bby Richard King
When the writer Paul Mason was booked to appear at the annual conference of Progress earlier this year, he was more or less assured a rough reception. Progress, after all, is a Blairite “ginger group” within the British Labour Party – formed in 1996, one year before their boy won power – and Mason the quasi-Marxist author of the excellent Postcapitalism and a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. But I doubt he was prepared for just how bitter and self-pitying the right wing of the party has become since Corbyn set about transforming Labour into a genuinely social democratic movement with broad appeal amongst the young and the poor. Referring to anti-Blairite tweets Mason had sent in the wake of the May election, one audience member complained how “intimidated” she now felt at Labour Party meetings. Another demanded Mason apologise. (He didn't.) But things got really interesting when the panel chair suggested that Mason had “entered the Labour Party behind Jeremy Corbyn” – a not-so-veiled reference to the Trotskyist tactic of “entryism” whereby radical groups affix themselves to larger mainstream organisations in order to influence policy. Mason reminded the assembled comrades that he'd joined the Labour Party at nineteen years of age, and that his grandfather was of the generation who'd founded the party in 1900. He then invited the Progress faithful to consider whether they wanted to remain in Corbyn's Labour Party at all. As he put it, to boos and jeers from the floor:
In case you're misunderstanding me, just listen. If you want a centrist party, this is not going to be it for the next ten years. If it's really important to you to have a pro-Remain party that is in favour of illegal war, in favour of privatisation, form your own party and get on with it!
There weren't many takers for that last proposition, and to an outsider Mason's peroration might sound like a triumphalist taunt. But the notion that a new party could emerge in the wake of the Brexit referendum is not entirely fanciful. Inspired by the example of Emmanuel Macron, Tony Blair himself has established an entity called the Institute for Global Change, a “policy platform” that aims to refill “the wide-open space in the middle of politics”, while Paddy Ashdown, one-time leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, has helped establish More United, a “political start-up” that raises funds for politicians of a centrist, pro-EU persuasion, regardless of party affiliation. Furthermore, in August, former Tory aide and political editor of the Daily Mail, James Chapman, suggested that a number of Conservative MPs had responded warmly to his idea for a new centrist party called The Democrats. “They are not saying they are going to quit their parties,” Chapman told the BBC; “but they are saying they understand that there is an enormous gap in the centre now of British politics.”
True, these moves do not amount to anything like a firm proposal, let alone a formal arrangement. But unlikely as such a development is at this stage in the political narrative, it is worth considering what a new “centrist” party might look like were it to come into being, and what its effect on UK politics might be. Indeed we might broaden the question out to encompass politics more generally: How have the political shocks of the past two years affected our sense of what constitutes “centrism” and what effect might a centrist party (or parties) have on the political sphere?
To take the second question first: The effect, I think, would be salutary. It is now obvious to everyone who's been paying attention that the major parties in the UK, like the major parties in the US and elsewhere, no longer represent coherent constituencies. Such parties are always amalgams of course – alliances of overlapping interests. But in recent years both Labour and the Conservatives (and their analogues) have begun to disintegrate under pressure of economic and social change. In the case of Labour and the US Democrats it is clear that the post-industrial economy is driving a wedge between the knowledge class and the remnants of the old working class, the former having expanded since the 1990s from a relatively small, socially liberal vanguard, dependent for its political clout on an organised blue-collar base, to a class with its own power and priorities. The left's “neoliberal” turn in the 1990s was hedged around with promises to retrain the old unionised working class, but these, as we know, were largely empty. And since the knowledge class is, by definition, the winner in the new economy, its social liberalism has been quietly joined with economic liberalism, for which it has little open enthusiasm, but nothing of the old contempt. Hence the centre-left adoption of a “trickledown” model of social justice based around respect, rights, equal “opportunity” and the like – a program many in the old working class experience as a form of moral instruction, a further imposition from “above”. The Brexit vote made this new division explicit, revealing as it did a strong preference for “Leave” in the once-industrialised conurbations of the north of England, and an equally strong preference for “Remain” amongst the university-educated knowledge class.
The situation on the right is even more fascinating. For here we find the century-long truce between (economic) liberalism and traditional conservatism – a truce called in the interests of self-preservation, in the face of an organised working class that was cobbling together some ideologies of its own – breaking apart like a meringue.* The marriage was always going to fail. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Australia's John Howard could talk all they wanted about British/American/Australian values and the benefits of continuity, religion etc. But the fact is that an open market, exposed to global competition, and a supercharged capitalism bent on turning everything – from Wagyu beef to “wellness” – into a commodity, are corrosive of the very values and communities from which such conservative sentiments emerge. Like Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton, the former Prime Minister David Cameron is an economic and social liberal, and this ideological ensemble – open markets/open society, economic flexibility/fluid identity – is a lot more coherent than Thatcherism or Reaganism or Howardism ever were. Progressives tend to view equal rights etc. as a civilising force on capitalism; but in fact such a politics flows quite naturally from capitalism's focus on the individual. It is, in David Goodhart's term, an “Anywhere” ideology, suspicious of rootedness and continuity, committed to openness, achievement and fluidity. Now this “progressive individualism” has spread across the major parties according to a kind of double osmosis. Social liberalism has flowed rightwards, economic liberalism leftwards, such that many on the “right” of Labour and the “left” of the Conservatives now have more in common with each other than they do with either Corbyn-style social democracy or flag-wagging Brexiteer Toryism.
