It is sometimes remarked that the centre ground of politics is not the same thing as the common ground. There is some truth in this. Overall, most people want to vote for parties that seem sensibly moderate rather than those that have veered too far one way or the other, but this does not mean that on any given issue – crime, immigration, the NHS – the centre of gravity of public opinion is always in the middle of the spectrum.
Yet politicians should beware of using this argument as an excuse to pursue preoccupations of their own which few voters share. A good example of this occurred at the end of June in the form of the so-called Alternative Queen’s Speech, a raft of measures (why do measures always arrive on rafts?) put forward by a number of Tory backbenchers which are, according to Peter Bone MP, designed to “recapture the common ground, where most views are”.
I decided to put this contention to the test in a poll. As I suspected, it turns out that many of the proposed new laws cover ground which is neither central nor common.
Mr Bone’s favourite among this assortment of “true blue bills” is the proposal to name the August Bank Holiday “Margaret Thatcher Day”. Unfortunately it is also the least popular. Only 13% of voters thought this was a good idea (and only 9% of those who were told the idea had been put forward by Conservative MPs); two thirds did not. Even Tory voters disagreed with the policy by a margin of 23 points.
The idea of allowing employees to opt out of the minimum wage was also strikingly unpopular, with only 23% agreeing. The suggestion of abolishing the Department of Energy and Climate Change won over a full quarter of the electorate, while privatising the BBC amassed the support of 28%. Less than a third also approved of scrapping the office of Deputy Prime Minister and ending subsidies to wind farms.
I make no particular judgment on whether these are good ideas or not, or whether they constitute the “proper conservative policies” that Mr Bone and his colleagues claim (though it is at least debatable in some cases, such as banning the burka – how many Tories entered politics in order to tell people what to wear?) The point is that these proposals are supposed to be surpassingly popular, the antidote to compromise and muddle, the “mish-mash of inconsistent ideas that satisfy no-one”.
Yet at least as instructive as the proportion of people agreeing with each proposal is the number who could not rouse themselves to an opinion one way or the other. For example, some (actually 39%, I can reveal) supported removing some of the UK’s waters from the Common Fisheries Policy, but nearly half had no view either way.
In equal first place with the fisheries proposal on what I have termed the ‘Meh Index’ is scrapping the DPM’s office, on which 48% had no opinion, slightly more than the 45% who were unexercised by the continued existence, or otherwise, of DECC. This equals the Meh Index score for requiring developers to hand over residential roads to local authorities within certain periods of time (my personal favourite among these election-winning People’s Policies).
Only 38% approved of the proposal to withdraw Britain immediately from the EU. Perhaps surprisingly, one third of respondents had no opinion on this – a further reminder that the most hotly contested issues in Westminster often provoke rather less passion in the country at large.
That is not to say all the measures on the raft were dismissed. More than three quarters supported various ideas on welfare, immigration and crime, rising to 90% for making sure offenders committing the same offence for a second or third time serve longer sentences than they did for their original conviction. Ensuring prisoners serve the full sentence handed down by the court and deporting foreign offenders also met very wide approval.
Though there may be merit in these ideas, we would be foolish to rely on them as our main campaign themes, however popular they may be in the abstract. It is notable that for all these more broadly supported policies, as for most of the proposals on the list, support was measurably lower among the half of respondents who were told the ideas came from Tories.
Winning in 2015 will mean more than devising the most eye-catching ways of clamping down on criminals and foreigners. We certainly need to deliver on immigration, crime and welfare reform, but it is at least as important for the Tories to be a competent and united party of government that can be trusted on the economy and public services (which, incidentally, merited scarcely a mention in the Alternative Queen’s Speech). Rather than play fantasy politics we need to respond to the country’s anxieties and aspirations, not least those of people who may never have voted Conservative before.
That ought to be common ground.