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Renewing the Centre?

by Paul Wetherly

Have recent events – notably the election (and re-election) of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party following the Conservative victory in the 2015 general election, leading to a surge in support for the party on the basis of the presentation of a left-wing manifesto ‘for the many, not the few’ in the 2017 election, and the 2016 vote to leave the EU leading to a ‘hard Brexit’ strategy being pursued by the Conservative government – revitalised British politics by breaking from the uninspiring centrist politics of the preceding period? Was ‘centrism’ a problem that needed to be solved? Or, on the contrary, is the problem that the main parties have vacated the centre ground of politics, creating an urgent need for the centre to be renewed? Is centrism the problem or the solution?

The politician who has most consistently argued that centrism is the solution is Tony Blair. Following the ‘New Labour’ victory in 1997, in 1998 Blair set out his ‘personal political philosophy’ in The Third Way: New Politics for the New Century. The Third Way is a ‘label for the new politics [of] the progressive centre-left’ and a ‘a modernised social democracy’. Back then the case for a centrist politics was made in terms of moving beyond the ‘old left’ and the ‘new right’, or the ‘two major political projects [that] have dominated politics in Britain and many other Western democracies – neo-liberalism and a highly statist brand of social democracy’. Twenty years later Blair is making the case for ‘renewing the centre’ all over again, only this time the problem is that the centre-ground has been vacated by ‘the Brexit-dominated Tory party and a hard-left Labour party’. These developments within the two main parties are closely bound up with the challenges presented by the rise of ‘outsiders’ (or ‘insurgents’) and ‘populists’. The EU referendum would certainly not have happened without the influence of ‘outsiders’ in the shape of UKIP and their populist anti-EU and anti-immigration politics. And Jeremy Corbyn came from nowhere as an outsider candidate to win the Labour leadership (though perhaps not a ‘true’ outsider). In order to examine centrist politics as the solution we need to ask: what is the problem that the offered solution is intended to solve?, is the solution feasible and desirable? and, what do we mean by the centre anyway?

The problem which centrism is intended to solve can be understood, first and foremost, as one of statecraft; that is, the problem of winning elections and governing effectively. This is expressed by Blair’s claim in 1996 that ‘A modern party to be successful . . . must be in the centre, speaking for the mainstream majority’. The implicit theory behind this claim is that the political attitudes of voters are arranged on the left-right spectrum in a normal distribution, with the majority gathered together on the ‘mainstream’ centre ground and dwindling minorities being encountered as you travel from the centre out towards the extremes of either left or right.

Blair’s position shifts uneasily between the impression that he feels comfortable standing on the centre-ground based on the conviction that centre-ground policies offer effective solutions to pressing problems in the modern world, and the impression that occupying the centre-ground involves an uncomfortable but necessary compromise in order to win support. In the latter view centrism recognises that there is often a trade-off between ideological purity or ‘principle’ and electoral support or ‘populism’ (in the sense of finding out what ideas and policies are popular with voters). As a populist strategy, occupying the centre ground is justified by the imperative of finding a position ‘that can get the support to win in order that you can do things for the people that desperately need help’ (Smith 2016).

The idea that the route to power runs through the centre ground because that route brings you in contact with the ‘mainstream majority’ has become something of a conventional wisdom after the electoral success of New Labour, being adopted by Cameron as the way back to power for the Conservatives. As recently as March 2018 former chancellor George Osborne, speaking with Blair, echoed the argument that ‘The centre ground was where general elections used to be fought and won .. [and] … that it was where many voters still remained’ (Coughlan 2018). In the French Presidential election in 2017 Macron ran as a self-styled centrist with the purpose of overcoming the division between left and right.

So much for the idea that occupying the centre ground is the solution. What should we make of it? First we need to be clear about what we mean by the centre. There are two conceptions of the centre that need to be distinguished: the ideological centre and the centre of debate. In ideological terms the centre is defined in relation to the left-right spectrum, as the space in between. In contrast, the centre of debate refers to those ideas that at any time tend to dominate and set the terms of political debate. The centre of debate might not correspond with the ideological centre.

It is generally recognised that a single left-right spectrum cannot capture the complexity of ideological argument, with the ‘market versus state’ economic conception of left-right politics being supplemented by a social or moral dimension ( eg see political compass for a version of this two-dimensional conception; also Wetherly 2017). The economic left-right conception can be seen, essentially, as originating from the dominant responses to the processes of modernisation in Europe, particularly those that Gamble summarises as the ‘bourgeois revolution’, the ‘three pillars’ of which were ‘capitalist economy, democratic polity, and scientific rationalism’ (Gamble 1981: 21). In this view, the dominant Enlightenment ideologies of the modern era are liberalism and socialism / communism. These traditions contest the nature of a capitalist economy and the role of the state. Thus the ideological centre consists of the space in between individualist, free-market, anti-statist liberalism and anti-capitalist, collectivist, statist socialism (though this conception is complicated by the anti-statist vision of communism that can be found in classical Marxism – see Wetherly 2017).

