JOHN KAMPFNER: Can centre parties dominate domestic policy once Brexit is resolved?

PUBLISHED: 15:00 03 May 2019 | UPDATED: 16:06 03 May 2019

Sir Vince Cable during the launch of the Liberal Democrat campaign for European elections. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Sir Vince Cable during the launch of the Liberal Democrat campaign for European elections. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Millions of voters in the centre ground of politics have been mobilised over Europe. Is there a party able to capitalise on this moderate movement, asks JOHN KAMPFNER.

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Is the radical centre an oxymoron? Is it the retirement home for white middle-class, middle-aged males (like me) who believe themselves to be idealistic without being ideological, but who instead are just complacent?

The 'centrist dad', coined a couple of years ago, is defined as a derogatory term for older Twitter users with centrist and neo-liberal beliefs and condescending to leftists for being unrealistic.

It isn't easy to be as a centrist nowadays, anywhere in the world, but particularly in Britain. These are smug, Chardonnay-drinking folk who complain at north London dinner parties that Brexit will mean good mozzarella will be hard to come by. They are well meaning, generally. They pop in on pro-Europe demos, put out their recycling faithfully once a week and subscribe to a few charities. But – unlike the angry left or rabid right who dominate the social media airwaves – they are devoid of passion and don't believe the state of the world is that bad, after all.

I was pondering the future of centrism while watching the launch of the European election campaigns of Change UK and the Liberal Democrats. Leaving aside the failure of both parties to strike an electoral pact (alongside the Greens and others), why is their very reasonableness so far struggling to resonate? I say that as someone supportive of both parties at different periods of my career.

We live in an era of shock-jock politics, where the louder you shout, the more outrageously you behave, the more authentic you are supposed to be. Moderation and good sense are dismissed as un-empathetic or boring. Is it possible to see two sides of an argument, to regard good sense and compromise as a positive, to want change but to understand the importance of pragmatism – and still be considered a radical? I believe it is, just.

Those who have sought to occupy the centre ground over the past 20 years or so have not done their successors any favours. The obvious first target is Tony Blair. All those above a certain age remember where they were that night in May 1997 when, to coin a song, things could only get better. Let's put Iraq to one side – nothing more needs to be said about that.

The more pertinent issue is how Blair came to present himself as a once-in-a-generation revolutionary? He believed that he was, in the context of his time. He, his advisors and the all-important focus group maestros, believed that no election could be won, nothing could be achieved, unless the floating voter was wooed.

That meant neutralising, or taming, an intrinsically hostile press. That necessitated two fundamental restrictions – adopting the economic paradigm of the Thatcher years and sneaking through potentially radical reforms on the quiet. Labour kept on winning elections, so the leadership believed it must be doing something right. The Conservatives were almost as hapless as they are now (hard to imagine but true).

This potential golden era was thrown away. The lack of courage not only failed to deliver lasting changes. It also undermined belief in the sincerity of centrist politics.

Blair's subsequent embrace of bling on his global jaunts exacerbated a problem that was not confined to the UK. The most brazen exponent of the art of milking your position was Germany's Gerhard Schröder, who went on to advise two Russian corporate giants.

There is another way, however, to approach the question. If politics is the art of the possible, how can non-extreme politicians achieve lasting change, and be seen to have done so, within the constraints of their electoral systems? In a British context, Brexit may have helped.

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The issue has – finally – galvanised otherwise moderate people to make their voices heard. The sight of hundreds of thousands of decent folk marching through central London, so different to the pro-Farage/Tommy Robinson types with the menace in their eyes, invited mockery from some. The 'longest Waitrose queue in history' type of criticism is easy to make.

The same disparagement was offered to the Extinction Rebellion movement. Any group that contains, shock horror, some middle-class people is somehow deemed to be not radical or serious enough. Similar disdain was shown to those who have protested (in a non-violent, reasonable way) against Trump. Fifteen years ago, it was George Bush and Iraq.

It is easy to define yourself, from the centre, as against bad people and bad actions. Brexit provides ample reason to get out and vote for Change UK, the Lib Dems or Greens, or any grouping that demonstrates its hostility to miserable little England-ism. But beyond that: how do they actually want to change the world?

For the Lib Dems, the well was poisoned by five years of coalition. The criticism of Nick Clegg was partly justified, partly not (there, you see, I'm showing my 'on the one hand, on the other' moderateness). The case against him was that, instead of making clear from the outset, from that first press conference on day one in the Downing Street garden, that he was entering into a sober business arrangement with a man whose politics he did not share, Clegg pledged his public love for David Cameron. This was a far bigger mistake than his U-turn on tuition fees.

There was nothing wrong with the fact of the coalition government. There was nothing wrong in Clegg coming to a deal the Conservatives. If you believe in coalitions, you should be prepared to enter into one with any mainstream grouping. For anyone advocating (as I do) a more grown-up politics, and a more European-style approach to consensus-building, such arrangements are the norm. Many countries' politics couldn't function in any other way.

It's what you do with the power, when you have it. Clegg didn't define, or elucidate, clearly enough the three or four big changes he wished to achieve, for which compromise on other issues would have paid. Now the Lib Dems are back to square one. Vince Cable's successor has a herculean task.

Change UK has baggage, but a different kind. This recent assembly of politicians from different traditions must quickly develop not just a policy framework, but a unique political sensibility. It needs charisma in its individuals and clarity in its policies.

Emmanuel Macron, pictured, fell into the Blair trap of believing in his own hype, the new Camelot. He was not politically rooted, enabling his detractors to see in him a man devoid of passion. A phoney.

In France, the UK and elsewhere there is no shortage of issues in which a new centrist political force can define itself.

How can the evils of climate change, poverty, inequality, homelessness, education disadvantage be most effectively tackled? Not by triangulation – that Blairite ruse of plonking yourself between two polar opposites. But by identifying radical and realisable goals, two adjectives that, if properly explained, should be seen as complementary.

If social democracy and liberalism are portrayed as tame, as a sell-out, then it is the fault not of their detractors but proponents.

There are millions of voters out there who want to change the world, but who do not see in Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson (or which other unsavoury character the Tories pick) as the best people to deliver that.

Europe has injected grit and courage into the centre ground. Can the parties occupying that space transfer that clarity and determination onto the domestic policy agenda, once the European nightmare is eventually resolved?

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