Centrists need to stop dreaming of a British Macron and dismissing Corbyn

PUBLISHED: 17:50 05 July 2017 | UPDATED: 18:01 05 July 2017

Emmanuel Macron.

Emmanuel Macron.

PA Wire/PA Images

Centrists are desperately hoping for the emergence of a Macron-like leader in the UK. It won’t happen, and wouldn’t work anyway

Amongst a certain section of the liberal commentariat, an idea is starting to catch on. Dismayed to have ceded control of the Labour Party to an Jeremy Corbyn’s economically left wing faction and horrified at the nativist, socially conservative turn taken by the Tories, they’ve looked across the water at France, seen the success of Macron’s En Marche! and thought to themselves… couldn’t we do that?

In the Times last week, Blair’s former speech writer Philip Collins suggested it was the perfect time to launch a new party “with a serious manifesto of enterprise and equality”. Dismissing concerns about splitting the left-of-centre under a first-past-the-post electoral system (informed by the disastrous failure of the short-lived Social Democratic Party in the 1980s) and argues that the failure of either the Conservatives or Labour to secure a majority means that the British public effectively voted “none of the above”.

This, Collins believes, is evidence that they’re crying out for an alternative positioned between the two extremes. A “third way”, if you will. It’s not entirely clear how he squares this with the electoral performance of the Liberal Democrats, who secured just 7.37% of the vote in the last general election. He doesn’t actually mention this existing liberal, centrist party once in the column – but it’s hard to see what differentiates it from the new party he envisions. Mainly, it seems to be about style and personality.

An established party will always struggle to generate the buzz of En Marche! – particularly when it was recently part of a much-derided coalition government. Collins imagines that Blairite prince across the water David Miliband might return to lead the party. Alain de Botton, who shared his article approvingly on social media, posited that Gary Lineker could be the right man for the job. Guardian data blogger Martin F. Robbins – who prides himself on his intellectual abilities – tweeted that he “dreamed Ruth [Davidson] and Sadiq [Khan] got together to lead moderate MPs to form a powerful new centrist party for sane people”.

It’s interesting that even when suggesting something as radical as the formation of a new party, there’s this tendency to cite political figures of the recent past as its potential guiding lights. Ruth Davidson and Sadiq Khan are both rather more relevant that David Miliband, true, but to some extend they represent a type of politics abandoned by their respective parties. For a couple of decades, UK politics was dominated by a shared socially and economically liberal consensus. While picturing themselves as innovators and bold visionaries, what figures like Phillip Collins seem to be angling for is a return to this status quo.

The idea that the vote share split between the Conservatives and Labour means that voters are desperate for a middle ground, continuity option doesn’t stand up to any serious scrutiny. Even putting to one side the woeful performance of the Liberal Democrats, all indicators seem to suggest that most voters are seeking comparatively dramatic change.

Though they’ve attracted the support of quite different core demographics, both Brexit and the Corbyn movement are manifestations of dissatisfaction with the current order. There’s a widespread desire to alter the structures of our society. The split between right and left represents a disagreement about the nature of the problem and what the solution entails. A third voting bloc – which considers the consensus of the past couple of decades largely successful – consists disproportionately of affluent professionals who prospered under that regime. Journalists tend to move in middle-class, metropolitan circles, which might explain the common delusion that the majority of the country shares their views.

Those hoping to replicate the success of En Marche! in Britain have noticed the growing mood of radicalism without properly grasping what it’s about. A surface rebrand won’t be enough to convince people that their managerial approach to politics is what the current moment requires. The situation in France is different. For better or worse, Macron’s policy platform represents a genuine break with the economic status quo in that country.

What’s more, differences in electoral system make the creation of a new party much more feasible. Macron only needed to secure 24% of votes in the first round, before entering a second round run-off with far right candidate Marine Le Pen. Between them, parties to the left En Marche! actually secured a larger total vote share – but it was split between multiple candidates. This presidential election success paved the way for En Marche! to secure a parliamentary majority – but it’s worth noting that this was in the context of a radically depressed turnout. Only 42% of people bothered to cast a ballot, suggesting that En Marche’s dominance may soon be challenged if an alternative reignites the enthusiasm of currently disillusioned voters.

In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour seems to be the only party currently articulating a coherent vision of positive change. The Conservatives managed to throw away their parliamentary majority by presenting a manifesto promising nothing but continued hardship and decline. Meanwhile, centrists are largely incapable of moving beyond a nostalgia for the recent past. In many cases, they’ve become almost exclusively focused on the EU, with a zealotry that’s off-putting to the majority of the public. Collins, to his credit, doesn’t argue that Brexit opposition is the be-all and end-all – though he suggests that the negotiations may provide an opportunity to attract disgruntled pro-EU voters from other parties.

Not all of the 48% who voted to stay in the EU now believe Brexit must be prevented at all costs. Others are of the opinion that the result of the vote must be respected, or just don’t really consider the issue a top priority.

Multiple commentators have argued that the overwhelming support of young voters for Corbyn’s Labour – even though most of them voted Remain – suggests they don’t understand the party’s Brexit stance. The reality is that many young Labour supporters simply aren’t single issue voters. Labour’s proposals to strengthen employment rights, increase the minimum wage, build housing, boost security for renters and restructure the economy away from private ownership appeal more than the Liberal Democrats’ continuity offering, regardless of the parties’ respective positions in exiting the EU.

Instead of looking to France as a point of comparison, Collins, de Botton, Robbins and all the other advocates of a new, centrist party would be better of turning their eyes westwards, towards Ireland. Over there, vast swathes of the media similarly trumpeted the need for a brand new party of the centre, and in 2015 Renua was born. Two years later and it’s clear the project was an abject failure – the party is currently polling at 0%.

It’s time for centrists to accept that it’s not possible to turn back the clock – and that what was radical in 1997 is not going to excite voters now. Rather than instinctively dismissing Corbyn’s current policy programme as excessively left wing, they should understand that the failures of the past two decades are the reason there’s now a growing desire for significant economic change. Until they do so, they’re doomed to remain as yesterday’s news. A sad, Blairite reenactment society in a country that has moved on and left them behind.

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