Questions for Centrists

by Juliet Jacques / March 5, 2019

Westminster | Theory and Strategy  }
To get further than vapid statements about ‘change’ and ‘politics being broken’, centrists must ask themselves some fundamental questions about beliefs and strategy. 1368 words / 6 min read

These thoughts were prompted by the establishment of The Independent Group, and particularly their interviews where the likes of Andrew Marr and Kirsty Wark tried valiantly to wring some concrete policy positions out of their members, but it’s not entirely about them.1 Rather, I want to think about the crisis of centrism more widely: the questions that centrists need to ask themselves about their fundamental principles if their politics are going to be capable of resolving their internal contradictions and recovering the kind of dynamism necessary to build any sort of electoral coalition.

I should note before posing these questions that very few of them are ones I’ve come up with myself. Rather, they’re ones I’ve accumulated from listening to podcasts and reading articles published on left-wing websites, or by individuals on Medium. (I’ve tried to link to the relevant places where possible, but especially for points made on podcasts, I cannot always remember exactly where they were.) In a more functional media system, these very basic questions would have been asked to representatives of The Independent Group or the centrist tendency within the Labour Party; perhaps some of the journalists who yearn for this tendency to reassert itself might even ask such questions themselves.

My first question, hinted at by the deliberate ambiguity about whether The Independent Group is actually a political party or some more nebulous formation: Is centrism a strategy or an ideology? If it’s a strategy: is it a useful one at present? On his podcast, Jeremy Gilbert speaks of ‘minimal passive consent’ for centrism: with the notable exception of the gilets jaunes, people may not be out on the streets to oppose it, but given almost any opportunity, will vote against it. I’m thinking not just of the two Labour leadership elections and the EU referendum, let alone the 2017 General Election where Labour and the Conservatives, having abandoned the ‘centre’, took 80% of the vote, but also Syriza outflanking Pasok in Greece; Matteo Renzi’s referendum defeat in Italy and subsequent resignation; the ascension of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil after he defeated the technocratic government installed after the impeachment of the PDT leader Dilma Rousseff; and of course, Hillary Clinton – as good a centrist candidate as you’ll ever find, using the criteria of governmental experience, familiarity to television viewers and embodying an idea of progress by standing to become the first female US President – losing to the widely derided Trump. Emmanuel Macron is an outlier, but he won the final round of the French presidential election of 2017 on a terrifyingly low turnout, by about half the margin by which Jacques Chirac beat Jean-Marie Le Pen fifteen years earlier; I’ve studied a lot of French radical history and even I’m surprised by the ferocity of the opposition to Macron’s reforms.)

Are elections won from the centre at the moment? Do centrists even position themselves in the centre any more, given how much political space has re-opened to the left since 2008? Does centrism define itself against the left, rather than the right, to a disproportionate degree? Did centrist politicians or journalists make mistakes in their dealings with the 21st century far-right? Can centrism learn or take anything from the left? Why focus so much energy on personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour membership rather than on their policy platforms? (The Economist contributor Callum Williams’ recent Novara appearance was a recent, and welcome, example of good faith dialogue in this sense. And however much you and I may disagree with him, the intellectual curiosity of John McTernan in engaging with the left is commendable; not many others besides Stephen Bush, who speaks of the need to show one’s working in political analysis, come to mind in this regard.) Is the centre a fixed position or mutable terrain? If it’s mutable – who moves it, and through which means? If you govern according to the Blairite principle of ‘power without hegemony’, then who sets the terms of political possibility? What happens if you prioritise not falling out with media moguls?

Centrists make much of their access to mainstream media channels, and that’s useful, but there are questions there too. Tony Blair was perfect for the television age, able to speak well in a one-to-many media channel, in a broadcast environment where there were only a handful of channels and atomised viewers might catch him on the news and be impressed with him. (They might not think too deeply about his lexicon: ‘modernisation’ used to paper over ‘privatisation’, the substitution of ‘socialist’ with ‘progressive’ allowing Labour to unmoor itself from leftist principles, and so forth.) In a multi-channel environment where those who aren’t that interested can ignore it entirely and so politics becomes the domain of more partisan people who follow it more closely, can a lexicon that aims to gloss over its underlying intentions convince people to campaign for it? Or win over an electorate, who aren’t as incapable of reading subtexts as centrists often seem to think they are? I get the impression that centrists like Chuka Umunna think they just need to get the PR right and their politics will become popular again - but isn’t the problem that people are sick of politics that runs like a PR exercise, can spot it a mile off, and on many-to-many channels like Twitter and Facebook, can have a lot of fun picking it to pieces? Why aren’t young centrists breaking into the mainstream media, given how centrists hold most prominent print and broadcast editorial positions, at least within nominally left or liberal outlets? What might a centrist equivalent of The World Transformed look like?

Does the centrist settlement of letting the financial sector do what it wants and redistributing off the top of its profits work any more, given the financial crisis and increasingly obvious situation with the “filthy rich” not paying their taxes? As Jeremy Gilbert asked in one of his podcasts, what does centrism have to offer any young (i.e. under 40) person whose parents are earning less than £200,000 a year? New Labour’s electoral coalition involved making overtures to the LGBT community, and to the Blair government’s credit, it was very good on these issues - however, there aren’t many legal gains to be made in those areas any more, so what replaces this as a selling point? Does centrism have a problem with transphobia? Or Islamophobia?

In a British context, what would a new centrist party offer that the Liberal Democrats don’t? In Britain and beyond, who, at this point, is centrism really for? Is the label still useful? Why don’t they just call themselves ‘liberals’ and make a positive case for liberalism? Until they answer these questions, people like The Independent Group won’t get much further than vapid statements about ‘change’ and ‘politics being broken’ because the structural foundations of their politics are completely unsound, and conspiracy theories about Russia or Seumas Milne aren’t going to fix that.

Whatever centrists think of Corbyn and/or his supporters, they (we) have a clear demographic, a sense of what the political problems in this country are (and they aren’t just Brexit – far from it), a vision of the future with an intellectual and emotional heart. They may not like or agree with it, which is fine, but it’s there, because the left spent twenty years after 1991 asking itself questions about how deindustrialisation and technological changes altered relations between capital and labour, and how the trade union defeats of the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet bloc fundamentally changed the landscape, amongst other things. I suspect it’s a similarly long project for centrism, but nothing I’ve seen from the likes of Umunna suggests an intellectual capacity to complete it, and for their new party to succeed, they really needed to do some of this work before its launch. At my conclusion, I’m left wondering whether centrists’ conception of themselves as non-ideological stops them from even asking these kinds of questions.

  1. If you do want more on The Independent Group, I recommend Josie Michelle on this site, Jeremy Gilbert’s long article for Open Democracy, and an excellent episode of the We Don’t Talk About the Weather podcast. 


Juliet Jacques

Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015. She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts.