core, it was muttered around the head offices of Labour that he would try and instil the old left wing rhetoric on which the Labour Party was founded, in turn removing the more centre-right aspects of party policy.

This has never really manifested itself however, Miliband talked a good game of unshackling the Labour Party from the centre ground but when faced with key decisions he has lost his nerve and decided to play it safe instead. Look at Labour’s position on benefits, Miliband initially claimed no benefits would be touched under a future Labour government, but when it came down to policy he was forced to admit that he would cut benefits for the elderly. Ed Balls has also come out and admitted that Labour would be “forced” to continue with the Coalition’s austerity plans if they were elected in 2015. There are also issues aside from policy matters- the war with the unions is an example of Labour moving further away from its roots and Miliband is sounding more of a Blairite with every speech he delivers. Nevertheless, it may be too early to rule out an increase in choice for the left of Britain in 2015, Miliband’s values still seem to be positioned on the left; he just needs to have the courage to shape policy to match these ideals.

Moreover, some additional diversity has been created within British politics recently, with the rise of Eurosceptic UKIP giving those on the political right an option they previously did not possess. It is UKIP’s position away from the centre ground that could explain their meteoric rise from little known political party to household name. It is also eccentric leader Nigel Farage’s ability to position himself as an anti-politician that seems to appeal to large sectors of society. Farage’s popularity is reminiscent of that of Nick Clegg prior to the 2010 General Election, which resulted in what was affectionately dubbed “Cleggmania”. Boris Johnson is another example; he has become a vastly popular political figure by making himself look the very antithesis of a political figure. The contextual popularity of these examples all show how much Britain has grown wary of the same old political elite and how the masses will engage in conventional politics once more if they are given mainstream choices that do not appear to be run by the same old characters or representing the same old ideologies.

If there is to be the large political interaction from the public that dominated 20th-Century politics then there needs to be more bravery from politicians; more political parties need to stand up and unashamedly place themselves on the political left or right. If there was choice once more in the British political system then apathetic voters could not spout the “they are all the same” argument any longer, something which could manifest in the form of higher turnouts and more political interaction from the public. Indeed, a rise once more of political choice would not only decrease political apathy but could result in a more democratic society.

By James Read

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