The importance of being centrist

Peter KellnerPresident
October 03, 2011, 4:43 PM GMT+0

How left-or-right-leaning do voters think the three main leaders are now? Peter Kellner compares our spectrum poll results to find out

Most politicians reckon that one of the best ways to win elections is to appeal to the centre. David Cameron spent his time as leader of the opposition trying to persuade voters that his party was no longer right-wing. Last week Ed Miliband protested in his main speech to Labour’s conference that he was a centrist and not ‘Red Ed’. It’s all about perceptions. Whatever attempts are made to define ‘the centre’ or calibrate a party’s policies according to some objective standard, what matters is where voters think parties and their leaders stand.

So what do voters think just now? YouGov found out by repeating the ‘spectrum’ questions it asks from time to time. We asked respondents where parties, their leaders and themselves stand. We offered seven options, and converted them into numbers, from minus 100 for very left-wing, via 0 for centre to plus 100 for very right-wing. Here is what we found.


As in the past, most voters place themselves at or near the centre. 54% say they are in the centre or ‘slightly’ to the left or right. Just 12% say they are ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ left-wing, and 10% ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ right wing. These figures show why it is important for political leaders to occupy the centre ground.

Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband is seen as further to the left than Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. On the eve of the 2005 General Election, Blair was seen as slightly to the right of centre: his average score was plus 7. Just before last year’s General Election, Brown’s average score was minus 27. Miliband’s score is minus 42. This is little changed on the minus 45 he scored in January, when he had been leader just a few weeks. He has not been able to shake off the ‘Red Ed’ accusation.

The good news for him is that Labour voters are comfortable with his ideological location. They rate him as minus 32, and themselves at minus 33. The trouble is that Labour’s support is not strong enough for this to guarantee him victory at the next election. Although Labour remains narrowly ahead of the Tories, this is at a time when the Government is unpopular and the economy is stumbling. Economic recovery by 2015 is likely to help the Tories; Miliband will need to reach beyond his core vote to win. Our spectrum poll suggests this could be hard to achieve unless he is thought to move nearer the centre.

David Cameron

Cameron enjoyed some early success. Michael Howard’s rating during the 2005 election campaign was minus 52. By the summer of 2007, Cameron was seen as only half as right-wing: his rating was plus 28. It then drifted right-wards to stand at plus 39 during last year’s election campaign. This helps to explain why his party failed to win an outright victory at a time when Gordon Brown was widely disliked and his government thought to have screwed up the economy.

Since last year, Cameron has been seen to drift further to the right. His latest rating, minus 43, is slightly less extreme that the minus 48 he scored in January. He won’t be happy to be seen as far to the right as Miliband is to the left. If he is to obtain the full electoral fruits of economic recovery between now and the next general election, he too will want to be seen rather nearer the centre.

Nick Clegg

Here’s a paradox. On average voters place the leader of the Liberal Democrats exactly in the centre. It’s the one occasion when a polling rating of nought is good news. He has erased the left-of-centre image that the Lib Dems used to have (Charles Kennedy’s rating in the 2005 election was minus 21 – substantially to the left of Tony Blair). He has also pulled back from his right-of-centre reputation last winter: his January rating was plus 10.

On the face of it, he and his party ought to be popular; instead they have lost more than half the support they enjoyed last year. When we delve into the figures more closely, we see why. Conservative voters dislike him because they think he is left-of-centre – while Labour voters reject him as too far to the right for their taste. These attitudes cancel each other out in Clegg’s overall average.

Another way to look at the figures is to compare what each respondent says about the party leaders with what they say about themselves. On this test of closeness, Cameron and Miliband score significantly better than Clegg – though none score particularly well. All three leaders, then, have work to do. None of them come near to Tony Blair’s achievement when he was Prime Minister of being seen as a centrist leader close to the outlook of the majority of voters.

See the full details and results of our spectrum poll for Channel 4 here

See all of our political trackers, including voting intention and party image perceptions, here