Dead centre? Redefining the centre of British politics

There was a time after last year’s general election and Labour’s move to the left when it seemed that the Conservatives would govern from the centre ground.

Broadly speaking, on the basis of their manifesto and then David Cameron’s speech at the party conference in Manchester, the expectation was that they would manifest a broadly cosmopolitan, liberal and pro-market worldview while managing concerns about immigration tactically and, in a more thoroughgoing way, make some progress on social mobility.

How things have changed. Now, after a long referendum campaign focused on sovereignty and immigration, the Leave vote, the demise of David Cameron’s political project, the failure of the Liberal Democrats to mount much of a comeback and the resilience of Corbynism and Scottish nationalism, the centre looks barren.

There is a hopeful view that suggests the recent defeats for political centrists have been down to hubris (did David Cameron need to hold a referendum?) or bad technique (why weren’t the tactics on managing immigration better?). This is a hopeful view because it assumes that voters are on the centre ground. What if they’ve moved on?

This is the question we’ve sought to answer. Working together, Opinium and the Social Market Foundation carried out polling in the second half of August 2016, asking voters to place themselves on a left-right continuum, do the same for a range of politicians and tell us their views on some top issues and policies.

You might ask why a think-tank is polling on Britain’s political tribes and views. After all, our business is policy, not politics. But policy doesn’t emerge from a vacuum – it’s shaped by the views of the electorate, and most critically by the politicians who interpret and anticipate those views.

The Social Market Foundation’s strapline is ‘ideas and analysis from the radical centre’, and after one of the most eventful periods in recent British political history, it felt like a good time to take a look at whether the centre ground really is as barren politically as it seems currently. As you will see from the analysis here, there are bright points for those in centre, not least the fact that almost half of those polled self-identify as being in the political centre. but there is much else which will give centrists, especially those on the centre-left, pause for thought, if not some sleepless nights.

We hope you enjoy this snapshot and the picture which emerges of Britain’s underlying political tribes. We look forward to helping to inform the debate between those tribes, and the politicians who navigate between them, in the months and years ahead.

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