Centre Ground or No Man's Land? The Guerrilla Election
By Andy White, Head of Innovation

It has been a tough election for centrists - once the leading force in British politics. David Cameron's 'modernisation' strategy has stalled. Ed Miliband has disowned New Labour. The Lib Dems are now a rump party.

Once upon a time, a commitment to centre ground politics was the hallmark of a party serious about government. In keeping with Westminster tradition, I will use military and sporting analogies to explain.

If you imagine two armies facing each other on an ancient battlefield, or a rugby scrum with the ball at the hooker's feet, then the aim in each case is to gain territory by inching forward over an imaginary gain line. This is the principle of "swing".

When parties are locked in a head-to-head contest, their leaderships need only pay their own side sufficient attention to maintain motivation. Their loyalty ought not to be in question because the common cause is fighting a monolithic opponent: the "forces of conservatism" or the "socialist disease".

The wide spectrum in between is contested territory, and resources are piled into fighting elections on this ground.

The guerrilla election

But if you start to introduce attacks from the flanks, the energy spent inching forward over the centre ground is not always easy to justify. The sacrifices at the flanks can become as costly as those on the main front.

The Lib Dems were the first party in British politics to exploit this, but it is only in the last few years that a host of different parties have started to influence elections in a big way.

In many ways the 2015 General Election has now taken on the qualities of a guerrilla campaign. Attacks and mishaps that would cause serious damage to a regular force are brushed off by the plucky insurgents of Ukip, the SNP and the Greens, who know their terrain and often have the mobility to evade their more powerful but cumbersome opponents.

So we arrive at an awkward equilibrium: the electoral map now a patchwork of parochial conflicts. The character of a Lib Dem-Labour battle in inner London is quite different from a Ukip insurgency on the East Coast or a Conservative-Labour contest in the suburban North West.

Those Conservative-Labour marginals can be misleading: their existence implies a direct battle for votes between the two major parties. In fact, they daren't do the hard work - the really hard work - of trying to reach into each other's territory. Instead, they prefer to consolidate their strongholds and tighten up against insurgents.

The widely forgotten Nick Clegg versus Nigel Farage debate ahead of the European elections was typical of most debates in British politics at the moment. They deliberately spoke to completely different audiences, despite the pretext of a head-to-head contest. They were both trying to take votes from Labour and the Conservatives, rather than each other.

Recent ComRes research for the Electoral Reform Society suggests this fragmented landscape is here to stay. The question is which strategy will work best for a party wanting to form a government.

No shortage of advice

There is no shortage of people telling the leaders what to do. Some have prescribed Mr Cameron a strong dose of further modernisation; others say he should have listened more to his core vote. Mr Miliband has been told to defend New Labour's record; others say that New Labour is a tainted brand.

Conservative campaign strategist Lynton Crosby has a strong track record under preferential voting systems in London and Australia, and proportional voting in New Zealand. His leaders have built up huge Conservative blocs to take on Labour opponents.

But after flirting for so long with centrism and modernisation, switching to Mr Crosby's knuckleduster game could lend Mr Cameron the air of the opportunist rather than the "big tent" statesman.

Look to Canada

So perhaps the Stephen Harper premiership in Canada is the best model for both Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband. After leading minority governments from 2006 to 2011, he finally won a working majority in 2011 - all under a first-past-the-post voting system.

He focused on keeping his side together, being a key figure in the Unite the Right movement which created the modern Canadian Conservative Party - and then built from there.

Ed Miliband seems to be following a similar blueprint. The only problem is that even 'core vote' politicians can still fail on their own terms. For every Michael Howard steadying the ship, there seems to be an Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Foot losing the troops.

CONTACT US TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT HOW WE CAN HELP YOU