Straight down the middle: I's easy to forget the British electoral sweet spot is in the centre ground

Disaffection with Westminster should not be interpreted as disaffection with centrist politics
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The Independent Online

On Friday morning, as Ukip's stunning victory in Clacton and close call in Heywood and Middleton hogged the political and media spotlight, Chuka Umunna, the shadow Business Secretary, gave a speech in Brixton, south London, to mark Black History Month. His key message was to highlight the "entrepreneurial zeal" of black Britons – from those who came to the country on the Windrush to today's generation of young urban men and women behind local tech start-ups – but his wider point was that they belonged to a richly diverse nation whose greatest values are openness, tolerance and, crucially, aspiration.

When Nigel Farage is exploiting disillusionment with the metropolitan elite among white working-class voters, and party leaders are under pressure to respond to Ukip's success with tougher lines on immigration, it is easy to forget that the British electoral sweet spot is in the centre ground.

Concerns about Labour neglecting its working-class voters need to be addressed. But in doing so the party – and the Tories and Lib Dems – must also not neglect middle England. I don't mean only the middle-class stalwarts of places such as Worcester and Redditch, but also lower-middle-class suburban areas. These are the voters who backed Tony Blair to three election victories and who are needed by Ed Miliband to win it for Labour in 2015. The "Frontline 40", identified by the New Labour pressure group Progress as the seats the Labour leader needs to win a majority, are geographically spread but are the essence of middle England: from aspirational Harlow in the South-east, to middle-class Cardiff Central, from Stafford in the centre and the northern suburbia of South Ribble and Leeds North West to the metropolitan hubs of Battersea and Bermondsey. Some of these seats are where Ukip could do well, but the majority will be a straight fight between Labour and Tory or Labour and Lib Dem.

As someone who is proud to be a child of lower-middle-class suburbia in Liverpool, I know something of these voters. After all, New Labour was not born over a dinner party table in Islington in the 1990s, but in the 1980s – not just in the breaking away from Labour of the SDP but when Merseyside Labour MPs such as Peter Kilfoyle and the late Sean Hughes saw how people wanted freedom not only from the Thatcher government but also the hard-left Militant Tendency of the city council.

There was, right there, the New Labour centre ground triangulation between a desire for social justice on the left and the aspiration of property ownership and market economics on the right. It may seem strange to think of Liverpool as part of the national centre ground, until you remember that the council was, for more than a decade until recently, Lib Dem run and that its current Labour mayor, Joe Anderson, sat round a table this summer with George Osborne as part of a push for enterprise in Liverpool.

Disaffection with Westminster should not be interpreted as disaffection with centrist politics. Yet Labour and the Conservatives are behaving like it is. When the Conservatives look to be leaning right to outplay Ukip, Labour under Miliband are pitching leftwards with the introduction of a mansion tax. Homes where I am from in Liverpool, or in Harlow, Stafford or South Ribble, are not going to be worth more than the £2m threshold, but – as some Blairite Labour MPs are acknowledging – the tax sends an anti-aspirational message to those who dream of working hard to climb the property ladder.

A new third way?

Although they too want to introduce a mansion tax, the Lib Dems believe new centre ground space has opened up between the two main parties. But as one minister said to me at the party's conference in Glasgow last week: "We're in the centre ground, so why aren't we at 40 per cent in the polls?"

He knows the answer lies in voters' distrust of Nick Clegg over tuition fees and the party's closeness to the Conservatives in coalition. That cannot be rectified by Clegg and his senior ministers criticising the Tories at every turn, however, but by being more forthright about the positive things they have done in coalition.

Yet, more than at any time in the past four and a half years, the wider Lib Dem party is further away from its leadership. One minister said that there are now three types of Lib Dem: those who want another coalition with the Tories, those who want to join with Labour, and those who want a period in opposition so they can "find themselves" again. It is this third group which is the largest, I am told. With such a split in Clegg's party, there are those who think it may be better if the Orange Book of economic liberals formed a new party with pro-gay marriage, pro-immigration Tories and Blairites from Labour. A party that brought together people such as Jeremy Browne, Nick Boles and Tessa Jowell will probably never happen but it would certainly win elections.

Open options

Lib Dems were careful not to open negotiations with Labour or the Conservatives last week. The official line was that it would be pre-empting the outcome of the election, particularly if there is no hung Parliament and they are left as a minor opposition party. But they are just keeping their options open.

An exception was Norman Lamb, who made clear he would rather go into coalition with the Tories again rather than Labour. Lamb also went the furthest of any MP, refusing to deny his leadership ambitions. Many Orange Bookers see Lamb as Clegg's natural successor – they think his two rivals from the centre-right, Danny Alexander and Ed Davey, would easily turn leftwards if it meant a seat at Ed Miliband's cabinet table.

Steady on

At the Glasgow conference, Clegg found himself at the stall of World Animal Protection. The charity was running a competition among Lib Dem MPs to see who had the steadiest hand when running a hoop along an electric wire without touching the wire. The MP with the fastest time was the Deputy Prime Minister. Such a steady hand will be needed in coalition negotiations. Or, as one onlooker said, at last Nick Clegg has won something outright.