Head of Economic Research Ryan Bourne examines the 'Battle for the Centre Ground' both here and in the US, and commends Mitt Romney's choice of Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan as the chance for a real debate about America's future.
For years the political debate both here and in the US has centred on a fallacy that there exists a mythical centre-ground voter. This voter sits and evaluates the arguments of left and right, before concluding that he wants a candidate who represents the middle-ground, or ‘third way’. To win elections, so this theory goes, you have to be able convince enough of these centre ground voters that you are non-ideological, ‘pragmatic’, do ‘what works’ and have ‘moved beyond left and right’. Bill Clinton did it. Tony Blair managed it by broadly accepting conservative economic policies whilst marrying them to more public investment and a social fairness agenda. David Cameron tried to do it for the Conservative party in 2010, but didn’t ‘modernise’ enough.
As previous CPS publications have analysed, and as I’ve written before, I think that this ‘centre-ground’ theory is a myth. In fact, the whole 1979 to 1997 period shows that being centre-ground was not a prerequisite for winning elections. More than that, the fallacy is dangerous for democracy itself. The more the parties jostle for the centre or median voter, the more they become opportunistic. They fail to notice that the more you embrace the language and outlook of your opponents, the more you alienate your core support. The more you triangulate, the more you appear to say anything to get elected, the more cynical the electorate becomes, and the less likely you are to ever win a battle of ideas. It’s no surprise that the combined voting share of the two largest parties has been in decline for a while.
It matters for policy to. In some areas it means you embrace policies which you know, or think you know, are damaging to the country, but are unwilling to debate them for fear of looking unpopular. For example, it is clear that as the country ages, it makes no sense to continue to provide universal benefits to the elderly. Yet the Conservatives protected this area of spending in the General election 2010 in order to win votes, and now are unable to touch them through fear of reneging on election promises and being punished in 2015.
Yet in other areas, where they believed significant change must take place, instead of arguing the case for change the party instead promised to ‘protect’ the status quo but went ahead with the change anyway. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the policy, it is clear that there was no clear mandate for the Coalition’s NHS reforms, for example.
The Conservative party went into the last election trying to make the case for smaller government, by highlighting that big government crowds out civil society – something which most conservatives would agree with. Yet their credibility in doing so was severely undermined by the fact that just a couple of years before the Conservative leadership had said that a Conservative government would match Labour’s spending plans. In the name of ‘pragmatism’, Conservative leaderships shunned those who worried about the tax –and-spend approach of the New Labour government (see Lord Flight and Oliver Letwin), yet the party was now trying to argue that it was New Labour’s tax and spend approach which had brought the country to its knees. Attempting to offer a much-needed positive vision of smaller government was always going to impossible following this history, and the Government’s narrative on spending cuts is still that they are necessary to avoid an immediate debt crisis, as opposed to desirable to free up the economy from crushing future taxes and a huge debt burden.
The truth is, there no median voter with a balanced view. We all have ideologies. We all have have preconceptions about what we’d like from government policy, how we’d achieve it and why we think our course is right. What really matters is finding common ground. Identifying problems and putting forward a case for change around which the public believe you offer the best solution. Politics is at its best is when it is instead about ideas. A set of ideas can form a narrative, or an ideology – a vision based around a set of principles which determine what you think the government should or ought to do. It’s just that some of us admit what our assumptions, goals, expectations, and actions are, as opposed to hiding under the veneer of empiricism or ‘what works’. To determine ‘what works’ in itself relies on an assumption of what you are trying to achieve, which is in itself a component of an ideology. Yet both major parties continue to wear it as a badge of honour that they are post-ideological.
This is more problematic for conservatives, because there has been a leftward drift under Labour over what the aims of policies should be. Labour re-defined ‘relative poverty’ as ‘poverty’, and so as to avoid looking heartless, the Conservatives embraced the definitional change. Now, every policy they try to implement is analysed through this prism of inequality which traditionally conservatives would have claimed should not even have been a policy goal. But this is just one of many examples. The inevitable consequence of hugging up to objectives that you don’t care for, or policies which you don’t really believe in, is that whenever you do suggest changes you are branded ‘extremist’, on the ‘far right’ of the party. ‘Right-wingers’ wanted to give huge tax cuts to the rich because they wanted the 50p tax rate cut (i.e. they wanted to return it to the value seem throughout the whole New Labour time in government). The ‘head-bangers’ in the party want to renegotiate our role with the EU (the repatriation of powers was in the 2010 manifesto, but the party didn’t want to talk about it through fear of being seen to ‘bang on about Europe’).
Over the past two years in the United States, in contrast, many conservatives have decided to go back to first principles. Horrified by the direction that Barack Obama is taking the country, they have realised that now is not the time for pragmatism, because pragmatists do not recognise boundaries to the scope of government power. Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate means that instead of arguing about delivery, this election campaign is going to be about alternative visions of the direction the USA should move in.
Some have criticised the choice on the basis that they are unclear whether he ‘brings in any votes’, implying that a pick to satisfy identity politics or to guarantee a certain type of vote would have been preferable, or that the aim of politics itself should be about power as opposed to a public mission. In fact, I’d argue that Romney’s choice is far bolder – he’s selected someone on the basis of effectively articulating the ideas that he believes in. The potential VP’s message has been clear and consistent for the past four years: he believes federal government spending and debt has a crushing effect on the economy, and that without major reforms America’s entitlement programmes will spiral out of control. In his Path to Prosperity work, he has laid out a clear path about where he thinks America should be heading. Not every conservative will agree with all of his proposed reforms, or even priorities. But what he and Romney will be doing is offering a clear vision to the electorate of where they want to take America, in contrast to President Obama’s vision of more government involvement in people’s lives. This really is a huge debate about the role of the state.
Of course, just like here, there will be those who attempt to smear any proposed reforms to current programs, cuts to expenditure or the repeal of Obamacare as extreme. Already we have seen the attack ads from the Obama-supporting campaigns – the sort of low level scare tactics which Labour used in one of their ads in 2010. But at some stage during the election process, the Obama-Biden team will be asked to clearly elucidate their alternative plan for America and debate their ideas against Romney-Ryan, and the electorate will have to weigh up which they prefer.
This can only be good for democracy. Obamacare will be debated, and its future decided at the ballot box. Tax reform will be debated, and the direction of reform decided at the ballot box. In fact, on almost every issue there is an ocean of blue water between the two campaigns’ positions. This is a real debate about the heart of America. And it’s not just the politicians getting involved. Unlike in the UK, leading economists are lining up on either side, making this an academic as well as a political debate.
The US electorate may well, of course, reject the Romney-Ryan vision of self-reliance, less government interference, lower taxes and fundamental reform of government programmes. They will then have to re-evaluate whether they were right to do so in four years time. But as a UK free-market conservative I can only look on enviously that the US is about to have the debate that I believe we should have had in 2010: what the role of the state should be, and how can it best achieve the objectives for those roles it should have. Politicians shouldn’t be afraid to have the conviction to debate these big ideas.