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10 October 2017updated 04 Oct 2023 12:01pm

Are you now, or have you ever been, a centrist?

We need new words to describe the political landscape, but “centrist” is deliberately vague – and therefore useless.

By Helen Lewis

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of centrism. As Anoosh Chakelian wrote last week, “centrist” has become the latest insult to enter our political vocabulary. There’s only one problem: no one can agree what it means, except that it’s bad. Centrists patronisingly explain things to women on Twitter (not a pastime limited to any particular ideology, I can assure you). They assume their beliefs are self-evidently correct (ditto). I was finding it all quite baffling, until I realised. A centrist is just a neoliberal with a fidget spinner.

Yes, we’ve been here before. The word “neoliberal” migrated from describing a particular kind of political ideology to a catch-all for anything vaguely capitalist the speaker didn’t like. “The term is frequently used somewhat indiscriminately and quite perjoratively to mean anything ‘bad’,” write the academic authors of The Handbook of Neoliberalism. “Such lack of specificity reduces its capacity as an analytic frame.” 

This argument is not popular with many on the Left, who feel that if the term is retired, or its use curtailed, something they value is being taken away. When Colin Talbot, a professor at Manchester University, wrote a blog making a similar argument in August 2016 – “everyone from moderate social democrats to the most lurid free-marketeers gets lumped together under a convenient ‘neoliberal’ label,” he noted – one of his postgraduate students wrote to three department heads demanding a retraction.

“Centrist” is now doing a similar job. In the way it is used by the Labour left, the world is divided into three categories: them, Actual Nazis, and everyone else, who is a centrist. Unsurprisingly, that’s not how everyone else sees politics. I don’t think of myself as a centrist: my position on immigration (in favour of free movement) and welfare schemes (a more progressive destination for government funds than helping middle-class graduates by axeing tuition fees) are to the left of Labour’s 2017 manifesto. I’m in favour of higher inheritance taxes than any mainstream party would dare propose. You want unpopular views? Roll up, roll up, I got ’em.

Politics is in a crazy place at the moment, so it’s not surprising that people are trying to find new ways to describe the emerging tribes. It was much simpler when class was the dividing line. But as the economics blogger Chris Dillow wrote after the election: “Corbyn’s Labour got a higher share of the well-off’s vote than Blair’s Labour got in 1997… The difference between Blair and Corbyn is that Blair did far better than Corbyn among the working class.” Education and views on Brexit are now better predictors of voting intention than “AB” or “D2”.

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So, we do need new ways of framing our thoughts, and many neologisms are illuminating. “Hard Remainers” want a second EU referendum. “Re-Leavers” voted Remain but now just want the bloody exit over and done with, thank you very much. Crucially, though, these terms have straightforward, widely agreed explanations. Others have become mired in partisan disagreement: what constitutes a Hard Brexit, which could mean anything from no deal at all, to leaving the Single Market? And doesn’t “hard” itself seem perjorative? You have to feel for Brexiteers, who took inspiration from Gretchen Wieners in 2004’s Mean Girls, and tried to Make Clean Brexit Happen.

This brings me to the Guardian columnist Owen Jones. He has now uncovered a menace greater even than centrism, and that is the scourge of “centrist transphobia”, a form of this bigotry uniquely associated with people who are not like him. “Transphobia is one of the last acceptable forms of bigotry, promoted not just by the Trump right but among so-called ‘centrist’ circles, too,” he tweeted on 7 October. “There are so-called ‘centrist’ writers who, like Trumpists, wilfully mislabel trans women as ‘men’, knowing full well how distressing this.” Unhelpfully for the general understanding, but helpfully for the Guardian’s libel insurance, he declined to provide any examples. 

Because Jones had been casually rude to me the day before, I wondered if he was talking about me. But then I remembered that not only am I not a centrist, I don’t think trans women are men. I think that biological sex exists, but that it’s distinct from gender, which is a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps Jones thinks the phrase “biologically male” is offensive, because he hasn’t read any of the huge back catalogue of feminist theory on the vital difference between sex and gender? (See Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”)

Ultimately, though, we all know what he’s doing. He’s pandering to an existing discourse about “TERFs”, or “trans exclusionary radical feminists” – lumping together the entire gamut of opinion on gender that isn’t his, and condemning it in the vaguest, least-helpful terms. In this formulation, Donald Trump’s vindictive transgender military ban and the Republican right’s callous attempts to turn bathroom access into a culture war are lumped together with child psychologists who suggest we are too quick to seek a medical solution for gender non-conforming children, and feminists who ask how we should best balance the competing rights of two oppressed groups. (Oh, and it ignores the fact that the biggest danger to trans people is violent men, not radical feminists. Cherchez la femme. Then blame her.) Unsurprisingly, there is a rich seam of men who otherwise show very little interest in the real discrimation and violence suffered by transgender people, but take obvious glee at the news that there are bad women on the internet whose opinions need to be corrected.

As Jess Phillips noted on Twitter, this debate needs light, not heat. But to be accused of transphobia now, your views can sit anywhere from Germaine Greer – “when a man decides to spend his life impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in Psycho), it is as if he murders her and gets away with it”, gulp – to the trans women who recently questioned the government’s gender self-declaration plans in the Morning Star. (Classic centrist move.) Or you could be radical lesbian feminist Linda Bellos, who was banned from speaking to a feminist society at Peterhouse College, Cambridge earlier this month. Bellos was “disinvited” when she suggested discussing how some trans politics “seems to assert the power of those who were previously designated male to tell lesbians, and especially lesbian feminists, what to say and think”.

Perhaps Bellos – the first non-white lesbian in the Spare Rib collective, once named as a member of the “loony Left” by the Sun – is just another centrist transphobe, and has spent the last 40 years in deep cover. Or perhaps it’s just easier to create a boo-word and lump all your opponents together, rather than engaging with their arguments. 

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled