Centre ground is in middle of nowhere

Brian Monteith
Scotland on Sunday, July 31st 2005

THIS week Sir Malcolm Rifkind made it plain that he intends to contest the Conservative leadership election sometime later this year, and so the party's navel gazing goes on. One has to ask, apart from Conservatives like myself, why should anyone care?

Tory Party hacks can debate about what they might do to win the next election until the world stops spinning, but in so doing they miss the point. What makes a party electable is when it discusses what it will do for people, their families and our nation, not when it speaks to itself about how it looks, feels or what it is called.

That means talking about what people are interested in and not about what politicians, especially Tory ones, are interested in. This is why members of the public should always be wary of any politician that says his or her party should reclaim or occupy that most mythical of political concepts called "the centre ground".

The centre ground is the imaginary space between competing parties and, because of this, if it exists at all, it is always moving. The centre ground in British politics was at an entirely different place in the trades union dominated corporate state of the seventies from the deregulating eighties or the devolved government scene of now.

That is because successful political leaders challenge a prevailing consensus, win public support and change the economic and cultural landscape so much that their achievements are accepted and a new consensus is established.

The losing political parties then have to accept what has changed and in so doing the centre ground shifts. Politicians that seek to occupy the centre ground offer no real hope of change to the problems of the present day. What they are doing is saying they are content with the status quo - they are offering no real alternative.

It is not enough to say we will do the same as the ruling party but do it better, or for less money or with more panache. That approach is the strategy of despair for it concedes defeat to the current consensus before starting.

It is the brave politicians such as Clement Attlee or Margaret Thatcher that have challenged the way that we do things that have the best chance of connecting with the electorate's dissatisfaction. It's called capturing the political Zeitgeist.

WHEN political leaders harness this force they have occupied what is known as the common ground, not the centre ground. It is the common ground that Conservatives have to identify and take hold of. It is the common ground that establishes a real bond between people and parties and it is talking about it that inspires the public to turn out and vote.

So far only David Davis has identified this subtle but crucial difference in approach.

Chasing the centre ground is as futile as searching for the Holy Grail and will leave the Tory Party in oblivion for a further generation. Talking to people about how Conservatives will make their lives better - with improved public services, lower taxes, more liberty and a sustainable prosperity that they can pass down to their families - is the common ground that Tories must now recover.

Michael Howard should never have announced he was departing immediately after the election. He should have stayed to preside over an open debate about the policies needed to build a better Britain.

Instead, the party in London appears rudderless and personalities are clouding the real issues. Also, as departing leader and therefore without any authority whatsoever Michael Howard is trying to disenfranchise the membership's say in electing the leader. By engaging the membership in such choices people can see it's worth becoming involved in Tory politics. Take it away and some will simply give up.

Like Edinburgh City Council, the Tory party struggles to learn from its mistakes.
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