Everyone in politics agrees on one thing: that the political centre ground, for two decades a fiercely contested battlefield, increasingly resembles No Man’s Land. The centre-left is in exile, its party surrendered to a self-professed and largely unreconstructed Marxism. The centre-right has borne the weight of eight years of hard choices and the all-consuming task of Brexit.
No wonder calls for a new centrist party percolate, stirred by reports of a £50 million war chest for anyone willing to take up the mantle.
But what Britain really needs is new ideas – not another political party.
The overwhelming lesson of twentieth century British politics is that third parties struggle to secure a foothold, let alone power. The great misreading of Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France – rightly an inspiration for twenty-first century political renewal – is to assume that novelty, rather than a bold and modernising policy agenda, drove his march.
The majority of voters don’t want new soundbites and adverts, no matter how shiny and well-funded. They want policies that work. To make the economy more fair, open and competitive, to keep their taxes and living costs down, and to open up opportunities to own, earn and care for loved ones.
Most working people want rights to leverage the benefits of competitive markets, while also having adequate protections against abuses of power and vested interests within them. They rightly expect their values – hard work, aspiration, fairness and community – to be championed and rewarded.
For all the political turmoil in recent years, these attitudes have stayed relatively constant.
The current Labour leadership offers no such commitments – instead they offer rent, travel and education subsidies for the better off, broken promises to the young, and suffocation of the economy by state control. This abdication of the mainstream means there is only one party that can realistically occupy the centre today – the Conservative Party.
This may sound naïve. For Conservatives, the local election results are set to be dispiriting, Brexit is divisive and Parliament will be bloody for the foreseeable future.
But, as it has shown time and again, under Peel, Disraeli and Macmillan, if the centre-right adapts it can prosper. The mantle of one nation politics, consumer rights and market stewardship, and lasting social reform can be reclaimed.
That’s why I and others are launching a new, campaigning thinktank, Onward, which will fight for these ideas right now, not wait for the next election. Relentlessly optimistic, independent of the party and untethered to current or future leaders, our vision is to put forward a vision of conservatism for this century.
We will take on the most difficult challenges facing Britain today, such as, how to build hundreds of thousands more homes that people can afford, want to live in and near to, without destroying Britain’s green and pleasant land; how to harness new technology for growth while controlling for the harms that often accompany them; how to give people the jobs, skills and child care they need without tax hikes they can’t afford; and how to rejuvenate places, from small industrial towns to coastal communities, whose futures have atrophied as others have blossomed.
We will do so by engaging people honestly and asking them to join our mission. We want to reach out to millennials in their twenties and early thirties – my own generation – who overwhelmingly voted Labour in 2017, despite often subscribing to conservative principles of enterprise, consumerism and aspiration.
We hope to appeal to black and ethnic minority communities, for whom small-c conservative issues of quality education, family and small business often resonate, but fewer than a fifth of whom vote blue. With both 20 to 35 year olds and ethnic minorities growing rapidly as a proportion of the electorate, conservatism must broaden its reach if it is to survive.
At a crossroads in our country’s history and four years from the next election, this is how the centre ground of British politics can be reoccupied by a positive movement, and its values upheld. By bringing about a new standard of ideas and a wider engagement of people, rather than establishing new structures. The time is ripe for change.
Will Tanner is director of Onward, a new centre-right think tank which is launching on May 21.