Both Conservatives and Labour Have Left the Center Wide Open

Both parties appeal more to their base than to the middle. Somebody is bound to take advantage of that.

British prime minister Theresa May speaks during an international conference about Somalia in London, England, May 11
British prime minister Theresa May speaks during an international conference about Somalia in London, England, May 11 (DoD/Jette Carr)

Before Labour started to catch up with her in the polls, it seemed Theresa May could have it both ways.

The Financial Times argued that her “Global Britain” vision, of free trade and friendship with the rest of the world, was at odds with cutting immigration to an arbitrary tens of thousands and pushing for a “hard” Brexit.

Yet voters seemed to like it. One poll had the Conservatives at nearly 50 percent support. Labour was down to 25 percent as recently as four weeks ago.

The Financial Times warned, though (as did I), that there were policy gaps “in what used to be known as the center ground.” Liberal cosmopolitanism did not have an active voice.

Labour isn’t it

It still doesn’t really. The Liberal Democrats have failed to seize the moment. Their voters, and some of the Greens’, have switched to Labour.

Jeremy Corbyn’s party is hardly the liberal alternative cosmopolitans are desperate for, but what else is there?

His acolytes will inevitably mistake centrist voters’ disillusionment in the Conservative Party for a vindication of their long-held beliefs, but there is no nostalgia for the 1970s in Middle England.

Labour ought to have dumped Corbyn a long time ago and positioned itself as an unambiguously pro-EU, social democratic party. Then it might have actually won this election.

Empty center

As it is, both major parties do more to satisfy their base than appeal to the center. That’s risky.

When Labour veered to left in the 1970s and 80s, it allowed the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher to shift the center ground to the right. When her successors drifted too far to the right, it created an opening for Tony Blair’s New Labour to define the politics of the early 2000s. It was only when David Cameron “detoxified” the Tory Party that it could win power again two decades later.

The center of British politics lies somewhere between Blair’s Third Way and Cameron’s compassionate conservatism. Brexit, and the setback for liberalism it represents, may have tilted the balance to the right, but every action has a reaction. The Brexit victory is bound to galvanize the 48 percent who voted against leaving the EU.

The question is, where will they go?