There’s nothing woolly minded about centrism
Voters who flit between right and left are hard to pin down but they’re often the ones who regard the PM as authentic
Like many, I have friends who love to describe themselves as “true centrists”. By that, they mean they are undecided on many of the key issues of the day despite mostly being “Centrist Dads” who lean to the Liberal Democrats.
Politicians are obsessed with the centre ground, occupied, they believe, by average voters in swing seats. Actually, Centrist Dad barely exists. The average, or median, voter in England is anything but middle of the road. They tend to hold what most pundits think are conflicting left and right views, unlike my hesitant friends.
When I think about the archetypal swing voter, it’s someone who wants to revoke the citizenship of the Isis recruit Shamima Begum (which 78 per cent of the public did), but is also deeply concerned by climate change (a top three issue for the British public). On a pollster’s spreadsheet those two views don’t chime. But for many voters they do.
Social scientists often refer to these voters, who are a heady cocktail of left and right, as being “cross pressured”. Their left-wing views on the economy, for example, may prevail over their social conservatism. Or their bank balance may determine their vote more than their views on the culture war. They may think prison sentences are too lenient but empathise with the plight of the incarcerated. Where does that leave their vote? Not only are these voters complicated but they very often don’t have that much in common with each other.
It’s why I think experts place too much emphasis on intellectual consistency and not enough on authenticity or “political cakeism” — having your cake and eating it: a political identity with no regard for prior political frameworks.
The main difference between a normal person and someone obsessed with politics (studies suggest 30 per cent of people pay no attention to it) is that normal people don’t hold cascading views, where one view perfectly predicts another 30, like some kind of reverse manifesto. That’s why heterodox politicians can often communicate more successfully. Their perceived inconsistency is a mirror for the many with similarly discordant views.
The median voter is tuned out from everyday politics. They are complex and hold a constellation of views. Yes, there are patterns visible from polling which suggest some relationship between views on climate change, crime, tax, Brexit and the NHS. But those who hold purely left or right views in a “straight ticket” manner is vanishingly small. Most voters don’t give a fig for the political divides constructed and discussed by pundits.
Popular leaders understand this. Nothing demonstrates this better than the current crop of G7 leaders gathering in Cornwall this week. Biden, Macron and our own PM are all expert purveyors of political cakeism who infuriate opponents. Unconcerned with the old ways of doing things, their remoulding of the political landscape chimes with swing voters who are similarly unbothered by what is considered left or right.
Macron campaigned as a liberal but wades deep into nationalistic territory on French identity. Biden is the progressive who resists the defund the police brigade and tells America to buy American. Johnson’s green agenda and embrace of a muscular state is similarly hard to place in the Tory canon but is reaping electoral dividends.
Such leaders defy easy definition. A loose thread of patriotism, multilateralism, climate concern and economic interventionism binds them. This unusual mix has been assailed as ideologically inconsistent by the old left and right, but in many ways they reflect the minds and lives of the voters they are courting.
This “hard to pin down” politics is imbibed as authentic and transformative by voters, particularly swing ones. The trio’s approval ratings range from good in the case of Macron, to strong for Biden and Johnson. Some of this is down to incumbency and Covid leadership but there are more structural lessons to learn here.
This complex “cross-pressured” median voter is what’s behind the rise in popularity of certain mayors in England. Teesside’s Ben Houchen, West Midlands’ Andy Street and Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham are in many ways post-ideological and don’t fit any particular mould. Authenticity and cakeism appear to be the order of the day here, too. Who could have predicted that the Tories would triumph in Brexit-backing Teesside with a campaign for renewable and tech jobs coupled with full-scale nationalisation of the local airport? How else to explain the surge of green votes in other Brexit-leaning northern areas and leafy Tunbridge Wells?
These kinds of voter trends are only possible in a world where the median voter is not simply politically hesitant and “centrist”. Caricatures of southern and red wall voters abound and can be useful, but the creation of political labels can rob voters of their agency because more and more people are categorised with less and less information. These binaries also wrongly imply that the political middle is a place where caution and watery compromise will win the day.
There are a great number of swing voters out there, but what moves them from election to election may change. Issue by issue, they can prove frustratingly hard to pin down. There were almost no pundits who called all of the 2015, 2017 and 2019 general elections correctly. Many were misled by their over-concentration on the ideological coherence of what was on offer.
When it comes to elections the best rule of thumb we have for working out what’s really happening is to look at approval ratings of individual leaders across time. The relationship between leader ratings and election outcome has remained predictive of the election winner since 1979.
So the question to ask is what drives how we perceive our leaders? Is it their ideological coherence? The neatness of their minds and manifestos?
Hardly. As the G7 leaders converge, we see leadership is more successfully communicated in bold strokes, wide overarching visions and narratives that cut through to median voters whose own beliefs give them multiple reasons to vote for multiple parties. Cakeism and authenticity, it seems, is the order of the day.
James Kanagasooriam is the CEO of Stack Data Strategy.
This article originally appeared in the Times.