One thing I heard a few times at Liberal Democrat Conference was an assertion along the lines of ‘most people are centrists, therefore they’ll want to join us and vote for us if we just give them a chance’. This is normally backed up by some ‘recent polling’ that has shown people are generally centrist, and an earnest belief along the lines that they just need to be told the right words and then they’ll realise they’re just like us.
This is a belief I like to call the centrist fallacy because it rests on a number of assumptions about people, political behaviour and political parties that don’t apply in practice, even if some of them appear to have a basis in fact. Let me take you through some data in an effort to show you why.
First, ‘most people are centrist’ does actually have some basis in fact. Let’s take a look at the most recent British Election Study data which is generally recent, has a very large sample size and (most importantly for my purposes) is free to use and easy to obtain. It asks respondents the question “In politics people sometimes talk of left and right. Where would you place yourself on the following scale?” with a scale that runs from 0 (left) to 10 (right). And when we combine all their responses, we get the following graph:
And yes, there’s a big peak in the ‘centrist’ position — 21.7% of people who give an answer put themselves at the dead centre position 5, with another 9.1% and 9.7% in positions 4 and 6, which means we can probably fairly say that around 40% of the electorate see themselves as some form of centrist. (For clarity, I’ve only included those who gave a definite answer. Just over 5,000 people — 16% of the total survey — gave a ‘don’t know’ answer)
The problem, however, with relying on this as some proof on an unmet demand for centrism is that merely asking people to place themselves on a scale isn’t doing any questioning of their actual political views. If you’re reading this post then it’s highly likely that you’re an anomaly, or at least above average for the UK, in how much you think about politics. Most people spend very little time thinking about politics or how they’d classify their own views on a left-right scale, so when they’re asked to place themselves on a scale like that, they’re quite often going to plump for something near the centre either because it’s a…