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Renewing the Centre?

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, and the 2016 vote to leave the EU leading to a ‘hard Brexit’ strategy from the Conservative government – revitalised British politics by breaking from the centrist politics of the preceding period? Was ‘centrism’ a problem that needed to be solved or 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?

Tony Blair has consistently argued that centrism is the solution, epitomised in the 1998 statement  of  his ‘personal political philosophy’, The Third Way. Back then the case for a centrist politics was made in terms of moving beyond ‘new right’ and ‘old left’, or ‘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’. 

The rationale for centrist politics is expressed by Blair’s claim that a successful modern party ‘must be in the centre, speaking for the mainstream majority’. The point is to find a position ‘that can get the support to win in order that you can do things for the people that desperately need help’ (Blair in 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. 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). 

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.

The economic left-right spectrum can be seen, essentially, as contesting the nature of a capitalist economy and the role of the state. The ideological centre 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 the late 1940s to the mid-1970s) this is what the centre ground meant and 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. The alternatives were either, on the left, more statism (e.g. public ownership etc.) and, on the right, to ‘roll back the state’ (e.g. privatisation 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). 

This conception of the ideological centre enables us to view Blair’s advocacy of occupying the centre ground in a critical light. First, the centrist postwar consensus constituted a political shift from the 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.

Second, when this consensus broke down in the 1970s, Thatcherism succeeded 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. 

Third, Blair’s ‘third way’ 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. Instead New Labour and the third way represented a significant adjustment to Thatchersim. 

Jeremy Corbyn,  Labour Leader, speaking at a political rally during the Labour leadership election, in Matlock, Derbyshire. (Source: Wikimediacommons)

In seeking to ‘renew the centre’ in reaction to a ‘hard left’ Labour party, Blair fails to recognise that it is the shift to the right to embrace neoliberalism in the guise of ‘centrism’ that contributed to disillusionment with party politics, and that ‘Corbynism’ can make a stronger claim to centrism as a revival of traditional social democratic politics. Perhaps the centre is the solution, but not in the way Blair conceives it.

Feature Image credit: Palace of Westminster by Michael Beckwith via Pixabay

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