Monday, 9 April 2018

That Centrist Party

There has been much mirth at The Observer's attempt to midwife a new centrist party. Emphasising its rich backers and full-time staff, not to mention its anodyne policy platform "that borrows ideas from both left and right", was guaranteed to prompt derision. Tellingly, the party has no actual name as yet, Project One Movement being little more than a placeholder, which makes you wonder what those full-time staff are up to (they didn't even reserve the Twitter handle, which led to the inevitable parody account). Blue-sky-thinking their policy framework doesn't appear to have been a priority, though perhaps they've appreciated the risks in being too specific in a LibDem hostages-to-fortune sort of way and would prefer something a lot more aspirational, or at least bullet-pointy. Even Andrew Rawnsley was forced to admit that the project stands little chance of getting off the ground, not just because of the duopolistic structure of British politics but because there is no British Macron waiting in the wings (no, not even David Miliband) and no conjunction of forces that would see both the Labour and Conservative parties simultaneously marginalised.

The calls for a new centre party have supposedly been driven by two developments: the acceptance of Brexit by both Labour and the Conservatives and the former's leftward shift under Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, neither is a convincing explanation for the need for a new party. There is no evidence that the popular mood has changed enough to guarantee a remain victory in a second referendum, and Labour's current position on the ideological spectrum is roughly "Harold Wilson" in historical terms. The Liberal Democrats provide a home for unreconciled remainers, while the historic lesson of the SDP and New Labour is that pushing the party to the right from within has a better chance of success than striking out on your own. All the evidence suggests that the calls for a new centrist formation are essentially a belated continuation of the anti-Corbyn coup that failed in 2016 (the idea that Tory remainers will break ranks is for the birds). Ironically, there is a sense that what the Labour right is trying to do is mimic the success of Momentum in influencing the direction of the party, but without the grubby necessity of building popular support.

Instead the focus is on winning the media, a task made easier by the Labour right's willingness to allow their criticisms of Corbyn to be exploited by the Tories, as in the antisemitism row. Among other things, this has reminded us that the antipathy towards Leveson 2 extended well beyond the Conservative Party. This should hardly come as a surprise, given the number of Labour MPs who take the Murdoch shilling and the resistance Ed Miliband faced on press reform during his own tenure as party leader, but it's worth reminding ourselves that while the scope of Leveson 2 was to be the corrupt relationship of the press and the police, it was expected to reveal a triangular relationship involving politicians as well. The favourable press coverage of Corbyn's critics is not just a congruence of interests but a sensible investment to safeguard against any future press regulation. As ever, the agenda set by the press is happily reflected by the BBC and ITN, both of whom have long considered the Labour left to be beyond the pale.

The claim by Stephen Bush that the space for a centrist party exists more on the right than the left is sociologically plausible, but the emergence of a new formation in that space is politically improbable. The pro-remain, liberal wing of the Conservative Party is far smaller and more isolated at Westminster than the Labour right, but just as unlikely to split. They may enjoy greater support among the wider population, but that support isn't clamouring for a new political vehicle, to judge by the failure of the LibDems to rebuild their numbers. The authoritarian leavers that formed the bedrock of UKIP's support have either drifted away or switched to the Conservatives. Though they are out of sympathy with the free market fundamentalism of the Tory ultras, which paradoxically means they will have as much of a restraining effect on Brexit as the ex-remainers like Theresa May, they are sufficiently in tune with the new authoritarianism (e.g. the "hostile environment" for immigrants), to not feel the need to take their votes elsewhere. I suspect Bush's contrarian view is partly an attempt to obfuscate that the centrist initiative is wholly about Labour's internal dynamics.

One reason why a new centrist party would struggle to get off the ground (and why the abortive attempts to date have barely got beyond the flipchart stage) is the difficulty it would have in coming up with a coherent set of policies. The problem is that while neoliberalism has achieved superstructural hegemony - i.e. among the media, politicians and business - it has failed to embed itself socially beyond the vapid nostrums of personal striving and gym membership. Most people are still suspicious of the market, believe in national control (from migration to railways), and think that government can and should reduce inequality, even while they respect private property, entrepreneurialism and the quid pro quo of rights and responsibilities. A centrist pitch to this majority is perfectly feasible, but only if it drops the overt enthusiasm for neoliberalism and globalisation (Macron's current problems owe much to the French electorate wanting a centrist President more than an authoritarian neoliberal). But if it does that it will struggle to distinguish itself from Labour and the Conservatives, both of whom are engaged in moderating neoliberalism in their different ways. In the current conjunction, a centre party would be obliged to double-down on neoliberalism, but that would make it unpopular.

This helps explain why much of the support for a new centre party has focused on foreign policy. This is more than just an opportunistic stick with which to beat Corbyn, it is a displacement activity to avoid talking about the social order and economic power. We have reached a point where the "sensibles" are making increasingly loud calls for military intervention to topple the Assad regime in Syria: "We should all have been making the case, for years, to support and create an international military effort to remove him from power". Not only does this repeat the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, but it sits uneasily with centrist lamentations that Brexit might jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland. On the one hand, we should risk exacerbating a civil war because we are offended by chemical weapons; on the other, we should do nothing that risks reviving an inter-communal conflict that was inflamed by putting British boots on the ground nearly 50 years ago. The problem of centrist incoherence won't go away, and for that reason the chances of a viable centre party being launched are practically nil.


  1. Ben Philliskirk10 April 2018 at 11:10

    I think the more volatile socio-economic context of the past 10 years has created a situation where 'ordinary' people are still unable to break the existential constraints of the neoliberal 'system', but are increasingly showing their displeasure and giving politicians and sections of the 'elite' a bloody nose. Thus neoliberalism's preferred political method, management, has given way to emotional appeals and blatant manipulation. This explains the prominence of the incompetent but entirely cynical Boris Johnson, as well as the equally hapless but persistent political skulduggery of sections of the Labour right.

    That small sections of the political class and the media are still obsessed by the prospect of a new centre party suggests that there is a surprisingly strong ideological/faith-based attachment to the ideals of soft neoliberalism within these groups. Their continued isolation demonstrates just how far these 'disciples of Blair' are from understanding the broader political and social situation.

  2. Why is the idea that Tory remainers will break ranks "for the birds"? Are they being kept loyal by fear that the defeat of Brexit would lead to a Corbyn-led government?

    1. I imagine that's the immediate concern, but the other factor is that the Tories just don't tend to split.