A new centre party could change everything
Published by The i paper (15th May, 2017)
There has been much talk of a new centre party emerging from the ashes of the Labour Party after the election. Tony Blair has poured part of his fortune into a new think tank to develop policy ideas. There are whispers of defections, tales of a tide of cash building up to back a new force. The success of Emmanuel Macron, turning political moderation into a passionate cause that took him all the way to the French presidency, fans feverish debate.
Whether rumours turn into reality depends on the scale of Labour’s defeat and on whether Jeremy Corbyn clings on to the leadership afterwards, backed by a hard-left faction more interested in winning internal battles than power. The party remains haunted by the failure of the Social Democratic Party in the Eighties, when its civil war last flared up. Despite stories of 100 defectors if Corbyn stays, rebranding themselves as progressives, one central figure told me he thought only a handful would dare break free of tribalism that chains them to the past.
Such pessimism is unsurprising. When Labour’s history is written, it will not be kind to the current crop of moderates who seem such a pusillanimous bunch. Yet it is curious that one key element has been missing in all the mutterings: the building of an alliance with disgruntled figures on the centre right. This is vital if politics is ever to be remoulded with a party that embraces, rather than fears, modernity.
Where is the current place for those on the centre right who do not want their country to cut itself off from its neighbours, to turn its back on tolerance and to revive outdated statism from the Seventies? Britain is being reshaped by nationalism, yet such is the Tory strength and Labour weakness there is a widespread assumption that those wooed by the economic liberalism of Margaret Thatcher, the New Labour realism of Tony Blair and the compassionate conservatism of David Cameron will remain loyal to the blues.
No doubt almost all of them will support the Conservatives at this election. Maybe a few are so infuriated by Brexit they might drift off to the Liberal Democrats, but none will be lured by the reheated Seventies socialism on offer from Labour. So we endure a bloodless contest likely to lead to a thumping majority for Theresa May. Some Tory MPs admit they fear a subsequent revival of braying triumphalism on their benches – but this victory will be hailed as firmest possible backing for the Prime Minister’s personal mandate.
One strange aspect of this election is how it revolves around a character who remains so mysterious while placing herself centre of the campaign. May is still an enigmatic figure, despite having been a prominent politician for 15 years, a senior cabinet member for six and Prime Minister for 10 months. This is typically astute politics: voters from across the spectrum, attracted by her sensible demeanour and grown-up style, see their own concerns reflected back when they look at the Tory leader.
So far her two defining policies have been regressive: a grim boost for grammar schools and revival of state price-fixing in energy markets. This makes the Tory manifesto launch all the more interesting, since it must start to shape May before the electorate. She wants to be seen as a social reformer and hopefully there will be a plethora of policies to achieve this aim. Yet all evidence so far is that she has little interest in liberal conservatism of the sort that took her predecessor to power.
Instead, she soaks up Ukip votes with the temptation of a hard Brexit and her rigidity on immigration, even keeping a discredited target for the latter despite doubts of colleagues around the cabinet table. Then she plunders Ed Miliband’s old policies when seeking votes from the left, ignoring how they were decried so rightly by her own side just two years ago. Clearly, it works – but what are the long-term consequences?
One issue alone will overshadow the next five years: Britain’s efforts to extricate itself from the European Union. Yet a significant chunk of the centre right and younger voters believe that globalisation is a force for good, that trade should be free rather than shackled by tariffs and that people should be permitted to move around the planet as much as possible. These cosmopolitans are dismayed when their Prime Minister lashes out at our neighbours. They dislike attempts to crush dissent and detest all that ‘citizens of nowhere’ nonsense.
And have no doubt: May’s jingoistic backing chorus will grow louder as talks get tougher and the economy stumbles. Many leading Tories driving through Brexit know it is damaging to national interests – from the Prime Minister down, according to what she told voters before last year’s referendum. As Blair says, it is extraordinary to see ‘a premiership defined by a policy you don’t actually believe in’. Little wonder there is such distrust in politicians if they ditch beliefs so easily.
Yet, given current alternatives, the Tories can safely assume liberal conservatives have no other home – since Labour could not make itself less attractive while the Lib Dems flatline under an inadequate leader. How much would this change with the emergence of a radical centrist force rather than just a rehashed Labour Party breaking free of the unions and hard left? With one that understood the strength of global markets for goods, services and people alongside the desire for decent public services and strong communities? Above all, with a party facing the future with confidence rather than constantly looking over its shoulder and attempting to remake the past?