This centre ground can be seen as quite expansive, providing space for a meaningful debate between social liberalism and social democracy. In the postwar decades in Britain (viz. roughly from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s) this is what the centre ground meant and it has been argued that it provided a basis for consensus politics, i.e. it was also the centre of debate. During the 1970s this consensus broke down in the face of critiques from left and right in the context of mounting economic difficulties. If the mixed economy and welfare state were no longer working, the solutions, putting them simply, were either, on the left, more statism (e.g. public ownership, planning agreements etc.) and, on the right, to ‘roll back the state’ (e.g. privatisation, deregulation, etc.). It was the latter, neoliberal, position that provided the basis for a new form of statecraft in the guise of ‘Thatcherism’ (and Reaganism in the US), and neoliberalism  arguably still dominates political debate nearly forty years later (though some critics see signs that the era of neoliberalism is coming to an end).

This conception of the ideological centre and brief sketch of postwar British politics enables us to view Blair’s advocacy of occupying the centre ground in a critical light. First, if the postwar Keynesian Welfare State formed the basis of political consensus and the centre of debate, this should not be seen as where the mainstream majority had always gathered. Rather, it constituted a political shift from the political ideas that dominated British politics in the first half of the 20th century – a shift to the left. It can be seen as a synthesis of two trends: a shift within liberalism to social liberalism in order to save capitalism from itself through reform, and the pressure of the labour movement in the form of a social democratic reformist brand of socialism, epitomised by the 1945 landslide Labour victory.

Second, the centrist consensus broke down because the Keynesian welfare model of reformed capitalism entered into crisis in the 1970s with the end of the long postwar economic boom, to be replaced by ‘stagflation’ (the combination, for which the Keynesian toolkit seemed not to have a fix, of high inflation with economic recession and high unemployment).

Third, Thatcherism succeeded not by occupying the centre ground but by seeking to challenge and overturn the central elements of the centrist postwar politics. For Thatcherism, centrism was definitely not the solution but the problem, to be solved by a shift to the right – characterised in Hall’s famous analysis as ‘the great moving right show’.

Fourth, to the extent that Thatcherism was successful in discrediting the postwar settlement (which was not entirely) and building a new consensus around individualism, anti-statism and other right wing themes (again not entirely), this posed an electoral dilemma for the Labour party. Blair’s strategy of occupying the centre ground was definitely not a return to postwar social democracy, now characterised as the ‘old left’. It was, in that sense, a repudiation of the centre. And although it is simplistic to characterise New Labour and the third way simply as a continuation of neoliberalism, it is fair to say that it represented a significant adjustment to Thatchersim. In other words, Thatcherism had succeeded in shifting the centre of debate to the right.

Thus the strategy of occupying the centre ground is ambiguous between the ideological centre and the centre of debate. In practice, Blair’s strategy was populist in the sense of adjusting to the preferences of voters, in that it shifted right in response to what it perceived to be the new centre of debate established by the ideological success of Thatcherism. On the face of it, Blair became Labour’s most successful prime minister in electoral terms on the strength of this strategy. But there are some basic problems, some of which have become manifest in recent years. The strategy highlights the distinction (and dilemma) between ‘preference accommodating’ versus ‘preference shaping’ strategies. The former, Blairite, approach has the obvious disadvantage that it allows ideological opponents to shape voter preferences and shift the centre of debate. Second, the strategy might prove to be counter-productive in electoral terms as voters may lose trust in politicians whom they see as lacking conviction and not saying what they believe. Third, when both main parties converge on the centre ground this narrows the political choice offered to voters and can therefore contribute to disillusionment. Worse, when the ‘centrist’ policies on which the parties converge fail to ‘do things for the people that desperately need help’ this can fuel the anger and anti-politics that has become a notable feature of politics in Britain and elsewhere in recent years.

Blair, T. (1998) ‘New politics for the new century’, The Independent, 21 September. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/new-politics-for-the-new-century-1199625.html

Brown, C. (1996) ‘Blair: We’re centre party now’, The Independent, 12 April. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/blair-were-centre-party-now-1304370.html

Coughlan, S. (2018) ‘Osborne and Blair: ‘Gap in centre politics’’, BBC, 18 March. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-43448199

Smith, D. (2016) ‘Tony Blair admits he is baffled by rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn’, The Guardian, 23 February. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/feb/23/tony-blair-bernie-sanders-jeremy-corbyn

Weaver, M. (2018) ‘Tony Blair calls for new leadership from ‘strong progressive centre’’, The Guardian, 10 April. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/apr/10/tony-blair-new-leadership-strong-progressive-centre-labour-conservative-party

Wetherly, P. (ed.) (2017) Political Ideologies, Oxford University Press.

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