The centre ground of British politics is an almost uninhabited place these days. Each given a platform at their respective annual conferences, the three major parties gave the distinct impression that they are taking steps towards traditional standpoints, moving ever further away from the idea that right-wing economics and left-wing social policy can be reconciled. How ironic that in an era during which people supposedly have never been more disillusioned with Westminster, there has been an ideological resurgence the like of which last occurred when Margaret Thatcher reigned supreme.
It is, of course, a reaction to these tough and testing times. Ideology thrives wherever disgruntlement is rife, as it is, and has been, over the duration of this parliament. Yet British politics has been through a traumatic period which cannot be attributed entirely to a troubled economy. There has been something of a delayed reaction to the expenses scandal which rocked Westminster in mid-2009, a nadir in general relations between MPs and their constituents. This anti-establishment sentiment within the country is one which UKIP have tapped into extremely effectively, if somewhat insidiously.
For a party with just one parliamentary seat, gained in the recent Clacton by-election, UKIP wield a disproportionate amount of power. Their rise, caused in large part by the inevitable tensions resulting from New Labour’s laissez-faire immigration approach, presents a challenge to all three major parties that has propelled ideology to the forefront of British politics. The tendency in adversity is to cling to core principles, essentially to live or die by them.
The Liberal Democrats, it would seem, are willing to die by their principles. They find themselves an isolated voice in making a wholehearted case for Europe, alone in stressing the positives that greater integration with our partners on the continent would bring. Whilst Labour remain utterly hamstrung by the fear of Nigel Farage’s party, keeping their cards close to their chest on the European issue, the Lib Dems are unaffected by the fact that the public mood is set against them. You only have to look at the recent European elections in May to see an electorate railing against the forces of federalism, electing a large number of representatives from a party that is an unashamedly obstructive force in Strasbourg.
Boris Johnson, ever the entertainer, did a good job of undermining UKIP at the Conservative Party Conference, allaying fears that there would be any more defections after the embarrassment caused by Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless switching their allegiances. Perhaps the Mayor of London was confident that the Conservatives would retain their remaining parliamentarians until May because he can sense his party not merely matching, but outflanking, Nigel Farage and his anti-EU crusaders.
It is an unedifying sight watching the Prime Minister attempt to satisfy various factions in his own party whilst simultaneously try to convince prospective UKIP voters he is sufficiently in tune with their concerns. For all that he has clashed with Brussels, David Cameron does not wear the Eurosceptic look convincingly. 2006 Cameron was right when he claimed his party had alienated voters by “banging on” about Europe. It is a risky strategy for the Tories to exert so much effort soul-searching over our relationship with Europe, an issue on which public opinion has always oscillated.
Cameron claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that a vote for UKIP is really a vote for Labour, quipping that on May 7, 2015, “you could go to bed with Nigel Farage and wake up with Ed Miliband”. As sound bites go it was memorable, but it was also factually incorrect. Labour is in grave danger of losing a chunk of its voters who have become fed up with the party’s emphasis on immigrant communities at the expense, in their eyes, of the working lower middle-class.
For all their tough rhetoric on Europe, the Tories’ true ideological colours truly came through in the tax cuts promised; the headline news from Cameron’s impressively delivered speech was that a Conservative majority government would raise the threshold for the 40p income tax rate from £41,900 to £50,000. Restricted up to this point by a coalition partner that reiterated its desire to raise taxes in order to tackle the deficit, Cameron emerges from party conference season leaving no doubt about his conservative credentials, underlining the need for a small state which allows for wealth creation by cutting taxes on the wealthy and rewards hard-working people by raising the point at which those on low incomes are required to pay income tax.
It is hard to escape the feeling that the Conservatives running the country would be imposing cuts to taxes and public services regardless of any deficit to reduce. Most of them spent their formative years in Thatcher’s Britain, many crediting their interest in politics to her, which is why it was a shame to see Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve moved aside in the most recent reshuffle. The last survivors of Macmillan’s ‘One Nation’ school of conservatism met their end as Cameron tinkered with his cabinet.
Policies which seem to threaten the poorest have stoked Labour into action. The right-wing media portrayal of Miliband as ‘Red Ed’ never really caught on, partly because he is too much of an identikit politician to have fashioned a distinct personality for himself. Yet, for the first time during this conference, he started to sound like ‘Red Ed’, taking his party back towards its left-wing roots. Almost forgotten because of the focus on Miliband’s sudden memory loss on important issues such as immigration and the deficit was the fact that he announced his intention to levy a mansion tax on all properties worth over £2 million, whilst also reiterating his desire to scrap the spare room subsidy.
It is, for better or worse, a lurch to the left, one that can be seen as a direct response to persistent criticism over the summer, and indeed throughout his four years as Leader of the Opposition, that his party has lacked the clarity necessary to govern. Ideological confusion may hold Miliband back as he seeks to regain power next May. For all that he claims his party is the progressive force in politics, Labour has been found wanting in debates over the future of the United Kingdom and the European Union.
These party conferences have set the tone for a general election campaign which will centre on ideas rather than personalities. Inadvertently, by claiming to represent British national interests, UKIP has set the ideological ball rolling in a country where, with the notable anomaly of the 1980s, pragmatism has been preferred to ideology. This election, like few before, will give us an unmistakable indication of the British people’s ideological preference.