With immigration policy in the media spotlight over the summer with Channel crossings and the Afghanistan crisis, Ken Crawford argues the Conservative Party's pursuit of the centre ground and its voters has left its traditional voters out in the cold. 

Immigration is a difficult subject in today's hyper-sensitive culture, but pollsters include it in their questionnaires, and it is a subject that usually features in the top ten voter concerns. YouGov's recent poll places immigration as the fourth biggest concern, though opinions vary sharply with party allegiance, with Tory voters rating immigration as their top concern. How has this situation arisen?

It must be recognised that politicians find themselves in an extraordinarily difficult situation, presented with horrible moral dilemmas over who to prioritise for evacuation from Afghanistan, and the management of a migrant crisis on the Channel in which human lives are at stake. I don't envy them the decisions they have to make under the harsh scrutiny of the media, nor do I presume I could do better in their position.

With this caveat in place, it is worth reflecting on David Cameron's time, one which saw the Tory party seek to shake the 'nasty' image by moving to copy Blair's 'Third Way'. This is a philosophy which seeks to avoid taking an overt position on the ideological left or right, seeking a position in the centre that attracts enough voters from across the political spectrum to create a Parliamentary majority. A party seeking to occupy the centre ground will avoid radical policies that might alienate voters clustered around what is perceived to be the centre ground. This 'centre ground' has no consistent definition and will move with events of the time. Occupation of the centre ground thus becomes a matter of political judgement, keeping enough voters sweet so they will turn out in the next election, rather than defending a consistent political ideology.

The obvious exception to the approach outlined above was Brexit, a radical and divisive policy. However, for the most part Conservative Party MPs were dragged with great reluctance through a Brexit they were ideologically opposed to and campaigned against. It was only self interest that moved Tory policy, recognising the centre ground had decisively moved.

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We know from Lord Ashcroft's polling data that immigration, along with sovereignty, were the top two drivers of Brexit. Sovereignty may have been attained but it is a moot point how much the Tory Party's underlying attitude to immigration has shifted from Blairite ideology, with its high tolerance of mass migration.

Labour, having taken the centre ground under Blair, had to placate the more left wing elements of the party, a challenge that eventually saw members revolt and turn to the hard left Corbyn. In its political convulsions of the last few decades Labour have lost the guaranteed support of the working class but won the overwhelming support of African and Asian migrants and their descendants.

The Tories probably face a similar challenge in the years ahead, though coming from the other end of the political spectrum. Has the Government cashed in all its goodwill with the social conservative who dislikes rapid social change and was opposed to the pace of mass migration of the past decades? This is a group that was probably quite important in breaching Labour's so called 'Red Wall' of working class constituencies in the Midlands and North at the last election. The political calculation of the Tories in their move to the centre ground may be that the loss of the social conservative is a price they are willing to pay. This group would thus share the fate of the working class under Labour, sacrificed to meet a shifting ideological party position.

Labour cast aside the working class for the migrant vote. If the social conservative is cast aside by the Tories it is for a more amorphous everyman, the 'One Nation Conservative', never a well-defined political position, more a sort of marketing brand that expresses an openness to all voter groups. It was enough to win a huge majority but with the tailwind of Brexit that will not be blowing next time.

I am not a member of either party and don't presume to say either is wrong or advise them on political strategy, I simply find the shunning of traditional voter groups on both sides at the same time noteworthy and wonder how this will affect developments in the future. In the short term my guess is we will see a low turnout at the next election as large groups on both sides of the political spectrum question why they should bother to vote. Perhaps that opens the door to a good election for the Lib Dems and Greens who have a more consistent and better defined ideology. Further down the line perhaps we will see new political parties emerge in a more fractured political landscape, though as we saw with UKIP, it is difficult to translate widespread support to Parliamentary seats. They can be agents of change though.

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