‘Centrism’ is a strange word for an even stranger concept. Taken at face value, it wishes to portray itself as a sort of beguiling pragmatism. Taking elements of the left and the right. Watering them down and filtering them through a lens of rationality. Centrism, its proponents claim, is a magical third way that can offer solutions to the most intractable problems. Politics is about compromise and realism, the centrist claims.
It’s no secret that centrism is in decline across the western world. As the political go-to stance for western democracies of the late 20th to early 21st century, the ideology will forever be associated with the global financial crisis and the subsequent collapse of living standards.
And yet there are still people, particularly those of the political class, who refuse to let go. They treat those who celebrate the resurgence of more imaginative politics as petulant children who simply don’t understand how the world works. So used are they to their political beliefs being unquestioningly placed at the centre of politics that they cannot countenance the idea that those beliefs are no longer sacrosanct. But does centrism deserve this kind of blind loyalty, or are its proponents simply suffering from a severe lack of imagination about what shape the post-crisis West should take? Conversely, is it fair for those on the political fringes to now dismiss centrism as ‘has-been politics”?
It’s not hard to see why people, faced with blue-in-the-face bellowing on the left and right, might find solace in a middle path; a path that’s not too much of one thing, and not too much of the other. It might not be glamorous and exciting, it might not get people’s hearts racing, but it is practical and sensible. In our political “Three Bears’ Cottage”, centrism is the policy-porridge that’s “Just Right”. Right?
Well, not quite. There are a few problems with this stance. Problems that go unaddressed by those who remain ardently cloven to the centre, despite its abandonment by huge swathes of western populations.
Firstly, the “centre”, is a rather arbitrary concept. If we take the centre to mean “the equidistant place between two end-points”, then centrism is entirely dependent on where our end-points lie.
The fact is that successive UK governments have lugged our Overton Window so far to the right that, even when we place our feet squarely in its centre, we find ourselves embracing frothing, boggle-eyed, right-wing political ideas and calling them “moderate”.
How else do you explain the state of the UK, or, indeed, the western world more generally? The lack of real wage growth over 40 years? The soaring rates of crisis-inducing household debt? The UK housing crisis and the attendant mass intergenerational transfer of wealth? A huge global financial collapse? the ever-widening gap between rich and poor and the depressing lack of any improvement in social mobility? The soaring increase in pay ratios between CEOs and their workers? These are all the regrettable hallmarks of successive governments’ embracing of hard-right neoliberal economic policy. And, since 1997 at least, this has been done under the banner of ‘centrism’.
Looking at centrism’s record beyond the economics, the social policies of the “centrist age” have been ostensibly characterised by a broad and accepting liberalism. This embracing of liberal values has undoubtedly done much good, slowly displacing the default-intolerance that typified much of post-imperial, 20th-century Britain It has resulted in huge strides in society’s treatment of women, BAME individuals, gay people, and trans people, amongst others. However, look a little closer, and it’s clear that this liberalisation was only permitted where it didn’t harm that most sacred of centrist cows: economic growth.
This becomes clear when we scrutinise centrism’s liberal credentials a little more closely. In contrast to its social liberalisations, the centrist age has been defined by the hostile erosion of civil liberties, a black mark for both New Labour and our current Prime Minister, who made attacks on our personal freedoms the raison d’être of her time as Home Secretary. These combined records show that centrist governments are only liberal as far as it suits their economic agenda. They are not afraid to dabble in the dark arts of authoritarianism when the need arises.
So, now that we have established that centrism is not actually at the centre of anything. Let’s analyse centrism as it lies i.e. an economically right-wing, broadly socially liberal, and intermittently highly authoritarian, political ideology.
It would be bad form to claim that centrism has done no good at all. That is clearly not true. The New Labour years saw huge improvements in many areas of public life: funding for the NHS grew massively and many areas of the health service improved. The introduction of the National Minimum Wage, the establishment of Sure Start Centres and the introduction of the Educational Maintenance Allowance are all admirable items on a list of New Labour achievements that is long and distinguished. To try to claim otherwise would be belligerent.
But with those achievements came their shadowy and objectionable counterparts: swingeing privatisation of schools and health care in the form of Private Finance Initiatives, the rise of unsavoury spin doctors and, most importantly, the financial deregulation which helped contribute to the global financial crisis.
Let’s be clear. It would be unfair to criticise New Labour too harshly for deregulating the banking sector: if Gordon Brown had chosen a different path during his time as chancellor, he would have been literally the only finance minister in the Western world to do so. But New Labour mistook beauty for truth and offered themselves up to the false idol of finance, for which we all paid the ultimate price. The result was the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression and a world-wide squeeze on living standards which remains with us to this day.
And that is the point. If all the good that New Labour achieved was dependent on adherence to an economic ideology that ultimately precipitated the undoing of all that good, then it counts for naught. Instead we find ourselves with widespread social unrest, plummeting living standards, no pay growth and a whole raft of wider social and political issues that show no signs of getting better. So shaken is people’s faith in the current political paradigm, that our electoral system has failed to return a convincing majority government to Westminster for over a decade.
And what is the centrists’ response to this? Their clarion call in the face of all this unrest?
“Let’s do things exactly like they were before!”
It’s not hard to see why the traction has been lost.
Centrism, no longer the lush and verdant meadow of ten years ago, has become a grazing pasture for older, white people with brows shaped into perma-frowns, who remain utterly convinced that what they are saying is for the greater good, simply by dint of the fact it is coming out of their mouths. The problem is, they tend to be the people for whom centrism worked out very well and who were, by and large, shielded from the worst impacts of the economic crisis
The reality is that the “centrists” had their way for the best part of two decades, and it ended in disaster. Even as recently as 2010, politicians were rushing to claim the centre ground, Nick Clegg briefly assuming the mantle of “Darling of the Centre”. Now, instead of wallowing, like Clegg, in a mire of self-pity and denial, it is time for centrists to acknowledge that this new world, which is slowly emerging from the shadow of the global financial crisis, is ripe for reshaping. What arises should not be a pale simulacrum of the right-wing “centrism” that came before it, but a political and economic order that places people at its heart, where workers are valued, the environment is cared for and crucial public services are maintained.
Only then will we have a world that truly works for everyone.