What Works vs What Wins
The contradiction at the heart of "centrism"
I’ve never known how to define myself politically. I’m often called a centrist, and have occasionally referred to myself as one. But I don’t like the term.
Some of the problems with it are obvious. Particularly since the Brexit referendum it’s been applied to anyone who believes: we should have stayed in the EU; Boris Johnson was a bad Prime Minister; and Jeremy Corbyn would have been a bad Prime Minister. That’s a lot of people. Any term that encompasses both me and Matthew Parris, who I disagree with on almost everything else, is not hugely useful. It’s a description of what we’re not, not what we are.
In any case where is “the centre”? Is it wherever the median voter happens to be? In which case neither I, nor most of the people tagged as centrists, are anywhere close. We tend to be much more socially liberal. If it’s an ideological centre between left and right then almost everyone is in it, as, outside of a few think-tank theoreticians, very few of us shape our views according to what Marx or Hayek would have thought. Boris Johnson may be a symbol of everything “centrists” dislike in politics but he also increased public spending, attempted to push through reams of animal welfare legislation and, as London Mayor, was a strong supporter of immigration. Is he one?
What’s really set me against the term, though, is not its vagueness, but thinking about “centrism” as a description of New Labour’s approach to governing. Here the word obscures rather than clarifies the core ideas and contradictions. It matters because Tony Blair was, and still is, the key figure of modern centrism and Keir Starmer is noisily moving closer towards him, backed by a team including many who worked for Blair. These include: Direct of Communications, Matthew Doyle, who spent five years as Blair’s spokesman after he left No. 10; Director of Strategy, Deborah Mattinson, who did a more junior version of that role for Blair in opposition; and senior adviser Peter Hyman, who was Blair’s speechwriter.
So the rest of this post offers a brief history of centrism as a governing philosophy in Britain; where New Labour’s version succeeded and failed; and the dilemma that creates for Starmer.
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