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ZOE WILLIAMS: A new centre party would be doomed to failure

Zoe Williams says a centrist party would be doomed to failure. Picture: Royston - Credit: Archant

There might seem a certain logic behind talk of a new party, but Zoe Williams argues being in the centre is too soft for UK politics.

What is a centrist? If you don’t know, it’s possible that you are one. You should check with your doctor. If you very devoutly are one, it’s most likely code for ‘I don’t like the look of any of these politics jokers I see before me,’ a view with which many non-centrists will often agree.

If you hate centrists with a vengeance, you don’t call them centrists, you call them ‘melts’ (soft left, pathetic), or ‘slugs’ (Blairites) or ‘toads’ (right-wing Labour). It is a paradox about centrists: if they really did occupy the centre, they would be drawn from the outer edges of both Labour and the Conservatives.

Yet overwhelmingly, it’s used by Labour about Labour, whether as a banner or a slur. Conservatives, you’ll notice, never use the terms ‘right’, ‘left’ or ‘centre’ about themselves – they self-describe as ‘normal’. In the early 2010s, I used to think this was a devilish smart trait of theirs, the ability to present even very extreme positions as nothing more than common sense, by sheer power of language. But then that power became their curse – one minute anyone could say anything and make it sound plausible, the next minute they’re crashing us out of the EU with nothing to live on but chlorinated chicken and elastic bands. So it’s possible that people who will admit that politics is all an ideological spectrum (rather than a choice between ‘obvious’ and ‘stupid’), and they’re somewhere upon it, are a bit more trustworthy.

The critical problem for the centre – and this will be a particular thorn in the side of the spanking new, £50 million, centrist party – is that it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t so much shift as veer over time, and not even very much time. It is now considered normal to describe immigrants in terms of swarms; to assume disabled people are cheating the system until they’ve proved otherwise; to freeze public sector salaries, and so on.

These positions would have been considered extremely right-wing, more recently than I’ve been to the dentist. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, touted the idea of putting a cap on class sizes for seven-year-olds of 30 children, and this was the definition of unaffordable left-wingery; Tony Blair, not 20 years before, had made exactly the same promise for five and six-year-olds, and he was the face of the third way.

Call it the Overton window, channel Roberto Unger (ideas are realistic ‘to the extent that they resemble what already exists’), there it is: the centre is no more solid than the extremes it defines itself against, and they’re about as solid as chocolate fireguards.

So that’s the first problem with this new ‘centrist’ party, which has very little flesh on the bones of its much-publicised 50 million quid (who’ll lead it? What does it stand for? Where’s the money coming from? What’s it called?) but clearly means business. It is attempting to occupy non-existent territory. Tony Blair, speaking to John Humphrys on Radio Four’s Today programme, made the case that the Conservative party has caved in to its hyper-nationalistic elements, while Labour has been taken over by the hard left, so those in the regular mulch, the diverse and fertile humus of society, had nowhere to go. It sounded kinda nice, but didn’t begin to answer the fundamental question, traceable from the cries of ‘I agree with Nick [Clegg]’ (but won’t vote for him), through Ed Miliband with his headstone (‘an NHS with time to care’), Liz Kendall and her curiously unengaging leadership bid (in a nutshell, ‘I promise to be more sensible than all those other people’), Owen Smith and his leadership challenge, Paddy Ashdown et al and their asinine More United (values: tolerance, opportunity, environment, democracy, openness), even Theresa May and her ‘country that works for everyone’, all the politicians who’ve ever tried to occupy this mythical centre since the financial crisis.

A political statement is meaningful only to the extent that its opposite is also meaningful: ‘tax the rich for better public services’ can be robustly met with ‘the rich are wealth creators and should be encouraged here with low taxes’. If your raison d’être is that all your solutions are practical, that you are propelled only by the values of decency and normality, it feels cosy but you’re trapped in platitudes. Who wants an NHS without time to care? Who doesn’t want an environment? Who wants a country that only works for some people?

The nameless party has more on its plate besides: so far, it has no ideas, only money, and yet wants to use that money to break the ‘Westminster mould’, in short, attack the power of the political elites with the power of elites even less accountable and less accessible, whose distinction is their fortune.

It may have worked for Donald Trump, but this is not a well-established route out of a bubble, to replace it with a smaller bubble. They look for inspiration, not to the well-cushioned man-baby, but to his (in so many ways) opposite: Emmanuel Macron and the En Marche party, who started from nowhere and won big. Yet that precedent wouldn’t hold here for a dense nexus of reasons, the most obvious but least of which is that France has a presidential political system and doesn’t need a well-established candidate in every seat, plus two centuries of graft, before it has a hope.

The existing French left seemed almost relieved when Macron came along to put it out of its misery. Jeremy Corbyn’s left, by contrast, is not exhausted. Whatever you think he is on the hard/soft axis of mutability, he is nowhere near done.

Yet Brexit is the lacuna in this new party’s thinking, as it is for all the parties. Clearly, the strategy is not to announce itself as the party of Remainers, since that would undermine its claim to the middle-ground, the people who only want to listen to the rest of the people. Plus, the Lib Dems tried that, for all the good it did them.

Yet, unavoidably, all the calcification and extremity that it stands against was created by the referendum: in what world would both Conservative and Labour MPs be talking about smashing the Good Friday agreement, except post-Brexit?

Who would be talking about free trade deals with individual countries, turning to the Commonwealth for regeneration, tearing up the EHCR, closing borders, without Brexit?

The result allowed in ideas that have been unsayable – for reasons of logic, long-termism, humanity, or some combination of all three – for two or three decades.

Wherever you see a debate now that you can barely believe is happening in a civilised late-democracy (a foreign secretary congratulating a Hungarian president on his election after a campaign heavy with anti-Semitic undertones? Seriously?), Brexit is either its direct cause, or has had such a discombobulating effect that some fresh discursive monstrosity has arrived on its tail, like a plot-twist in Buffy.

Despite not knowing who they are, I believe that these business leaders and party donors, these charity moguls and all-purpose rich people, think as I do: that Brexit is the pressing catastrophe of the age, one into which we stumble for reasons that history will laugh at.

And it must seem, to these go-getters who have given up on seeing this echoed by the ‘mainstream’, that it’s time for a bit of citizenly can-do spirit to stop it. But they should ask themselves, is this constructive, or is it a howl of rage from a disintermediated governing elite? Because God knows, we’ve seen enough of those.

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