THE BLOG

A Dash for the Centre

23/01/2015 11:49 GMT | Updated 25/03/2015 09:59 GMT

In most team sports you can do a lot of damage from the flanks. As every amateur football, rugby or hockey coach knows, if you get your right or left wing player to keep wide, and get behind the defence, you can open up the opposition. It's exciting, exhilarating, and when it works, it's magic.

The same can be true in military battles - get down the sides and round the back of your enemy and you can take them apart.

But even amateurs know that this gets you nowhere if your centre is weak, that battles and games are often won and lost in the fight for command of the middle territory and that if you have to make sacrifices, tuck the wide battalions inside to boost your capacity in the crucial mid-field.

Politics, in many ways, is the same and, as we move into what will be a long and, for the politically disinterested, a tortuous and boring General Election campaign, we will see a dash for the centre ground.

This may seem a strange thing to say. At present, we have seen a surge in UKIP support, a party that most see as way out on the right. At the other end there are glimmers of an increase in support for the Green Party, a group to the left of Labour in many people's view. Are the more mainstream middle two parties not being outflanked by their sameness? Are people not crying out for something radical and new?

Party activists always think this way and urge their leaders to counter the threats out wide by moving that way themselves.

By definition, those who given up large parts of their life to be activists for their parties are to the extreme of where public opinion lies. So, many Labour activists feel that if only the party argued loudly that talk of the need for deficit reduction is a neo-liberal plot and presented a bold programme based on tax increases and more spend, along with attacks on business, an election victory would be sewn up.

Equally unrealistic on the right are those who think that a radical de-regulatory, low tax, privatised public services agenda is what the public really would like if only they could get the messaging right.

Party leaders are cuter than this, though. If you want to win an election, especially in a first-past-the-post world, you have to pitch to the middle and, to some extent, ignore your flank.

This is much harder when, with the rise of UKIP, the Greens and the SNP in Scotland, there are alternative places for your 'wingers' to give their vote to - although the decline of the Liberal Democrats gives less places for your 'moderate' supporters to desert to. Vacating the centre ground is usually deadly. Of course, the centre ground is always shifting and parties are always trying to move it - something that you can also attempt when you hold the reins of power.

Prime minister David Cameron recently claimed that he had changed the values of the UK in terms of attitudes to hard work and welfare - and he probably has. Some sort of localism has also now become mainstream, at least rhetorically.

In the same way, the Blair/Brown years saw the centre shift a long way, especially in social attitudes to things like gay marriage as well as in aspects of regulation - the minimum wage and the right to more flexible working being prime examples. But, where you cannot shift the centre towards your way of thinking, it is best to cling to it anyway.

The Conservative leadership has been trying to signal its desire to be seen as centrist through things like protecting the NHS budget and showing a caring face through keeping spend on overseas aid up. It wants to portray Labour as being wildly left wing, likely to let the deficit rip, tax us all more, go soft on the unions and crush enterprise - all before breakfast.

Labour, in turn, has felt the need to kowtow to some degree to the current mood on spending, tax, welfare and migration, while suggesting that lurking below the surface is a Tory party intent on privatising public services and cutting taxes only for the rich.

Labour felt the Tories have gifted them an open goal recently with the Autumn Statement, making clear in black and white that their spending plans will lead us back to levels that go back in time to the 1930s, a period forever associated in the public's mind with depression and squalor.

Fights for the centre in politics are often no more fun as a spectator sport than they are in football or hockey. They get niggly, dirty, even, and creativity is kept to a minimum.

But expect the next few months to resemble more the stalemate in the trenches of 100 years ago - a sort of old-fashioned, nasty, mid-field scrap - rather than a free-flowing Barcelona football performance.