When it comes to politics, most of us, the public, tend to place ourselves one side of the other of the political divide - left or right - but of course, the political ground is not as simple as that because there are "grey" areas where left and right effectively agree or, more crucially, cross over.
This grey area is more often than not called the centre ground and this has led to a new type of political definition; centrist. The centre ground has recently become the place where most political battles are now fought as they tussle with one another about who has the best policy on issues that they broadly agree on anyway. We see it all the time on issues such as public services, the environment and multiculturalism. All of the mainstream parties essentially agree on how they deliver public services. The NHS is a prime example - no party offers any alternative to the idea of a state provided health service. They dispute minor details - the most recent triviality was David Cameron telling us he is going to get rid of targets and replace them with objectives - or was it goals? How pathetic can they get?
All parties broadly agree on the environment (without really thinking about what it means). Their ideas all revolve around issues like recycling, stopping the burning of fossil fuels and preserving biodiversity. Yet none of them are prepared to do anything on issues like farming or fishing. The damage done to our environment through the adoption of huge commercial farming operations - tearing up hedges and filling in ditches - has caused immense harm to our own biodiversity, but our politicians are more concerned about the survival of polar bears! Nor do the consider the harm done to the environment through unrestricted immigration which places huge stresses on our housing and infrastructure leading to huge swathes of our environment being lost to housing estates, roads and the assorted accompaniments these bring.
All the main parties now claim that they are the party of the centre and most of their representatives claim to be centrist, but what does this mean? It means they do not stand for anything except getting votes and being popular. Maybe that's what politics means to many, but not to me. Politics means having conviction. A passionate belief in what government should do and how it should do that. Politicians who only have an interest in being popular or getting votes do not have that conviction or passion. Instead they will adopt whatever position is seen to be the one that would gain public approval. The last of my examples above, multiculturalism, demonstrates that perfectly.
Until recently, all the parties agreed that multiculturalism is good, immigrants bring great benefits and their culture enriches our own without detracting from it. Now, under increasing pressure based on mounting evidence, they are all switching their positions and trying to assert that we need to retain the core "British" values (without having a clue what that means) and that immigrants have to make some effort to become part of our society rather than us just accepting them as they are.
Why does this matter? Surely it's better to have politicians who will change their minds about things rather than just carry on in some bloody-minded fashion on some misguided policy?
It matters for two reasons.
First of all, it matters if you can not trust a politician to remain true to their core beliefs. Whatever your feelings on Ken Livingstone - and mine are very strong - at least he is consistent. He has strong convictions and stays true to those convictions. That is why he is popular - not because of what he has done for Londoners, but because they believe he believes in what he is doing and saying. I do not like the man, but at least I can respect him for that. He won't thank me for saying it, but in that respect he has much in common with Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP - which is why the BNP is the fastest growing political party in Britain today.
People may not agree with Livingstone or Griffin on everything and there will be some points on which they will strongly disagree with them, but at least they can trust that what they say comes from a properly held belief and - if they are fair minded people - can accept that they adopt those points and argue them on the basis of belief rather than a simple desire to be liked and voted for.
This does not mean that politicians should never change their mind. Of course they do and should do if they are convinced that their previous position was wrong, but if they just appear to swing with the breeze the public will recognise that. There is a big difference between changing your mind because you've seen the light and changing your mind because you want to be popular. Thatcher's attitude towards the EU is a case in point. In her early days as Conservative leader she was very much pro-EU, by the time she was ousted she had adopted an entirely different position. However, her mind was changed by personal experience - not popular opinion. That is the key difference.
The second reason is that politicians without firm convictions tend to be the most reactionary. Because they do not have any deeply held beliefs they will react to public opinion, NGO lobbying, media pressure or, worse still, foreign interference. This frequent switching of position leads to poorly conceived and ill thought out legislation which eventually does more harm than good. This reactionary style of politics was apparent during the Major administration and has been a standard feature of Blair's government.
The result of this is that politicians are now, on the whole, considered to be self-serving. They are considered to be self-serving because - on the whole - they are. Whatever their motives for going into politics the "professional" nature of Parliament today means that their entire livelihood and future depends on remaining popular with voters. Instead of serving the nation's interest they serve their own - they have to. Like any career "professional" they will do whatever is required to maintain and enhance their career.
We still have people in the main parties on the left and right of politics. There are - or were - plenty of members of both Labour and the Conservatives who still retain the convictions which used to be associated with those parties and there are still MPs on both sides of the House with strongly held beliefs and convictions, but because they tend to disagree with and even embarrass the careerist politicians, they tend to be marginalised. This is what New Labour did in the 90's and what the Tories are doing now.
What remains are centrist parties. Political parties with no firm beliefs, no real convictions and stuffed full of self-serving career politicians whose only real concern is staying in power and who will say and do anything to achieve that. Britain and the EU are dominated by centrist parties and have been for the best part of two decades. In that time, faith in the political process has diminished progressively - people have stopped voting across Britain and Europe in huge numbers.
Recently, across Europe, we have seen an upsurge in support for what the media call "far-right" parties. This is frequently seen as a sign that there is an upsurge in racist or nationalist feelings which alarms the centrist parties who, in their typically reactionary way, respond by trying to legislate against these parties or even resort to deliberately lying or distorting the truth in their attempts to smear them - ably assisted by the media of course. But I don't believe these parties are growing in popularity because there has been a sudden upsurge in racist or nationalist beliefs (in the case of nationalism, it is my view that the vast majority of people in Europe - from France to Poland, from Sweden to Greece - are proud of their nationality).
I believe these parties are becoming popular because people like conviction politics. They recognise that these parties are saying things that will not be popular with some - especially in the media or amongst the liberal ruling elite - and there are frequent issues on which they will disagree strongly, but they recognise that it comes from a deep seated belief and not from the perspective of what is best for the careers of the politicians in those parties.
Just like no-mans land between the front lines of two great armies was the graveyard for soldiers, the centre ground of politics is the place where politics dies. A wasteland where the only choice of action when the bullets start to fly is to run for the nearest cover - whichever side that may be on.