The Centre Cannot Hold Three Political Parties

September 23, 2007


Update note [June 2008]

The original post argued that in the United Kingdom there will be period of political instability as major parties head for the middle ground. The basic proposition was largely confirmed in the following year. By June 2008, Cambell had been replaced by Clegg as leader of the Liberal democrats:the Brown Bounce had not just vanished but had become a Brown Freefall in public polls and local elections in May 2008; a major financial crisis and a commodity crunch had beset the global economy …

The following is the original post with marginal editing for clarification purposes.

The British political conference season emphasizes the enthusiasm of the three major parties for fighting for the middle ground. Arguably this is unstable and unsustainable for a political system. The centre cannot accommodate three parties. As election time approaches, there will be powerful centripetal forces at work offering the possibility of significant political dislocations

Tony Blair gave The Labour Party a new name and moved it to the political centre ground. Gordon Brown is accused of moving his party even more to the right, but is clearly comfortable in the ground selected by his predecessor. David Cameron has stopped short to relabelling The Conservatives, but has been leading his party towards a central position on social, economic, and environmental policies. The Liberal Democrats feel more threatened than flattered by this sort of imitation, and from an invasion of territory it has defended historically.

What strategists say

Strategy remains part science, part arts with more than a dash of mysticism. Nevertheless, it has thrown up some powerful concepts. Michael Porter is widely consulted for his advice on the competitive advantage not just of organizations but of nation states. His nice little, tight little models have, among other advantages, the merit of face-validity.

Porter’s models suggest there is is something intrinsically unstable about the current political positioning. They help explain why both Labour and Conservative leaders have to struggle with members within their respective parties. However desirable is the notion of a united party, the temptation to break ranks builds up.

Then we have the Liberal Democrats led by Ming Campbell. They are in the curious position of seeing the big armies apparently converted to occupying to territory that was naturally their own. How easy it used to be for Labour and Conservatives alike to make fun of the Lib Deb’s obsessive concerns over the environment. Now they compete for the environmental vote.

David Cameron has to deal with those traditionalists who wish that he would reclaim abandoned regions to the right. Gordon Brown would like to move away from too close an association with traditional allies to the left.

The Centre cannot hold

In the much-quoted words of W B Yeats, The Centre Cannot Hold.

How might this translate into political actions? The Brown Bounce has not subsided enough to encourage the Conservatives to press ahead in uninhibited fashion with its centralising strategy. The Government is struggling to secure support, and pressures from Public Sector Unions and beyond continue. The referendum on the European Treaty is a particular inconvenience which may become acute. Ming faces and external squeeze and internal leadership difficulties.

There will be efforts to change from all three parties. But how?
Changes will see deployment of the trusty weapons of dissimulation and brand-building. In business, this is sometimes called marketing. In politics it is increasingly classified as spin.

Reclaiming or redefining?

Various strategic voices will be urging action (advisors are strong on urging actions). There will be the ‘perception is reality’ argument heard. Strategy becomes focused on ‘sending the right signals’, ‘getting the story right’, and so on.

Paying rent to the brand

The strategy is sometimes described as paying rent to the brand. Making efforts to reinforce favourable perceptions of the brand image, seeking to reinforce negative perceptions of rival brands.

Smearing them, smearing us

Conventional wisdom seems to be that smear tactics work. Cultures tolerate this to different degrees. The UK seems to be developing the American appetite for knocking campaigns, but we still have some way to go.

I have a suspicion that ‘smearing them’ is ‘smearing us’, and contributes to the wider perceptions that politicians are all smeared with the same brushstrokes. While our leaders from time to time promise a less brutal style of engagement, that impulse is all too quickly suppressed as the battles intensify.

The necessary shared ground

Another consideration is how to demonstrate a brand’s supremacy on various desirable features. If you can’t have all of them, which advertising mix will you settle for? Clinton reminded himself famously that ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. Gordon Brown is already under attack on what could be seen as a strong point as a competent economic leader.

Economic competence is necessary, but is it sufficient? Probity can sometimes threaten a brand and may appear to threaten governments. Public morality can be mobilized against avarice, cupidity, and duplicity. Plenty of scope for smear campaigning here.

Patriotism is another significant aspect to be covered in defense and attack on a brand. In the UK considerations over relations with Europe often become tangled up with notions of patriotism, and then on to the dark side of patriotism into xenophobia and racism. Security considerations have taken a similar turn.

Then there’s the environment to look after. This is calling forth political claims and actions of a particularly tricky nature. Each brand would like to claim the moral high ground. But for some, the moral high ground is uncomfortably far from their political comfort-zone as it often implies high levels of social intervention, Nanny-statism, and of decisions ceded to others outside national boundaries.

Wait a minute – where is the centre?

Is there technically some place we can identify with The Centre? The more I think about it, the more I become critical of the term. Mathematically, it is associated with a zero-dimensional point. The beauty of mathematics is that it can provide a formal location of a centroid of a multi-dimensional space. But the mathematics even of simple and regular figures become increasingly complicated as you explore more complicated and irregular spaces. The process smoothes out irregularities. So, for instance, you might smooth out two locations allocated to non-central positions to show that a political party is close to that zero-dimensional position. Another analysis would instead show two centroids, each rather distant from the unique one.

This becomes clearer with an example from the Liberal Democrats. It was pointed out in a recent Economist analysis [September 22nd 2007] that the party is attempting to reconcile its so-called left-wing faction with its economic and social liberalism (which make up the party’s ‘centrist’ position, according to the Economist). The process has been associated with the Orange Book published in 2004, and its advocates.

It may be helpful to accept that Yeats was right. The centre cannot hold. It’s wobbling about dangerously. Politically it is not much more than a dodgy and fuzzy term. Which may explain its enduring attraction within political critique. The conference season will provide indications of how the main UK parties are dealing with their battle for the centre ground.