It is said, of the 20th century, that the Left won the culture war, the Right won the economics war and the Centre won the politics war. That thought nicely encapsulates the post-Cold War ideological settlement – and, looking at last week’s election, it’s tempting to argue that it still holds true in Britain today. David Cameron’s surprising win seems a perfect vindication of centrism.
Cameron vanquished Ed Miliband because he sounded at once tough, modern, pragmatic and empathetic. His administration wooed the Right and distressed Left-liberals by making (or at least appearing to make) painful but necessary decisions on the economy, immigration and welfare. At the same time he distressed conservatives and wooed the liberal Left by legalising same-sex marriage, championing high NHS spending and ring-fencing overseas aid. He has been rewarded with a second term in office. Cameron now appears to be what he said he would be – the rightful heir to Tony Blair.
Miliband, meanwhile, whom pundits were still praising for his “new brand” of Left-wingery right up to election night, suddenly seems to have been hopelessly out of touch all along. The new consensus is that he took a disastrous turn to the Left. His rhetoric about “predatory” capitalism may have stirred party activists and noisy trendies on Twitter – but it jarred with hyper-capitalist Britain, a country in which even Lefties are, as Peter Mandelson put it, intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich. Miliband had a vision of the future which the majority simply did not want. He was convinced that Blairism was finished. The election proved him wrong.
Now the loser has gone, and Labour’s ageing modernisers are itching to reclaim the party’s soul. John Reid, the Blair loyalist, was quick to say last week that Labour had put itself “on the wrong side” of public debates about the economy. Robert Harris, the thriller writer and close friend of Mandelson, issued a postmortem of Miliband’s leadership in the Sunday Times.
“Labour will have to choose someone who challenges the cosy certainties of the Left rather than panders to the prejudices of the faithful,” he wrote. “They will need a new form of Blairism even if they cannot stomach Blair.”
But such a diagnosis can easily be turned on its head. Far from being the holy grail of modern elections, the centre ground might in fact be vanishing. The Scottish National Party, Ukip and the Greens, who all shunned the centre, made the biggest gains last week; while Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, whose campaign seemed to be all about parking themselves precisely in the middle of the centre, were almost wiped out. In the north of England and in Scotland, Blair’s legacy looks to have been acutely toxic.
The Scottish electorate, spurred on since devolution (another great Blair hedge), has moved further and further to the left. Scottish voters resent the liberal and metropolitan values of the Labour elite, and have flocked to the social democrats of the SNP. In northern England, meanwhile, Labour has been undermined by Ukip, that most anti-modern of parties, who speak to working-class concerns about immigration and globalisation.
Old working-class Labour, it seems, can’t win in the south and new middle-class Labour can’t win in the north. Or maybe it’s not that simple. Elections and electorates are confusing. What’s certain is that Labour is in a difficult bind, has lost its sense of purpose and is now disintegrating in its former heartlands.
What can save them? A politician of comparable talent to Blair would help, no doubt, but so too would some kind of resolution about what and who the party stands for. Miliband tried to invent a secular “one-nation” socialism for a 21st-century audience, and stoke it up with resentment of rich Londoners. But his rhetoric – coming as it did from a rich Londoner – fell flat.
However, a party that stood up to capital and supported the poor, without resorting to Marxist class antagonism, could broaden its appeal. Labour would do well to remember that it used to be the natural choice for Catholic voters. The party should recognise that its collapse in the north has coincided with its drift away from the traditional working-class values that many Christians hold dear. Blair-style neo-liberalism does not appeal to these God-loving instincts; whereas notions of class solidarity and social justice do.
In fact, Cameron’s Tories, by attempting to reform the welfare system so that it works better for those at the very bottom of society and improve state education, have had some success in repositioning the Conservatives as the natural defenders of the poor.
Britain may be post-religious, but Christian principles still hold sway in our society, even if most people don’t even recognise them as Christian.
It’s worth noting, too, that the British seem to prefer leaders who have faith, so long as they are sufficiently woolly about what they believe. Blair showed little regard for Christian teaching on the family or what might, for Catholics, constitute a just war, but always presented himself as a man of faith. Miliband, more admirably one might say, insisted he did not believe in God. The public did not reward him for his integrity.
Here’s a straw in the wind: a ComRes survey before the election showed that Labour voters were more likely than Conservatives to support a tightening of Britain’s abortion laws. The belief that the Abortion Act is an unalloyed good, an article of faith among most committed progressives in the media, is clearly not shared throughout the Left. Perhaps the future of Left-wing politics is to move away from the cultural, money, and political wars, and try instead to fight for a moral society informed more by Christianity than by Marx. Fat chance, I know.
Freddy Gray is deputy editor of the Spectator
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (15/5/15).