The political centre is benefiting from inertia; not making progressby Emran Mian / March 9, 2016 / Leave a comment
These are the best of times for centrists, these are the worst of times for centrists.
Why give this diagnosis? Let’s start with the first claim. The UK’s centre-ground party, the Liberal Democrats, has just eight seats in the House of Commons—and will perhaps have even fewer after the constituency boundaries are reviewed. Tim Farron, the leader of the party, was finally quoted by the press on something last week. He said the Office of Communications (Ofcom) had “bottled it” when it decided not to split up BT and Openreach and inject “real competition” in to the broadband industry. He may even have been right. But when this is considered a success for a political party—well, you see the problem.
Centrists like me will find no sanctuary in the Labour Party; it has moved to the hard left. Labour and the centre have had some good times, but probably both need a break before a reconciliation is on the cards.
It looked for a few months like we had the Conservative Party. The Chancellor announced the National Living Wage. The Prime Minister made that speech in Manchester. But now he’s “pulling the emergency brake”—putting his centrist agenda to one side and fiddling around with benefits to EU migrants. Michael Gove is supporting the “Leave” campaign. If he prevails, then the centre (which is broadly pro-EU) will be obliterated. If he doesn’t, he may lose his place in the government and we will be without “the great reformer.” And Boris Johnson, two time Mayor of the metropole, he was one of ours. Wasn’t he? Now even he has chosen the other side.
All the while, refugees are dying on their way to Europe and we can’t hold governments to account for failing to resettle those who are already here. We’ve just about retained freedom of movement across the European Union, but in the face of widespread suspicion that a lot of this movement represents benefits tourism rather than the desire to work and earn a living, it looks like borders are set to make a comeback. Centrists are hopeful folk. Yet many areas in which we would hope to hear rallying cries—the EU’s single market for services, social solidarity and the prospect of enlarging the EU—give us a cause for depression. Even asking governments to do what they’ve already promised is an idealistic stance: that is how badly we are losing. And that’s not even to mention what’s going on in the Primaries for the Presidential election in the United States.
Yet these are the best of times for centrists too. That is, despite all the gloom mentioned above, there are some genuine victories we can cling to. We will win the referendum in the UK. Inequality is back down to something like late 1980s levels, because after all we do have a firmly redistributive tax and benefit system. Large swathes of the economy are watched over by market-friendly, rather than market-fundamentalist or market-sceptical regulators, like the aforementioned Ofcom. You can see why the left and right are revolting: on certain issues, the centre is doing so well it feels like the game is rigged.
But even in these areas, there is a problem. Where the centre is winning, it is because of decisions taken long ago. Can you imagine a “Join” EU campaign winning right now? Or a system of tax credits being created afresh? Inertia sometimes means we stick with the status-quo.
The hard question is whether the centre has any forward momentum. Do we have solutions to the new problems manifesting in the world right now? Can we implement them? I fear that centrists are spending their inheritance hand over fist, and not putting much into the pot for the future. We may moan about current sociological phenomena that make it particularly difficult right now for the centre to make gains: identity politics is back, new technology is changing society, and so on. But read that list over again and let’s be honest: the centrists before us had to deal with all of that too.
Once this referendum is won, it is high time for centrists to get back on the horse—to stop relying on past victories and start focussing on the gains that can be made in the future.