There is, then, as Blair and Chapman intuit, an opening in UK politics for a “centrist” pro-globalisation party expressing an essentially double liberalism. Of course there would have to be a tough debate about public investment in infrastructure and so on; but my sense is that there is a lot more agreement on those matters than is often admitted in the cut and thrust of parliament. Really it should have fallen to the Liberal Democrats to plug this gap in the “centre” of politics; but their squalid compact with Cameron's Tories has all but destroyed their brand for now. Nevertheless we shouldn't mistake that tactical failure for ideological obliteration. The liberal “centre” is under enormous pressure from both rightwing populism and an incipient “new old” left. But this very fact will send many in the knowledge class rushing to sign up should a new party emerge. Such a party would have as its overriding goal keeping Britain in the European Union, an institution, or set of institutions, that expresses at once the implicit cosmopolitanism and quiet neoliberalism of this knowledge class. The almost tantrum-like response to Brexit (which, like Trump's win, is cast by many in the knowledge class as a crisis of legitimacy) is a sign that this class may well be becoming, in Marxist terms, a “class for itself”. If that's the case it will soon be looking for some (coherent) political representation.
This brings us to the question of “centrism” itself, and its deeply ideological character, by which I mean its basis in/emergence from a particular class, occupying a particular place within a particular kind of economy. As we know the centrist likes to cast himself as the antidote to ideology – a manoeuvre that rests on a restricted idea of what an ideology is: not, as Lionel Trilling called it, with unrivalled panache, “the haunted air”, but a dogma or doctrine along the lines of Soviet-style communism. Indeed the centrist tends to take the central metaphor of our politics – the metaphor of “left” and “right”, which derives from the seating arrangements in the National Assembly in Revolutionary France – and implies that to be equidistant from these “extremes” is to have no ideology at all! To some extent we all perpetuate this conceit, if only through the language we use. (This essay is no exception, certainly.) But a conceit it most assuredly is. Notwithstanding “median voter” theory – a crass but influential attempt to fuse the idea of the political centre with the economic law of supply and demand – it is plain that the technocratic centrist is no less “ideological” than a member of the Socialist Workers Party with a hammer-and-sickle tattoo on his arse.**
Forced to frame his own political program, the “centrist” would have to take his chances in what classical liberals like to call (in another loaded metaphor) “the marketplace of ideas”. I'd expect him to fail, as Macron is failing. But I'd like to see him do so honestly and out in the open, making the case – to die with his boots on, so to speak. Of course he would continue to characterise his platform as “the sensible centre” – as political “pragmatism”. But this line is now, increasingly, a hostage to the law of diminishing returns. Secular stagnation, rising inequality, toxic debt and automation are problems (I'm convinced) that cannot be resolved within the liberal capitalist paradigm. But in order for that paradigm to be decisively rejected, it needs to be named and argued for. We need to know what we're buying, or not.
Ten years on from the financial crisis, there is still no genuine recovery in prospect. But while it is common to read that Brexit and Trump et al. are “morbid symptoms”, the disease itself remains obscure. We say “the centre cannot hold”; but we leave the centre unexamined. A “centrist” party forced to confront the realities delineated above – stagnation, inequality etc. – would almost certainly serve as a catalyst and prepare the ground for a more open debate about what kind of society we want to live in, and what kind of policies we need to get there: radical, status-quo, or reactionary. Ideas are big again – as big as London buses. God knows the last thing we need right now is parties held together by sentiment.
In the wake of the liberal and nationalist revolutions of 1848 the socialist Alexander Herzen wrote:
The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that what the departing world leaves behind it is not an heir but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.
Chaos and desolation, yes: I think those things are certainly in prospect. Which makes it all the more important to nominate our positions now and be clear about our disagreements. Echoing Herzen, Antonio Gramsci wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” A major political realignment would not in itself bring “the new” into being; but it would help bring it into view.
Of course centrists regard Brexit and Trump etc. as the political storm before the lull. Soon the world will come to its senses and recognise the efficacy of the open market and enlightened individualism. Obviously I disagree with this, but it's hard to argue with a constituency that regards, or affects to regard, its outlook as the unvarnished projection of “pragmatism”, as opposed to what it really is: an ideology rooted in its own class power. Perhaps I'm being overoptimistic when I suggest that a new political party would effect a change in our view of centrism, or indeed in centrism's view of itself. But such an entity would at least force voters to (re-)examine their loyalties. That, surely, would be progress of a kind.
So well done Paul Mason for laying it out, and for doing so behind enemy lines. Centrists, I think you should consider his proposal. And yes, do please get on with it.
* In the British context this assimilation was set in train by the destruction of the once-mighty Liberal Party in the second decade of the twentieth century, a period described by George Dangerfield in the imperishable The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935).
** This theory, made famous by Anthony Downs in his Economic Theory of Democracy (1957), states that, just as it is rational for two businesses selling identical products to gravitate to the halfway point of a street with an even spread of customers (this is known as “Hotelling's law”), so it makes sense for political parties to position themselves in “the middle ground”. Not only is this doubtful on its face – assuming as it does one left-right axis (a massive oversimplification) and a political class that moves reflexively towards where the median voter sits (which it doesn't) – but it also rests on a dubious comparison of the economic and political spheres.
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