News that Vince Cable is to give a major speech next week, signalling a rule change that could pave the way for a non-MP to lead the Liberal Democrats, prompts the obvious question. Why, given the salience of centrist politics among the British electorate, is there no decent centrist party?
The Lib Dems have not only remained trapped within the two-party system but were actually squeezed at the last two general elections. But the pages of the Times, the Guardian and the i paper are full of people with picture bylines who think we need a new centrist party. And its natural constituency would be the #FBPE crowd.
Before getting too far into the politics, there’s an obvious structural problem: the first-past-the-post voting system. In Scotland, where Holyrood is elected via PR, there is a perfectly good centrist party called the SNP, which performs decently its function of triangulating between the demands of big business and the agenda of the Scottish middle class. But in Westminster, you are always going to need more than technocratic competence to break the two-party system.
From the fact that Cable is being advised by former Trudeau aide Tom Pitfield, it is possible to deduce the Lib Dems would like to emulate the Canadian Liberal Party. For that, it would need a fresh-faced leader prepared to embody trendy social liberalism while unleashing a familiar mixture of speculative property development, lucrative outsourcing contracts and fracking. It would also need access to a large amount of data – because Pitfield’s firm, Data Sciences Inc, is basically a data-driven marketing firm. And it would help if the new and shiny leader had a famous dad.
Data might be a problem. The Lib Dems have 101,000 members – not far behind the Tories – but going beyond that means creating, out of nowhere, a much bigger dataset matching members of the electorate whose online activity suggests that, because of hostility to Brexit, they might join a new party. Yet simply buying such a data-set would be expensive and legally difficult.
There is, of course, the dataset of 291,000 people (including me) who have signed the People’s Vote petition, owned by Open Britain Ltd. But Open Britain has expressly committed not to share its information with third parties.
Creating a buzz, when the vast majority of the press is pro-Tory, might not be as difficult as it sounds. If the centrist party’s relaunch were to be co-ordinated with a split from the Labour Party, the good people of Ofcom and the BBC could be persuaded that all previous rules need not apply.
The bigger challenge might be finding a glitzy leader who could be the icon of modern trendiness. Gina Miller’s name has been mentioned. She won a crucial court case and has heroically endured a torrent of abuse from racists, but that might not be enough.
As for the famous dad problem, I have wracked my brains and the only person I can think of who fits the bill is David Miliband. As Miliband’s name is exactly the one being whispered by all centrist political journalists, but not actually put into their columns, let’s assume it might be “a person from the Blair era who is not an MP”.
But here’s where you hit the problem: what is centrism? The UK is a nuclear-armed power with a centuries-old history of colonialism, imperialism and wars of intervention. It is also a welfare state that’s been eroded. It is also a multinational state under pressure from strong Celtic nationalisms. It is also the wrecked laboratory of neoliberal economics, populated by some very angry communities who’ve had enough of free market economics. In these conditions, a centrist formation will struggle to do more than stroke the hand of the distressed middle classes and say “there, there”.
Sitting in Westminster as a slightly comical sideshow, the Lib Dems were always capable of weaving their way around the contradictions of centrist politics on these issues: anti-war, pro-austerity, a bit anti-Trident, pro-constitutional reform, anti-authoritarian. But during their only stint in government for 100 years, they morphed very readily into a Tory-lite formation that inflicted penury on the poor.
Any three readers of the New Statesman could put together, at a much cheaper price than Mr Pitfield’s fee, a political programme that might attract the 291,000 People’s Vote signatories, should their data become available. The problem is no version of British centrism yet encountered would sign up to it.
At the heart of the centrist project would have to be the slogan “Remain and/or Rejoin the EU”. It would have to sell the benefits of sharing sovereignty with Brussels in a way that its progenitors – Britain Stronger in Europe – did not. By “sell”, I mean going on the doorstep in some of the most deprived and insecure communities in Britain and having the argument. Anybody who has done it – as tens of thousands of Labour activists had to under Ed Miliband and in the referendum – can tell you it is not easy.
Beyond that, there would have to be an economic policy based on fiscal expansion, an end to health privatisation, a seriously green energy policy and a permanent moratorium on wars of aggression. But that’s not what British centrism actually represents. The professional politicians who might flock to a new centrist party are dyed-in-the-wool supporters of expeditionary warfare and extraordinary rendition. So are the journalists braying for its formation.
The exhibition space of the new party’s conference would be overwhelmed by the outsourcing, defence and privatisation industry because they would, justifiably, see dollar signs flashing before their eyes. As for the green energy policy, the transatlantic carbon lobby would feast on any centrist party that incorporated the Labour right and the Tory left.
The reason why a British centrist party is so hard to form is that centrist politicians support the neoliberal economic system which has failed. It is destroying our communities, damaging our economy and has reduced us to an economy based on precarious employment and stagnant wages.
Macron had the European Union and he had the real and present danger of a fascist challenger in his favour. In a country like France, fully signed up to the Euro, the Eurocorps, Schengen and the other core projects, and with a political class in existential fear of the Front National, persuading people to vote for a telegenic technocrat was easy.
Canada has resource wealth. That means the angry, white, unskilled men, who are driving politics to the right in Europe, can still get decent jobs in the oil, shale and logging industries. It means the country can actively recruit and absorb large scale migrant populations with only a glimmer of alt-right reaction. It has a federal structure and an electoral system that allows broad political diversity at provincial level, where most real politics is done.
Plus, in the Liberals, it has a centrist party that has “owned” the liberal bourgeois agenda throughout the 20th century and can produce politicians with the flair of a Trudeau, or the foreign minister Chrystia Freeland.
Britain has a polarised party system because its electorate is polarised – between a project of fiscal expansion, high welfare and state ownership, and a project of leaving the European Union in order to deregulate the economy and limit migration.
Around 40 per cent of people still say they will vote Tory, despite the party’s policy being in tatters and despite it being led by a Prime Minister who literally dances like a zombie, because they loathe the idea of socialism and the EU.
Likewise, 40 per cent of people still say they will vote Labour, despite the former chief rabbi claiming its leader is the modern equivalent of Enoch Powell. That is because they loathe the way their towns and communities have been wrecked by free market economics, how their industry has been offshored, how their health service has been eroded and privatised, how their armed forces have been committed to wars without end.
The signs are there that a new centrist party is in formation: Cable’s reforms, the United for Change movement, the Champneys cabal inside the Labour right, the co-ordinated smear campaign against Corbyn.
I wish it both doom and good luck. Doom because, until the British middle class understands what a nightmare neoliberal economics is, and what a scarred and unpleasant society most people have to live in, its political class will go on inflicting the low-wage, low-skill lifestyle on this country.
I wish it good luck, however, because people in politics should generally be in parties they believe in. No honest opponent of racism and xenophobia can stay in the Tory party. Nobody who still believes the war, torture, privatisation and corporate duplicity of the Blair years were a good idea is going to feel happy in a left social democratic party.