In this week's New Statesman

Clegg the martyr: will the Lib Dems sacrifice their leader?

This week's New Statesman is now available on newsstands around the country. Single issue copies can also be ordered here

The Martyr Complex: Rafael Behr on Nick Clegg

In the New Statesman Cover Story, Rafael Behr travels up to Nick Clegg’s Sheffield constituency to investigate whether the Deputy Prime Minister is vulnerable to leadership decapitation by the Liberal Democrats. As Labour and Conservative MPs “gloat in private that Clegg cannot possibly fight the next general election as Lib Dem leader”, Behr finds members of Clegg’s own party increasingly speculating along the same lines:

“It is the topic that people talk about most in the party,” says a prominent activist. “But it’s a whispered conversation because people find the whole thing a bit difficult.”

Behr looks back on the weight of expectation that British voters attached to Clegg in the run-up to the 2010 general election to explain how he has become the emblem of weakness and false promises in politics:

[T]he act of compromise, without which two-party government is impossible, reinforces the Lib Dems’ reputation for weakness and cynicism. It is a terrible fix – the device that defines coalition has become, in Clegg’s hands, also the practice that debases it.

Richard J Evans: Europe on the verge of a nervous breakdown

In the NS Essay, Richard J Evans, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge and author of The Third Reich in Power 1933-39, asks whether soaring youth unemployment and a resurgence of the far right signal that Europe is on the brink of repeating the catastrophe of the 1930s:

Where extremism flourishes, political violence is never far away, and the desire for a restoration of public order can often play into the hands of right-wing politicians who, as Hitler did, promise to end the chaos on the streets, even though, like Hitler, they were one of the main forces behind it in the first place. It is no surprise to learn that a large proportion of the police force in Athens – perhaps as much as 50 per cent – voted for Golden Dawn in the 6 May election.

Top independent school headmaster attacks Gove

In the Politics Interview, the Master of Magdalen College School in Oxford, Tim Hands, talks to Alan White and slams Michael Gove’s plans for education reform:

“I simply don’t understand what Michael Gove is doing. He seems to be stuck on a Scottish moor, shooting off rockets in different directions which look brilliant in the night sky but are actually beacons of distress.”

With which reforms does he have a problem? “Gove seems to be a reversionist . . . The idea we have to go to terminal exams is wrong. That’s not how you’ll be judged at work or at university. So, almost de facto, you should have continuous assessment in school.” He shakes his head sadly. “Idiotic.”

Tim Montgomerie: Cameron needs a new emblem

The editor of the ConservativeHome website, Tim Montgomerie, offers a view of David Cameron in this week’s NS Politics Column. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who chose to brandish a shopping basket to show that she understood the needs of ordinary families, and John Major, with his little wooden soapbox, the current Tory Prime Minister, Montgomerie notes, chose a “very different defining moment”:

Climate change was just one of the metrosexual issues that Cameron chose to suggest that the Conservative Party had changed. More women candidates and the concept of the “big society” were two others. The [danger] for Cameron was always that he wouldn’t be as committed to these changes as he needed to be and that he would run the risk of Tory modernisation appearing shallow and inauthentic. And so it has come to pass. Cameron has in fact played fast and loose with each of his great change factors.

Montgomerie warns that, as the next general election approaches, Cameron needs a new defining image – something like that of his predecessors – which will “pull him closer to blue-collar Britain”.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

  • In Observations, Laurie Penny warns that David Cameron risks incurring the wrath of Britain’s young people; Dan Hodges on the change in Ed Miliband’s fortunes, brought about by his “moody and acerbic spin doctor” Tom Baldwin; and, following last week’s New Statesman cover story, Mark Leonard argues that Germany, led by Angela Merkel, is Europe’s only possible saviour.
  • In the Diary, the Irish comedian Patrick Kielty offers some words of advice to his “mate” Jimmy Carr and considers the Queen’s handshake with Martin McGuinness (“For the jubilee girl, it’s just another backstage meet-and-greet on the ‘Sorry one’s ancestors came’ world tour”).
  • Grayson Perry talks rubbish art, cross-dressing and running around with guns in the NS Interview with Jemima Khan.
  • In Lines of Dissent, Mehdi Hasan asks if the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt should worry us.
  • In the Critics, poet Craig Raine writes about Tate Liverpool's exhibition of late work by J M W Turner, Monet and Cy Twombly; Helen Lewis is engrossed in Breasts: a Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams and Andrew Adonis reviews The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert A Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon B Johnson.

For all this and more pick up a copy of this week's New Statesman, available from today on newsstands around the country. Single issue copies can also be ordered online here

Original cover artwork by Chris Price

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.