One of the cliche’s you hear from those active in politics over the last 30 years is that “you have to win the centre”. What is this centre? Presumably the people who float between the political left and the political right in the construct that is western parliamentary democracy. But what does this mean?
The reality is the concept of this centre has always been a bit of nonsense by those who want to simplify politics down to very basic groupings of voters. The theory is that there are those on the left and those on the right. Then there are these centrist voters who swing between left and right and they decide the election. In the UK context where there is a First Past the Post electoral system, this means that elections are won or lost on a couple of dozen marginal constituencies, mostly made up of middle class aspirational swing voters.
So who are these centrist voters. It’s generally believed that they are middle class and aspirational voters who seek short term gratification in politics. They maybe enticed by a tax cut here, or a spending promise there. Or maybe they are looking for a slick charismatic leader who looks good in a suit? Whoever this group are, those who’ve been active in politics have been told its existence is real and to believe in it. When media report on elections, they talk about the centre and we are all told this is where things are won or lost.
In 2008 a major financial crisis hit the world economy. In Britain and many other countries this was followed by policies of Austerity where the majority of people took a hit to their standard of living to pay for the foolish and selfish decisions of those in the major financial institutions and governments globally.
In 2017 UK general election, it was predicted that the Conservatives would win by a landslide. Why? Well the polls said so. The polls made various assumptions about turnout and which constituencies were marginal and likely to turn. Also commentators assumed that Labour under Corbyn had moved too far left, and could not win the centre ground and win. All of this commentary and analysis proved to be bullshit.
So what happened? Since 2008 the policies of austerity hit people in the UK hard. Specifically they have hit young people hard. A generation ago, home ownership was achievable for many, now its a pipe dream for all but the privileged few. Tertiary education was free until the late 1990s, when the Blair Labour government introduced tuition fees. Under the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition tuition fees in the UK rose to the highest in Europe. 1/3 of all new jobs in the UK since 2010 have been precarious, often on zero hour contracts or insecure in nature. For many under 30s, including university educated and middle class, paying the rent and doing the groceries each month has become a challenge. The middle class swing voter was suppose to be aspirational, generally on an ok income but wanting to do better. For the generation of young people coming through now, life is much harder than it was for their parents generation – and they are rightly pissed off.
Not so surprisingly, when this group of voters were offered austerity or austerity light in the 2015 UK general election, many under 30s stayed at home on polling day. 2 year later, when Labour offered an end to austerity, abolishing tuition fees, increase the minimum wage and investment in public services – young people turned out. What became known as the youth quake, young people enrolled and voted in much higher than usual numbers. As a result, instead of getting their best election result since 1983 the UK Conservatives lost their majority and Labour were only a handful of seats away from government.
The journalists and political establishment couldn’t work it out. The centre, the centre – this result makes no sense. The centre wouldn’t vote for a Labour Party thats moved left. And why are young people voting, and voting in ways that differed from older generations. Even within the Labour Party establishment there was shock. The offical Labour Campaign in 2017 was a defensive one aiming to hold onto seats and survive the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who everyone assumed would be gone after the crushing defeat of 2017. Labour MP’s critical of Corbyn were shocked and in many cases not happy to discover that Labour having moved to the left had gained votes. What about the centre? Was everything they learnt studying Political Science at Oxford University a load of bullocks? Surely not?
The campaign by Momentum, the faction set up to defend Corbyn’s leadership and anti austerity polices run their own election campaign in 2017, seperate to Labour Party HQ. This campaign engaged thousands of young voters using social media and running numerous campaign activities across the country. They didn’t get Labour into government, but they got close. Labour’s national vote increased by over 9% – the party’s single biggest gain in any election.
The Conservatives also increased their national share of the vote by 5%. But for them this increase happened mostly in constituencies the party already held, and did so by taking votes off UKIP. Labours increased vote share, in many cases came from new first time voters. The result was so-called un-winnable constituencies like Canterbury or Kensington falling to Labour.
Two years on what has been learnt? Many pollsters assume 2017 was a one off fluke, and again assume turnout for under 30s will be low. The media, political scientists and commentators and senior people in most political parties are assuming that the election will be won by winning centre voters. Although many are adding the the Brexit vs Remain divide into the mix. Record numbers of young people have enrolled to vote, with high profile musician Stormzy allegedly causing a spike in enrolments. This has been reported, but many commentators are ignoring it.
We will find out on December 12th whether young voters turn out in large numbers like 2017, and if they do what impact it will have on the final result. But what is clear is that the old rules of politics can’t be taken for granted. Much as many in the political elite would like politics not to have changed from 25 years ago, it has. Elections are now far more volatile, unpredictable and polarised. And for the generation of younger voters coming through, the old rules do not apply.