Political renewal needs more than bland centrism

By Martin Vogel

Burke ‘n’ Marx.

What kind of politics do we need? Between left and right populism, it’s perplexing that there’s nothing inspiring emerging from the middle ground.

Is part of the problem that current hopes of an alternative are invested in something called centrism? There’s nothing to lift the spirits in that term. It suggests a bland splitting of the difference between the extremes or, worse, nostalgia for the discredited status quo ante.

At the think tank, Radix, David Boyle is sensitive to this concern. He’s conscious that much of the stuttering attempts to revive the middle ground are focussed on Brexit. He wants a “radical” centre that attempts to address a broader agenda of social equity:

“If there isn’t anything, except the status quo – the European Union, as it stands, for example – then, really, why bother? It isn’t as if there is nothing wrong with society and the economy that doesn’t cry out for major action – and not the symbolic action that most recent governments have confined their policy-making to, but something that would actually make a major noticeable difference, for example, to a ruinously inflationary housing market. To be of the radical centre does not, it seems to me, mean the kind of tiptoeing towards little tweaks to the system here and there, especially when the global economic system is designed to create billionaires and to enslave the rest of us, little by little.”

Perhaps the problem is that even the radical centre isn’t radical enough. New Labour came to power drawing on the insight of Philip Gould that we’re all middle class now. It spoke for a generation that had come to terms with the market-based reforms of Thatcherism, but wanted some restoration of the public domain. That settlement collapsed with the financial crisis and class is back on the agenda. The bailing out of banks by the masses showed that we’re all proletarians now. To understand the implications of this, centrists should follow Chris Dillow’s advice and adopt a Marxist perspective:

“Marxists understand class. For us, class is not a lifestyle choice – whether you have avocado toast or a full English. It’s about ownership. Capitalists own capital and workers do not, and this gives capitalists (some) power over both workers and the state. This helps explain why Corbyn is so popular among the so-called ‘middle classes’. It’s because they are not ‘middle class’ at all. Their academic qualifications and decent incomes have not allowed them to escape drudge work or acquire property: if you want to understand why young people are Corbynistas, just look in an estate agent’s window. They are, objectively speaking and in Marxian terms, working class. And they are voting accordingly. If centrists are to effectively resist this, they need a class analysis and not just moralistic bleating.”

The point here is not that the centre needs to adopt the policies of the Marxist left. It’s that the Marxist lens can help the centre understand the frustrations it must address if it’s to become politically relevant again. The main reason why Jeremy Corbyn won power in the Labour Party was not because he offered fresh and interesting policies but because the candidates he stood against had nothing to say to these frustrations. As Philip Stephens observes, this also explains the appeal of populism of the Trump and Brexit variety:

”Many of those who backed Mr Trump and Brexit have real grievances — economic, social and cultural. The return of growth presents an opportunity to map an alternative route for society’s left-behinds. Long-discarded notions of progressive taxation, active competition policy, and social equity should be disinterred.”

The task for the centre, though, is not just to revive the social democratic policies of old but to address the new challenges of today’s economy such as the productivity crisis, the gig economy and the implications (positive and negative) of new technology.

But I’m dwelling too much on policy questions. There’s a higher order challenge for the centre. That is to assert a style of political discourse that is inclusive and tolerant, faces down the demonising of opponents that characterises today’s left and right, and preserves the democratic way of settling differences. If the centre means anything, it is moderation in how politics is conducted. Where Marx shows the way in understanding the grievance at play, Edmund Burke helps us find the boundaries in how we address them.

One of the ways populism transgresses the boundaries is by invoking sacred values to shut down debate. Bo Winegard explains how:

“Extreme conservatives and extreme progressives endorse broad narratives of sacred values that interfere with debate, forwarding moral absolutes in place of open discussion. Although both extremes often circumscribe acceptable discourse, they do so in different ways because they adhere to different sacred narratives. Extreme conservatives hold a religious purity narrative that is concerned with sexual and reproductive traits and behaviors. Extreme progressives, on the other hand, hold a victim’s exploitation narrative that is focused on the many injustices perceived victims’ groups face (e.g., women, people of color, gays and lesbians, et cetera).”

He’s writing about American politics. In the UK, the extreme right has made a sacred narrative of the referendum, using the language of “the will of the people” to raise the emotional temperature. The extreme left has made sacred values out of opposition to “Tories” (a broad category applied to many even within Labour) and hostility to Israel. Centrists should oppose and counter the drawing of what should be mundane matters of politics into the realm of the sacred. It shuts down the free thinking that’s needed to address difficult problems and it pollutes the body politic, causing social divisions instead of bringing people together.

It’s only when you begin to think of centrism as the bastion of moderation that the idea of radical centrism makes sense: reaching for ambitious, progressive change through civil and respectful disputation. This requires people to hold their attachments lightly and to open their minds to the insights of political positions and intellectual traditions that might not be their natural home.

I don’t warm to the label centrist. I prefer to think of myself as a non-aligned radical.