Is David Cameron occupying the centre ground?

Lots of political commentators are making lots of noise about how Cameron’s conference speech has somehow occupied the “centre ground” or even pitched the Tories to the “centre left”. This is, on the one hand, just empirically wrong: the minimum wage rise is cancelled out entirely by the impact of tax credit cuts, which will, even alongside the wage rise, make working-class people poorer. The new “centrist” David Cameron has explicitly ruled out softening his position on tax credit cuts.

The “affordable housing” policy pledges to build “starter homes” which will be too expensive for 98% of people earning the minimum wage, and too expensive for families on average incomes in 58% of local authorities.

Cameron is even getting plaudits for seemingly distancing himself from the Home Secretary’s openly racist speech yesterday, but his government’s “deport first, ask later” Immigration Bill promises a range of measures that can only be described as openly racist. I, and anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Conservative Party policy and its effects, could go on and on.

But the idea of the Tories becoming a “centrist” party — and the more commonly-heard inverse, that Labour have “abandoned the centre ground” — is ludicrous at a more general level.

The “centre” of politics can only plausibly exist when certain material conditions are in place: in simplified terms, a decent level of economic growth and geopolitical stability. Then you get people voting for governments that can genuinely claim to pursue and sustain rising profits for the rich alongside rising living standards for the working class, in a secure and stable world.

When those things aren’t possible, you get political polarisation, which spills over into the kind of social and political instability that would make a mockery of Cameron’s claim to “security”. We don’t currently have decent and sustained economic growth — British GDP growth is currently a pathetic 0.7%, and the IMF says that the world economy is on the brink of another recession. And, with China, Iran, Russia and the US all militarily involved in Syria, we’re hardly looking at a decade of geopolitical stability either.

But most British journalists and politicians completely refuse to think on these terms: political dynamics to them are about the centre-left, the centre-right, and the centre, and their idea of politics is basically a small group of nerds manoeuvring a clunky and reluctant party apparatus around these three positions, in accordance with the views of an abstract “electorate” reduced to numbers on a screen by vacuous survey methods.

They consistently fail to predict or explain the things that don’t fit the model: the SNP, Corbyn, UKIP, Greece’s OXI vote, etc, are all explained away as vague and inscrutable sociopolitical pathologies, and yet these are precisely the things that provoke political change.

The centre ground is a fantasy, and the only people still there are the fantasists who won’t stop talking about it — the people whose careers and self-worth are wrapped up in an illusion: the permanent and (for them) lucrative stability of an inherently unstable capitalist world-system that they stubbornly refuse to even think about. Cameron’s speech was notable for its centrism, yes, in the sense that he’s performing a crucial social role: he’s reassuring a particular section of society that the the “centre” still exists, and with it, their future.

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