A New Centrist Party? It’s More Than Reckless – It’s Pointless

Another week, another murmur about splinters in Westminster. This time, though, it’s a splinter that would affect both Labour and the Conservatives.

James Chapman, George Osborne’s former spin doctor, has floated the idea of a new centrist party called the Democrats, and claims that a handful of ministers from both sides have “been in touch”.

I won’t go so far as to say it’s the answer to a question nobody asked. There’s been questions ever since Corbyn’s rise about how to hold left and centre-leaning Labourites together, just as there have been about pro and anti-Brexit Tories. A new centrist movement that mops up disenchanted MPs from both parties is an answer. It’s just not an answer that helps anybody.

On practical terms, what would former Labour and Tory adversaries agree on? Centrism, like any political position, is ever-shifting, but in most Westminster definitions centrism still sits to the right economically. Paul Mason has predicted that Chapman’s Democrats would simply attract MPs “in thrall to flawed free market policies”. A new party with the same old devotion to austerity, privatisation and deregulated finance is hardly the stuff dreams are made of.

What really links moderate Tories and centrist Labourites is opposition to Brexit. With both parties committed to a hard Brexit, the 48% of people who voted for no Brexit at all (plus the sizeable chunk of Leave voters who believed we’d stay in the single market) do deserve far better representation than they currently have. Surely, though, this would be better served not by a new party, but by a new form of Remain: for Anna Soubry to Remain and counteract the siren calls drawing May further towards the Brexit cliff-edge. For Chuka Umunna to Remain and remind Corbyn that, whatever his own feelings towards the EU, he represents a base that has many anxieties about leaving.

Blair’s centrist strategy is not a silver bullet

For Labour, there is of course the spectre of the SDP. If Chapman’s Democrats ever got off the ground they might not have much trouble splitting fragile post-election Tories. However, there’s always a risk that, like the SDP in 1983, they’d fragment Labour instead, leaving the Tories to reap the spoils.

Beyond these practicalities, though, there’s a bigger issue any would-be Democrat needs to address: why centrism seems to be falling out of fashion. It’s not as simple as sensible politicians being swamped by Trotskyists on the left and nationalists on the right. It’s more to do with the increasing isolation of Blair-style centrists.

Which brings us to the other spectre hanging over any debate: Tony Blair. Yes, he won 3 elections. Nobody’s taking that away from him. But for all the social good he caused, he cemented much of Thatcher’s economic legacy (she allegedly once called New Labour her greatest achievement). Consequently, he won with lower voter turnout and increasing apathy, helping to create feelings that parties were “all the same”.

Blair’s centrist strategy is not a silver bullet destined to win elections in any time or place. What worked in 1997 had become stale by 2017. And his ‘end of history’ model, which assumes that there’s a total, permanent consensus around free markets, is not only blinkered – it’s arrogant. There’s always been dissent, which has only increased as neoliberalism’s multiple failings – inequality, struggling public services, a financial sector prone to spectacular implosion – have exposed themselves.

If anything, parties drifting out from the centre is a direct reaction to this. While they’ve had very different answers to modern dilemmas – the left blames austerity while the right blames the EU, for instance – both have sought out bolder ideologies.

I do think there’s something to the ‘horseshoe theory’. It maintains that the political spectrum is shaped more like a horseshoe than a straight line, with the behaviour of left and right-wingers mirroring each other the nearer they get to their extremes. Think online abuse or demands for ideological purity.

June’s election signalled a return to two-party politics in the UK

This doesn’t mean, though, that politicians should huddle indistinguishably around the centre (wherever the ‘centre’ might be). It certainly doesn’t mean that they should form a new party, clinging with the same doggedness they chastise others for, to beliefs that seem increasingly incapable of confronting present-day anxieties. Would Chapman’s Democrats be able to resolve funding crises in the NHS or rises in food bank usage? Could they address fears over globalisation in a way that draws voters away from scapegoating immigrants? Or would it just be a new party with few new ideas?

It felt like Labour were onto something in June’s election. They had a leader who represented firm social democratic values (and particularly appealed to young and new voters), but who was surrounded by a range of experienced soft-left to centrist MPs, all working together under the familiar Labour banner. The Democrats would have no similar, loyalty-inspiring banner. Even with a few defecting Tories, they’d struggle to form the broad church of support that Labour amassed in June, and which is necessary to hold the right at bay.

I’m not saying that centrism is electoral poison. Just ask Emmanuel Macron, or to a lesser degree Obama. Centrists can be a vital addition to debates, who prevent horseshoe-style polarisation. Still, June’s election signalled a return to two-party politics in the UK; opposition between two broad but distinct parties.

Fragmenting those parties by trying to resuscitate a dusty version of centrism isn’t just reckless. It’s the worst thing a political party can be: pointless.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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