P Chidambaram: It is the ‘middle’ that makes or breaks

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Updated: May 17, 2015 2:30 AM

The ‘middle’ can be very supportive, it can also be unforgiving. It is the ‘middle’ which makes or breaks governments, writes P Chidambaram.

P Chidambaram, P Chidambaram column, P Chidambaram on middle classThe ‘middle’ can be very supportive, it can also be unforgiving. It is the ‘middle’ which makes or breaks governments, writes P Chidambaram.

I believe that the people of every country have concerns that are broadly similar. And when they vote in an election they vote in a way that is, by and large, similar, at least in democracies.

One set of concerns can be called material concerns. Will there be enough jobs? Will there be a rise in the income and the living standards of average persons? Will there be better law and order and security? Will there be better schools, better hospitals and better roads? These concerns are simple, understandable, uncomplicated and seemingly measurable.  Since all political parties promise that everything will be ‘better’, there is no basis to prefer one party over the other on the strength of their promises alone. It is performance that will count.

On performance, Mr David Cameron’s Conservative party government in Britain was rated average. At the same time, few believed that Mr Ed Miliband’s Labour party would have done — or will do — better. They were on a par.

And all pre-election polls showed that the two parties were in a neck and neck race, neither would get an absolute majority, and perhaps the Tories would emerge as the single largest party by a short head.

Unarticulated concerns    
There is another set of concerns that cannot be easily articulated, and few would even attempt to give expression to those concerns. They are supposedly the domain of the pundits and experts — usually the economists and sociologists. But you will be making a big mistake if you think that these unarticulated concerns are imaginary or that they not play on the minds of the people. They do. If a party leaned too far to the left (“borrow more, spend more”) or too far to the right (“quit the European Union”), it will offend the common sense of the average person. If a party was too dependent on a regional party (“Scottish National Party will not give a free pass to Labour”), it will offend the pride of the average English, Irish and Welsh voter. If a party stoked prejudice or fear (“stop immigration”), it will offend the self-esteem of the average person who regards herself as a broad-minded, tolerant and decent person. She knows such policies will make a difference to the lives of citizens, although she may not be able to articulate how or why.

It is these alternate concerns that propelled the Tories ahead of the other parties and gave them a slender majority of 12 in the House of Commons.

The consensus in Britain was that few really liked the Tories (Mr Cameron was too posh), but the voters liked the other parties and their top leaders even less. At least, Mr Cameron advocated spending within means, a referendum on Britain remaining in the European Union, the merit of a single-party government, and a reasonable limit on the number of immigrants. The Tories may have lost the parochial, the ideological and the xenophobic votes, but they got huge support from the ‘middle’. The ‘middle’ consists of the middle class, the non-ideological voters and those who are proud to describe themselves as average and decent.

The ‘middle’ that decides    
In developed and fast-developing countries, the only group that is growing is the ‘middle’. More people in such countries like to identify themselves with the middle class; even the rich call themselves ‘upper middle class’. And among the genuinely poor, many aspire to join the ranks of the middle class. Look back 20 years and look at today: fewer people walk barefoot; a vegetable vendor proudly speaks on her mobile phone; at the first opportunity, a bicycle is replaced by a two-wheeler. The footwear, the mobile phone and the two-wheeler are not signs of wealth, but symbols of an aspiring class. Middle class values, not quite defined, are considered good values. Belonging to the growing and anonymous middle class encourages one to join street protests, engage through the social media, and be critical without being offensive. Throughout the world, it is the middle class that has readily supported green causes, LGBT rights, free speech, and whistleblowers.

The lesson from Britain’s elections is that a wise political party will embrace the ‘middle’ or the centre of the political and social spectrum. Even when sections of a party attempt to pull towards the extreme left or extreme right, the leader must resolutely hug the middle.

Mr George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, once said, “When in opposition move to the centre, when in government move the centre.”

A true test of popularity is whether anyone who voted in the election against the party that formed the government after the election has turned into a supporter of that party and the government. Conversely, has anyone who voted for the party turned into an opponent of the government. By this test, more leaders have failed than succeeded. Mr Hollande of France and Ms Rousseff of Brazil are among those who failed. Ms Merkel of Germany passed with high marks. Mr Cameron seems to have made the grade for the present. A more accurate judgment can be made after his government has completed one year in office.

The ‘middle’ can be very supportive, it can also be unforgiving. It is the ‘middle’ which makes or breaks governments.

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