Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Political Centre

My friend Rob has written several comments on the current Lib Dem leadership change, and the latest - here - discusses the predicament of centre parties in a FPTP electoral system tending to binary opposition. I won't summarise his whole line because anyone interested should read his thoughts. I'll reproduce my spur of the moment comment below though:

"Centrist parties do not do well in that kind of environment"

Well, it should be the parties in the centre - appealing to the median voter - that do best. You're right this means there's little room for a party between the left and the right, but only because those parties are forced to a central position anyway. And I'm not sure Lib Dems aren't too the left of Labour on many issues anyway.

"in the absence of issues which are able to genuinely split the electorate along more than one axis - religious or national affiliations, usually"

I don't know if you're trying to suggest there aren't any such issues, but I think politics is much more multi-dimensional than often appreciated, which is why attempts to map events/analysis onto a single 'left'-'right' spectrum are necessarily (over) simplifications.

Law and order or civil liberties are commonly thought to cut across economic policy. In the past the main divide in Britain was a 'little England'/Empire one, but today it could well be urban/rural or maybe even monarchist/republican - not to mention the possible rise of issues like the environment. The Iraq war was another prominent issue not conforming to left/right analysis, and where the Lib Dems differentiated themselves from the other two.

"This is because they always risk being outflanked on both fronts, unlike their right- or left-wing counterparts"

There are clearly parties to the right of the Tories - e.g. UKIP and BNP - and there's so much room to the left of New Labour that, as I've suggested, Lib Dems may be to their left - so it's not like the others can avoid competition for their 'core support' in pursuing the median voter.

"The Lib Dems are looking to exploit an opportunity which doesn't exist"

Probably many in the party really would like to form a government, but I think they all know it's not going to happen any time soon at least. Their aim, presumably, is merely to exert influence. You might as well criticise Wigan - or anyone other than Chelsea, to be honest - for bothering to play in the Premiership when they can't win.

And I think as voters we should welcome the Lib Dems because they provide more choice. Two main parties, fighting for the same voters, don't seem like a choice to me. With other parties in the picture, the main two parties know they can't just assassinate each other, but have to build policies that will draw a wider range of support from many other standpoints.

Further, a wider choice of parties allows us to express views on particular issues in a much more finegrained way. Lumping the electorate into 'Tory' or 'Labour' as if those were homogeneous labels is as bad as dividing us into men and women.

You're right, a lot of this is due to the election system, and I think we should change it.


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