Old centrists do not die, or fade away. They are forever rising from the grave, seemingly unaltered since they were last in public view. After incanting the defunct slogans of a previous age, they return to the dim afterlife of politics whence they came.
Tony Blair’s plan for a “future of Britain” conference at the end of June is only the latest in a succession of such visitations. In September 2021, the anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller announced a new project, the True and Fair Party, aiming to achieve “greater transparency, accountability and competency” than existing parties. When the launch was held in January of this year it attracted 13 attendees, all of whom seemed to be journalists. (A spokesperson blamed Covid restrictions.) An earlier centrist vehicle – the pro-EU Independent Group for Change, later Change UK – was founded in February 2019, only to be disbanded less than a year later after each of its candidates lost their seats in the general election.
The Ur-version of centrism in Britain, the Social Democratic Party, was launched by a “Gang of Four” ex-Labour MPs in January 1981. Mistaking the past for the future as centrists always do, they did not mention Margaret Thatcher in their inaugural Limehouse Declaration, though she was the dominant political force for the rest of the decade and shaped politics for a generation. The SDP split, and most of it merged with the Liberal Party after it failed to break through the first-past-the-post system in the general election of 1983.
Blair’s conference is, then, the fourth coming of British centrism. Its attendees include Luciana Berger and Angela Smith, who left Labour for the evanescent Change group, and Rory Stewart, still remembered for the British walkabout in which he continued his Afghan peregrinations and displayed a similar fluency in native languages. The Britain Project, with which Tony Blair’s institute has teamed up to hold the meeting, finds inspiration in Emmanuel Macron’s faltering En Marche movement. Macron has been invited, though it is unclear whether his regular sessions with Vladimir Putin will leave space in his diary. The perennial prince-across-the water David Miliband is also reportedly involved.
Organisers of the meeting have been at pains to stress that it is an “ideas event”, not a bid to found a new political party. Their reticence is understandable. Labour already has a centrist leader. What is there in this venture for him? We must wait till the great minds are gathered, but I would wager there will be much talk of the limitless possibilities of artificial intelligence, not least in a reformed – that is, further privatised – NHS. The centrism that emerges will be a blend of technological determinism with gung-ho market economics. So vaguely defined as to be almost contentless, Keir Starmer’s centrism has moved on from this anachronistic agenda.
The core centrist belief is that all reasonable people share the same values. Unfortunately, many do not know their true interests, which have to be explained to them. Like Corbynism, Blair’s centrism relies on an idea of false consciousness.
For both, voters are there to be educated, not learned from. During his years in power, Blair was able to align Labour with majority attitudes on a number of key issues. His Thatcherite approach to the economy tempered by a strong commitment to the welfare state matched the values of many voters at the time. Iraq revealed the limits of his powers of persuasion as well as the dangers of his messianic self-belief. For an unrepeatable moment, though, Blair – like Thatcher – was the spirit of the age.
Even at the height of his popularity, Blair insisted voters had to be schooled in the need to adjust to unstoppable globalisation. The Corbynites took a similar line on immigration: a borderless world was the only acceptable future, and there could be no question of pandering to atavistic attitudes. If voters differed, such questions should be fudged until the party was in power. Labour’s backing for a second Brexit referendum joined the centrist disdain for the nation state with the left’s contempt for millions of patriotic Labour supporters. It was an electorally deadly combination, and a Tory landslide duly followed in 2019.
What a deciding segment of the public wanted was a kind of left-conservatism, an intersection of Keynes-style economics with moderate anti-wokeism that Boris Johnson seemed for a time to embody. Now many of the voters who propelled him into power no longer believe a word he says. Inflamed by the cost-of-living crisis and new allegations regarding lockdown breaches, the scars of “partygate” risk festering into a fatal wound.
As things stand, Starmer could become prime minister from sheer Tory inanition. Johnson seems bent on continuing his lurch to defeat and a lucrative career impersonating himself in after-dinner speeches. Yet Labour could still be thwarted if Conservative MPs can rouse themselves from fear and torpor. Deposing Johnson and installing any one of his rivals would be a sign they are serious about staying in power. The prospect of some form of proportional voting for Westminster, which could lock the Tories out of government indefinitely, could be averted or postponed.
WB Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” foretold a time when the centre could not hold. A pitiless sphinx has indeed loosed a blood-dimmed tide in Ukraine, but Britain presents a less apocalyptic picture. The ghost of a new centrism is making another of its periodic appearances. Once Blair’s gathering has dispersed, the visitant will return to the netherworld, and the life of politics will go on.
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special